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Criticism Humor Law

Kinky details enclosed…

Sexual harassment attorney accused of sexual harassment!!  With kinky details enclosed – it’s a perfect tabloid story. Both New York papers took a similar angle for the lede…

Jose Martinez’s lede from the New York Daily News:

The founder of a Manhattan law firm dedicated to empowering women is a chauvinist pig with pierced genitals who wore a bondage collar at work…an explosive new suit charges. [Ellipses added for dramatic effect.]

Under the headline “ANTI-BIAS CRUSADER HAS ‘KINK’ IN ARMOR“, Dan Mangan’s New York Post lede is virtually identical:

A leading lower Manhattan women’s-rights lawyer watched porn at his desk, discussed his “pierced genitalia” and wears a “slave” collar at work as part of a sadomasochistic relationship with his girlfriend…a shocking sex- harassment suit alleges. [Ellipses added for dramatic effect.]

I personally have seen how the Daily News and Post have made up bogus facts to bolster their stories, so I don’t know what to make of this.  Most important, their ledes are dishonest – while factually accurate.  From a distance – where I am, it’s kind of funny to see the detailed allegations laid out with the disclaimer briefly hanging onto the sentence at the end – but for those involved it must be infuriating.

Criticism Politics

Ted Kennedy’s Cancer

From Robert G. Kaiser of the Washington Post:

Theodore Sorensen, JFK’s speechwriter and alter ego, observed yesterday: “Only the Adams family in the earliest days of the republic had the kind of stature, respect and impact on public life as the Kennedys.” And not only that – in an age of celebrification, the Kennedys became the country’s leading political celebrities.

That combination probably explains the sharp intake of breath heard yesterday all over Washington and across the country when people learned the news about Kennedy’s illness.

Rod Dreher of the Crunchy Conservative blog asked his readers to pray for Kennedy yesterday.  As with many partisans, his readers seem to suffer from a lack of charity.  Dreher felt forced to respond in a defensive tone:

UPDATE.2: You would have thought that asking for prayers for a man diagnosed with brain cancer would be a simple enough request. Check out the comments thread, though. Man. I was just talking with a colleague here, who reminded me that when Ronald Reagan died, we had lots of people writing in to say they’d be happy to dance on his grave.

UPDATE.3: Perhaps this will be a more edifying thread all the way around if we use it to discuss the proper way to pray for people we consider to be our enemies, or at least consider to be immoral and harmful to the common good. Because sooner or later, we’ll all be in the position of being asked to pray for a politician we may despise. I have no doubt that if George W. Bush had been diagnosed with brain cancer, we’d have just as many people on the thread below saying they’re not going to pray for the likes of him. How does one pray for the welfare we dislike, despise or disrespect?

Just reading Dreher’s response makes me feel ill.

Criticism Excerpts from my Journals History Politics

Darkness at Noon

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

  1. Watching Rubashov, page 108:

    He found that those processes wrongly known as ‘monologues’ are really dialogues of a special kind; dialogues in which one partner remains silent while the other, against all grammatical rules, addresses him as ‘I’ instead of ‘you’, in order to creep into his confidence and to fathom his intentions; but the silent partner remains silent, shuns observation and even refuses to be localized in space and time…

  2. Listening to Ivanov, page 157:

    There are only two conceptions of human ethics, adn they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacronsanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community–which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb. The first concept could be called anti-vivisection morality, the second vivisection morality. Humbugs and dilettantes have always tried to mix the two conceptions; in practice it is impossible. Whoever is burdened with power and responsibility finds out on the first occasion that he has to choose; and he is fatally driven to the second alternative. Do you know, since the establishment of Christianity as a state religion, a single example of a state which really followed a Christian policy? You can’t point out one. In times of need–and politics are chronically in a time of need–rulers were alwats able to evoke ‘exceptional circumstances’, which demanded exceptional measures of defence. Since the existence of nations and classes, they live in a permanent state of mutual self-defence, which forcecs them to defer to another time the putting into practice of humanism…

  3. In the mind of Rubanov, page 255:

    The sole object of revolution was the abolition of senseless suffering. But it had turned out that the removal of this second kind of suffering was only possible at the price of a temporary enormous increase in the sum total of the first. So the question now ran: Was such an operation justified? Obviously it was, if one spoke in the abstract of ‘mankind’; but applied to ‘man’ in the singular, to the cipher 2-4, the real human being of bone and flesh and blood and skin, the principle led to absurdity. As a boy, he believed that working for the Party he would find an answer to all questions of this sort. The work had lasted forty years and right at the start he had forgotten the question for whose sake he had embarked on it. Now the forty years were over, and he returned to the boy’s original perplexity. That Party had taken all he had to give and never supplied him with the answer. And neither did the silent partner, whose magic name he had tapped on the wall of the empty cell. He was deaf to direct questions, however urgent and desperate they might be.

My favorite Quotations from Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler.

Criticism Election 2008 McCain Politics

Where did the real Glenn Greenwald Go?

Glenn Greenwald has been one of the best – and most influential – voices in the blogosphere. Every day he writes an incisive piece exploring some hypocrisy within the Republican establishment and/or the press. He has been one of the few voices keeping alive such vitally relevant stories as the Pentagon propaganda scandal, the US attorney firings scandal, the many torture scandals, and the general media acquiescence to telling their stories on terms set by the Right. Greenwald’s writing does have a particular sense of continuous outrage that becomes off-putting. As serious as the issues we face are, outrage can become wearing. Despite this stylistic critique, I have found Greenwald to be one of the most insightful commentators on our current politics.

But since Glenn Greenwald has gotten back from his book tour, his writing has seemed off. Take these three lines from three of his latest blog entries:

They’re as transparent as they are dishonest and bloodthirsty.

The central truth of the 2008 election is that, with the exception of a few relatively inconsequential and symbolic matters, John McCain enthusiastically embraces the Bush/Cheney worldview in every way that matters.

John McCain is the ultimate embodiment of America’s hoary, Vietnam era “stabbed-in-the-back” myth. We should fight wars with massive bombing campaigns and unleashed force, unconstrained by excessive concerns over “collateral damage” and unimpeded by domestic questioning. That’s how we could have (and should have) “won” in Vietnam and how we’ll “win” in Iraq. That’s why the central truth of the 2008 election is that, when it comes to foreign policy, the Kristol/Lieberman-supported John McCain is a carbon copy of the Bush/Cheney warmongering mentality except that he’s actually more extreme about its core premises.

With all of these, I agree with the basic points Greenwald is making – but he veers into the territory of unconvincing polemicism instead of the more nuanced yet strongly worded critiques that are his best.  For me, even worse are the topical errors he has made.

In today’s piece about McCain embracing the “stabbed-in-the-back” narrative about Vietnam, Greenwald has to retract one of the more damning insinuations he makes – that McCain cares nothing for civilian casualties in war.

In another piece last week, Greenwald wrote about “The right’s selective political manipulation of Catholicism.”  But instead of taking the arguments of his opponents seriously, he – whether through laziness or misunderstanding – simply ignores their points.  Kathyrn Jean Lopez of the National Review is an extremely lazy thinker who Greenwald should be able to defeat handily in a blog-battle.  Yet Greenwald’s response to Lopez ends up being wildly off the mark.  He tries to attack her for hypocrisy for saying she wants to protect innocent human life while supporting Republicans.  Republicans have started a war that has cost over a million lives, Greenwald rightly points out.  What he fails to acknowledge is that Lopez would point to the hundreds of millions of “innocent lives” lost to abortion as a countervailing force.

She can – and should – still be taken to task for hypocrisy.  Andrew Sullivan has been especially effective on this front.  But Greenwald ended up seeming like a petty hack.

I know he’s better than that which is why I’m disappointed.

I have hope though that after some time to recuperate, the real Greenwald will be back.

Criticism Domestic issues Foreign Policy Morality Politics The War on Terrorism

The Power of Story: 9/11 and the Averted Attack

[digg-me]We understand the world through story. Fables, parables, fairy tales, religious accounts, myths, campaign narratives, history. These stories contain – beyond characters, plot, and style – truths about how the world works.

The fable of the ant and the grasshopper demonstrates how hard work pays off in the end; through Little Red Riding Hood, we learn of the dangers of the forest and the world at large; with the story of Abraham and Isaac, we see demonstrated the radical nature of faith. The truths in these stories are often subtle things – allowing differing interpretations, competing lessons, contrasting understandings. But with each telling, the story offers something complete – some understanding about the world and an implied prescription or proscription.

I wrote earlier about making an “emotional argument” – about making an argument based on that “great unconscious mass of our knowledge – the subtle hints, the forgotten information, the half-remembered, the projections based on our past experience” which we have not “analyzed and understood.” To make this kind of argument is to argue using story, using narrative, using myth. Every narrative contains an unstated understanding – and this is the emotional argument. Emotional arguments in a political context often have concrete policy implications – which is why we should pay close attention to the media and to the stories told by politicians.

Drew Westen struck a related theme in writing The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation in which he tried to explain how the Democratic Party has often failed to use emotional arguments to make their case – instead trying to argue dry policy. Mr. Westen describes the methods of a winning political candidate:

They tell emotionally compelling stories about who they are and what they believe in…. They run on who they are and what they genuinely care about, and they know their constituents well enough to know where they share their values and where they don’t…. They speak at the level of principled stands. They provide emotionally compelling examples of the ways they would govern, signature issues that illustrate their principles and foster identification.

What Mr. Westen realizes is that the Democrats have been losing election for the past twenty years (despite greater popularity for most of their positions) in a large part because they have disdained the value of story, and have neglected emotional arguments in favor of policy arguments.

What any informed citizen must realize is that the stories we tell each other form the baseline by which we judge the world. Just as we indoctrinate children by reading them fairy tales, telling them religious stories, and teaching them history, so we too are shaped.

I’m going to look at one concrete example of how one story has affected recent history, and how a change in emphasis in the story greatly changes it’s message.

September 11

The popular re-telling of the story of September 11 goes like this:

19 radical Islamic terrorists hijacked four places taking advantage of the freedoms of our society and our own technology, and launched one of the most deadly attacks in American history. Our national security apparatus was unable to do its job and protect us because it was unnecessarily constrained by laws protecting terrorists and criminals. These terrorists are only the harbringer of things to come – and there are many others inspired as these men are who want to kill us and destroy our way of life and who are willing to kill themselves in order to do so. As America is such a vast nation, it is impossible to effectively prevent an attack – there are too many targets, too many people, too many weaknesses. To protect ourselves, we must go on the offense and attack our enemies abroad; at home, we must give up certain liberties for public safety and allow the federal government, the police, the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA to protect us. We need to give the federal government whatever tools are necessary to allow it to protect us – and anyone who opposes this is – in effect, if not in intention – helping the terrorists.

Told this way, the story of September 11 leads us almost inevitably to simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and increasing secrecy and expanding police powers for the government at home. This story was used by the Republican Congressional leadership to push their position regarding the wiretap bill; it was used by President George W. Bush in the 2004 election, and was even largely accepted by his Democratic opponents – though they quibbled over particular measures; this story was invoked in ads against former Senator Max Cleeland the Democrats generally in the 2002; it has been used as a justification for policies and as a political weapon.

An informed citizenry

But with a slight shift in emphasis, the story of September 11 has a different message and leads to very different policy prescriptions. It is a story of how the federal government – powerless to protect itself or the American people – was instead protect by an assorted, diverse, random selection of informed citizens.

A group of radical fundamentalist Muslim terrorists decided to attack four prominent symbols of American economic, military, and political power: the two towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and either the White House or Capitol Building. Americans and people around the world watched in shock and with numbed horror as smoke billowed from the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, as people jumped from the buildings, as firefighters and police officers and emergency personnel ran into the buildings, into the fire. The attack was horrifying and unexpected. We watched transfixed as dust and ash transformed Lower Manhattan into an image out of some doomsday scenario. We barely noticed as, over Pennsylvania, a group of passengers on another hijacked plane learned of what had happened in New York and Washington, D.C. Armed with this knowledge, determined to act, they alone on that day foiled a potential mass casualty attack. There were no U.S. Marshals on the plane; there were no orders from the CIA or FBI. Instead, there was a random group of people who, once they were informed of the threat, acted to eliminate it.

It wasn’t our vast military that protected us on that day; it wasn’t the federal government, wiretaps, the FBI, the police. It was a group of informed citizens acting together, in the right place at the right time – and they were able to do what the government could not.

The implication of this history is clear: the federal government cannot be everywhere. But the best defense of our way of life, of our institutions, of our government, of our people is the American people themselves – properly informed.

Stephen Flynn, who deserves the credit for bringing to my attention this particular idea of the relevance of the story of United 93 wrote in a Foreign Affairs piece:

Americans should celebrate – and ponder – the reality that the legislative and executive centers of the U.S. federal government, whose constitutional duty is to “provide for the common defense,” were themselves defended that day by one thing alone: an alert and heroic citizenry.

The story of United 93 also raises a serious question that the 9/11 Commission failed to examine: might the passengers on the other three planes have reacted, too, if they had known the hijackers’ plans? The 9/11 Commission documents that in the years leading up to the attacks on New York and Washington, a number of people inside the U.S. government had collected intelligence suggesting that terrorists were interested in using passenger airliners as weapons. But because that information was viewed as sensitive, the government never shared it with the public. What if it had been widely publicized? How would the passengers aboard the first three jets have behaved?

The next president needs to embrace the United 93 story – and consider these questions – in order to reawaken the spirit of community and volunteerism witnessed throughout the nation in the months immediately following 9/11. If U.S. history is a guide, people will respond to the call to service. They only need to be asked.

Suddenly, with a change in emphasis based on the historical record we all know, September 11 is not about terror, but about the power of an informed and active citizenry, about community and volunteerism. This is the power of story to change how we see the world, to change the terms of the political debate.

What we need today – to change our course as a nation, as a clear majority of Americans want – is a politician who can change the stories that undergird our political conversation, who can transform the story of September 11 from one of terror to one pointing us to the beginnings of a solution, who can explain why we need health care reform by telling the story of America instead of citing statistics.

You all know who I think that is.

Criticism Election 2008 Politics Videos

Go Fox Yourself!

Part II is below…

Criticism Holy Cross Humor Obama Politics The Media

Chris Matthews: Entertaining Bloviation

Mark Leibovich has a long piece in this weekend’s New York Times profiling Chris Matthews, bloviator extraordinaire and Holy Cross grad. This last fact is especially relevant because I tend to have a slightly irrational affection for prominent Holy Cross grad. ((For those unaware, the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA is my alma mater.)) Chris Matthews is no exception. Despite the attacks on him from various liberal sources including Media Matters and despite the fact that a number of liberal thinkers I admire point to Chris Matthews as exemplifying what is worst and most destructive in today’s media, I still like the guy. Of course – I don’t quite buy the premise – let’s call it the Glenn Greenwald premise – the blames the media more than any other source for our dysfunctional politics. I’ll be writing more about that as time goes on.

I’m a big fan of Mr. Greenwald – and even as I agree with most of the individual points he makes, and with his overall view of the larger political dysfunction, I disagree with the central thesis – of his blog and apparently his new book. I plan on reading his book in the next few weeks and posting my thoughts.

But for the moment, let’s appreciate one of the more entertaining characters in cable news, Chris Matthews, with a few excerpts from the Times piece:

There is a level of solipsism about Matthews that is oddly endearing in its self-conscious extreme, even by the standards of television vanity…

Sometimes during commercial breaks, Matthews will boast to Olbermann of having restrained himself during the prior segment. “And I reward him with a grape,” Olbermann says…

“I remember we were out hitchhiking once,” O’Regan told me. Matthews started arguing about Nixon and Vietnam. “It was just like watching his show today. Chris would ask a question, then he would answer it himself and then the person was invited to comment on Chris’s answer to his own question…”

By contrast, Matthews has called Obama “bigger than Kennedy” and compared the success of his campaign to “the New Testament.” His reviews of Obama’s speeches have been comically effusive at times, as when he described “this thrill going up my leg” after an Obama victory speech. (“Steady,” Olbermann cautioned him on the air.)


Lopate v. Jacoby on Vaccination

Leonard Lopate of WNYC interviewed Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, this week. Mr. Lopate generally draws his subjects out in his interviews – giving them broad range to discuss their views. He has a classic NPR voice and style – non-confrontational and laid-back.  I don’t know much about Susan Jacoby – but by her interviewee style, she seems to be shrill and a bit of a bully – not someone who attacks other people harsher than they deserve, but one who can never understand why they believe what they do – and so, who denigrates them, puts them down, and looks down on them while never understanding where they stand.  After hearing about one minute of the interview, I already knew I didn’t like her style of speaking or reasoning.  She has an interesting case – in a similar way to Michael Gerson – one that is ambitious and interesting yet obviously flawed.  Below is an exchange – which takes place about ten minutes into the audio on the site – in which Mr. Lopate reveals that he has a personal stake in the issue which Ms. Jacoby is mocking…


You also talk about junk thought and junk science…Does that also grow out of poor education?


Of course it grows out of poor education. And here’s where poor education meets the media and it may also be why people want both creationism and evolution taught in schools. There is this powerful idea of bogus objectivity which is more powerful because everybody is getting most of their hits of news from video rather than reading anything about it which is that truth is always equidistant from two points; that there is never any issue in which there really is a right side and a wrong side, so that for example, I turn on the television new shows over and over, and there is a powerful anti-vaccination movement in this country. It is a movement largely spurred by parents who tragically have autistic children and one of the things that has happened is that autism has risen as the number of immunizations has risen. Now this is again a fundamental failure of thinking; what happens is that at about age two is when the symptoms of autism are first noticed by parents. Around age two is when children are getting a lot of their shots. But there have been rigorous scientific studies showing that the rate of autism is no different in the immunized and non-immunized children. But every time the TV presents something on this there is a crying parent on one side and a cold-hearted scientist on the other saying, “That isn’t so.” And the television throws up his hands and says, “Well, you know, this person says this and this person says that…”


Susan…Susan…I am the parent of an autistic son. He is thirteen years old. He got his shots at eighteen months and suddenly stopped talking. I think it is quite reasonable for people who have witnessed that and have witnessed the change from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 150 in the time when we suddenly started giving kids the MMR shots with mercury in it to make that kind of connection. There are doctors who do believe it is true. I think there are a lot of people who for all sorts of reasons believe…I’m just not gonna let you get away with that one. It was too simple. But I go along with your general premise here in this book. This is just one case where I think that there are just too many conflicting desires and people and people in medicine and the pharmaceutical industry and in politics to just simply say that the parents are wrong.


Well, first of all, I am very sorry that I unadvertantly [sic] touched on something that touches on your so personally, but I do think – and I’ll move on to another analogy, because I really regret this, that you’ve been personally touched by this – but I do think that the scientific evidence…and mercury has also long since been removed from these vaccines so there also have been studies on that…


No – not even there – it’s been removed but the vaccines continue to be used with the mercury until they finish up the complete amount. Anyway, it’s a whole other thing and whether some people are predisposed to be able to handle heavy metals and some are not; whether there are all sorts of genetic predispositions at play hjere. There is a whole…a very complicated argument. It’s not a simple one.


Well, it’s not argument that’s every presented as complicated on television…




If you had said that it’s a very complicated argument and I have oversimplified; but what television does is it oversimplifies it!

Criticism Politics

How to Spin the Press

I’ve been thinking about how the media works, and how to push the press to cover a particular side of the story because at work, I’ve been dealing with this. (Which is one story in this whole slew of stories.) Here are my thoughts based on my experience as a student reporter, as a political candidate who relied on the media to some extent (again in college), and on my experience in the middle of the two waves of coverage in the previously mentioned story (first a few months ago with the noose, and now with the plagiarism charges).


What has passed for objective journalism in recent history consists almost entirely of “he said, she said” recitations of competing allegations.

Headline: John Kerry Denies He is a Traitor
“He said John Kerry is a traitor.”
“She said he’s not a traitor.” ((This Washington Post article from September 2004 doesn’t delve into the issue much more than this above summary – except second to last sentence which says, “some of the independent organization’s assertions were refuted.”))

Anyone reading this is left uncertain as to whether or not John Kerry is in fact a traitor. This is a typical problem in much media coverage – and one which extremists and media spinners of every political stripe have learned to exploit. Glenn Greenwald described precisely how this style is actually an abdication of the responsibility of a journalist in this post this past November:

When a government official or candidate makes a factually false statement, the role of the reporter is not merely to pass it on, nor is it simply to note that “some” dispute the false statement. The role of the reporter is to state the actual facts, which means stating clearly when someone lies or otherwise makes a false statement.

As more academics and senior journalists echo Mr. Greenwald’s point – and given the reality of being misled in the run-up to the Iraq war and during the 2004 election, many reporters to become more resistant to the simple “he said, she said” school of journalism. But they still try to maintain their facade of objectivity, which they associate with avoiding making overt judgments about what they are covering, while also telegraphing what their judgments to their readers. A prime example of this can be seen in the coverage of former Senator John Edwards. To telegraph their private belief that Mr. Edwards was a phony, many reporters included such sentences as “John Edwards, who recently made news for his $400 haircut, continued to talk about his poverty initiatives.” ((It is certainly astounding to look at how many times the $400 haircut came up in coverage of Mr. Edwards’ campaign.))

Especially given these realities about reporting, “spinning” the media coverage becomes essential for any subject of reportage. Spinning can be defined as an attempt to get journalists to insert implied judgments and premises favorable to a particular side into their reporting.

Effective spin is a dialogue; it takes this into account each reporter’s preconceptions (and as most of the press operates as a herd, this isn’t as hard as it could be) and excuses these preconceptions while pushing the story in a friendly direction. This involves creating storylines that engulf the previous stories: taking all the other angles into account, explaining them, and setting the reporters in a different direction. The last thing any reporter wants to hear is that they are wrong or biased – rather they must be told that they only were able to get to half of the story by their deadline. When the other half of the story unfolds, the reporter is able both to save face and move the narrative in a favorable direction. This is successful spin.

Criticism Life

Oddly appropriate over-the-top praise

This duet is the musical equivalent of Leonardo DaVinci and Rembrandt painting together (while Thomas Kinkade cries silently in the corner as the effects of cyanide make his life slowly ebb away)…This is the song that’s beaming through space and will get intercepted by aliens who’ll decide not to invade us because even a planet as fucked up as ours is worth saving if it can produce beauty such as this.

-Robert Berry