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Daily Howler: The saddest part of Patterson's piece is the part which explains who he is
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THIS IS YOUR PROFESSOR ON YOUTUBE! The saddest part of Patterson’s piece is the part which explains who he is: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MARCH 11, 2008

THE HAPPY BIRTHDAY EXPRESS: “I honestly don’t know what to say about this.” Those were Brother Greenwald’s words when he posted the videotape of the press corps’ recent fete at John McCain’s crib in Sedona. For ourselves, we recalled a grander affair, conducted during the 2004 Republican convention in New York. A certain saint threw himself a birthday bash—and darlings, forget about Holly Bailey! When the sanctified solon turned 68, the firmament’s biggest stars were there! To his credit (explanation below), Richard Leiby did the play-by-play for the Washington Post. This is your press corps on creme brulee—French tarts, loin of lamb, lobster salad:

LEIBY (8/31/04): Sen. John McCain tended to his political base Sunday night: the entire national media. The maverick Arizona Republican, once (and future?) presidential aspirant and press secretary's dream hosted a hyper-exclusive 68th birthday party for himself at La Goulue on Madison Avenue, leaving no media icon behind. Guests included NBC's Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert, ABC's Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters, Ted Koppel and George Stephanopoulos, CBS's Mike Wallace, Dan Rather and Bob Schieffer, CBS News President Andrew Heyward, ABC News chief David Westin, Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons, CNN's Judy Woodruff and Jeff Greenfield, MSNBC's Chris Matthews, CNBC's Gloria Borger, PBS's Charlie Rose—pause here to exhale—and U.S. News & World Report publisher Mort Zuckerman, Washington Post Chairman Don Graham, New York Times columnists William Safire and David Brooks, author Michael Lewis and USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro. They and others dined on lobster salad, loin of lamb, assorted wines, creme brulee, lemon souffle and French tarts.

[...]

One guest, who asked not to be identified, described invitees as "the Journalistic Committee for a Government of National Unity." After singing "Happy Birthday" to McCain, many of the guests—Russert, Borger and Shapiro, among others—cabbed to Elaine's, where Zuckerman hosted a mob scene that included Fox's Bill O'Reilly, PBS's John McLaughlin and New York Gov. George Pataki, The Post's Mark Leibovich reports. By 11 p.m. the Second Avenue landmark—with red carpet outside—was elbow-to-elbow with martini-sipping guests. Thus commenced Campaign 2008 (we think).

Somehow, it was the singing of “Happy Birthday” which always struck us as most wrong: At any rate, free food! And plenty of pandering! And after they sang “Happy Birthday” to Mac, the gang cabbed it up to Elaine’s.

If you don’t understand the press corps’ coverage of McCain, perhaps you can find a hint or two in Leiby’s dispatch.

Last Friday, Jamison Foser did a superlative post about the way this gang of hopeless galoots insists on calling McCain a “war hero”—even when the designation bears no resemblance to the issue at hand. Beyond that, reporters love to work McCain’s “straight talk” slogan into “reporting.” Stephanopoulos sang “Happy Birthday” that night—and soon was asking the saintly solon for “straight talk answers” on ABC’s air. To judge from Leiby’s guest list, E. J. Dionne wasn’t big enough to make the affair at La Goulue (French for “glutton”), but today he describes his ongoing love for the Great McCain—and he shamelessly equates Obama and Farrakhan to McCain and Hagee. It’s hard to be more disingenuous that that, as many others have already noted. But so what? This has gone on for the past dozen years, and may well decide this year’s race.

But readers, back to the birthday brawl! We first posted Leiby’s text in October 2004, after Ted Koppel attended a fete for Colin Powell instead of prepping for a critical Nightline (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/19/04).On that date, we offered links to past HOWLER posts which showed the big stars of the mainstream “press corps” at play with the people they “cover.” We saw Russert at Rumsfeld’s Christmas party, bragging that he had foreseen Saddam’s capture. (He had seen it in a dream!) We saw Koppel attending that Powell bash, then failing on that night’s critical program. We saw Gwen Ifill dining with Darling Condi, then rolling over for her gal pal in a major interview.

Yes. This is the way your “press corps” works—though Kevin and Josh and Matt won’t tell you. Sedona was just a suggestion, a cook-out, a small affair thrown for the proles.

By the way—why the praise for Leiby’s report? (It appeared in “Reliable Source.”) Here’s why: The “press corps” didn’t just sing “Happy Birthday” to McCain in 2004—they gave him a subsequent birthday gift. You see, despite the star power at that bash, almost no one reported it! Lloyd Grove did a brief piece in the Daily News, saying McCain had thrown “a smallish dinner” (text below). But almost no one else in the press corps mentioned this event at all. You see, they luvv to do celebrity stories—unless the celebrities involved are themselves. In that case, they know they must hide their behavior—the behavior of their group’s biggest players. The comical story of Jack Welch’s “Lost Boys of the Sconset?” That comical—and revealing—story has almost never appeared in print. Within the clan, housebroken pool boys know they must hide the truth about how the “press” lives and functions.

They sing Happy Birthday to those they adore—and then, they pimp to get them elected. Dionne is pimping again today, just as he’s done in the past. The comparison to Obama is disgracefully fake. But so what? Saint John gets a toast.

Lloyd Grove’s smallish dinner: In the Daily News, Grove seemed to get the scope of things wrong. That said, we don’t mean to criticize Grove. Few others said word the first:

GROVE (8/31/04): McCAIN FOR SOMETHING! The media elite met to eat at La Goulue Sunday at a smallish dinner hosted by media favorite John McCain and wife Cindy.

The buzz was that the press-friendly Arizona senator, who was celebrating his 68th birthday, is considering another run for President four years from now.

"This is like any other trade convention—everybody's talking about what the new power mower might be," quipped McCain ad-maker Mike Murphy. Among the guests were Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel and Dan Rather, Barbara Walters, Jeff Greenfield and even New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani.

"Oh I see," one diner remarked on surveying the crowd. "It's a party for the base.

That was Grove’s entire item. According to Nexis, this was the second longest account of this heady, newsworthy affair.

THIS IS YOUR PROFESSOR ON YOUTUBE: Harvard professor Orlando Patterson had suffered a troubling experience. In the opening sentence of his Times op-ed piece—one of the dumbest such pieces ever written—the deeply-troubled “social linguist” begins to describe his ennui:

PATTERSON (3/11/08): On first watching Hillary Clinton’s recent “It’s 3 a.m.” advertisement, I was left with an uneasy feeling that something was not quite right—something that went beyond my disappointment that she had decided to go negative.

Poor Patterson! The good professor had been “left with an uneasy feeling”—a feeling “that something was not quite right.” Unfortunately, the professor continued to ponder these matters—and he soon found himself thinking thoughts he says he “couldn’t help but think.” Result? Despite his disappointment with Clinton for having gone negative, the professor decided to go remarkably negative himself—in this, perhaps the dumbest op-ed piece ever committed to paper.

And perhaps, the most pre-rational.

How does the modern professor proceed when he gets an “uneasy feeling?” “Repeated watching of the ad on YouTube increased my unease,” he confesses. And then, he describes his scholarly method. It’s a prescription for the center failing to hold—for a return to pre-Enlightenment ways:

PATTERSON: I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad's central image—innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger—it brought to my mind scenes from the past. I couldn't help but think of D. W. Griffith's ''Birth of a Nation,'' the racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of black men lurking in the bushes around white society. The danger implicit in the phone ad—as I see it—is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.

The ad could easily have removed its racist sub-message by including images of a black child, mother or father—or by stating that the danger was external terrorism. Instead, the child on whom the camera first focuses is blond. Two other sleeping children, presumably in another bed, are not blond, but they are dimly lighted, leaving them ambiguous. Still it is obvious that they are not black—both, in fact, seem vaguely Latino.

No, you can’t get dumber than that. And you can’t get more prehistoric.

First, the bad news; the uneasy professor “ha[s] spent [his] life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery.” Another person might have put that sort of work to good use, but Patterson is left with “scenes from the past” that come to his mind—with things he “couldn’t help but think.” Of course, fools that we are, we all have things we’re inclined to think—reactions we’re inclined to have, thoughts that instantly pop into consciousness. But to the extent that we have trained our minds, we then subject such reactions to analysis. Sorry, but Patterson doesn’t go there much. Later on, he again reports the things he “could not help but think.” Soon, he’s throwing the r-word around quite a bit, based on things he “could not help but think.”

How addled are Harvard professors these days? Let’s put aside the racial thoughts the good professor can’t help but think. Let’s put aside his ability to determine who “seems vaguely Latino.” To get a measure of his consummate dumbness, let’s look at the way he analyzes something that doesn’t involve racial images. In the following passage, the professor helps us understand how effective Clinton’s message was:

PATTERSON: Did the message get through? Well, consider this: people who voted early went overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama; those who made up their minds during the three days after the ad was broadcast voted heavily for Mrs. Clinton.

[...]

It is significant that the Clinton campaign used its telephone ad in Texas, where a Fox poll conducted Feb. 26 to 28 showed that whites favored Mr. Obama over Mrs. Clinton 47 percent to 44 percent, and not in Ohio, where she held a comfortable 16-point lead among whites. Exit polls on March 4 showed the ad's effect in Texas: a 12-point swing to 56 percent of white votes toward Mrs. Clinton.

How big a dumb-ass is Patterson? Relying on a pair of (inherently imperfect) polls, he announces a 12-point swing in Clinton’s favor after the ad aired. Was there an actual 12-point swing? It’s possible—but two polls (one an exit poll) can’t establish that as a fact. But let’s assume that there was such a swing; can we attribute it all to this ad? Obviously, no, we can’t do that; other things occurred during the period in question. But let’s assume that this particular ad did produce a twelve-point swing. That doesn’t establish the professor’s key claim, the claim that drives his piece—the claim that the ad bore a “racist sub-message.” It doesn’t mean that his (rather tortured) readings are accurate, reasonable, insightful, or fair. Indeed, in his final paragraph—as he closes his column—he finally makes himself say so:

PATTERSON: It is possible that what I saw in the ad is different from what Mrs. Clinton and her operatives saw and intended. But as I watched it again and again I could not help but think of the sorry pass to which we may have come—that someone could be trading on the darkened memories of a twisted past that Mr. Obama has struggled to transcend.

Really! It’s possible that the ad wasn’t meant to be racist? Patterson, heartbroken by Clinton’s negativity, offers this thought rather late in the game. And he fails to offer another key thought: Voters affected by the ad may not have been reacting racially. They may simply have thought about Clinton and Obama—and decided that Clinton was better tested.

To borrow from an old saying: Sometimes, a cigar is not a racial affront. Patterson never quite seems to grasp this thought, so concerned is this “social linguist” by the fact that Clinton went negative.

In his column, Patterson offers interpretations of this ad that are, simply speaking, inane. For that reason, it’s sad to see him boo-hoo-hooing about the way some people “may” or “could” be “trading on the darkened memories of a twisted past Obama has struggled to transcend.” Part of our history with which Obama has struggled (quite brilliantly, in our view) is the requirement—lodged in the brains of many professors—that every incident in the world must be given a racial reading. Obama has struggle against that quite brilliantly. (It’s a shame that he’s had to do it. Just think of the other social problems this brilliant man might have solved.) But race men like Patterson have played this dumb card ever step of the way in the past four months. They’ve played this card inanely before—but never as inanely as this.

Patterson saw a child asleep in an ad—and he “could not help but think” of the Ku Klux Klan. He saw a mother in the middle of the night—and he “couldn’t help but think” of Birth of a Nation. But when he fails to assess the things he can’t help but think, he produces deeply unintelligent work. When you’re making our society’s most serious charge, you really can’t wait till the final paragraph to say that you might have it wrong.

How big a hack is this foolish man—this man who is Harvard professor? Here’s how big: Just last month, the uneasy fellow reviewed Richard Thompson Ford’s new book for the Times—and he boo-hoo-hooed, in high-minded ways, about people who rush to play the race card! He started with Oprah:

PATTERSON (2/10/08): A few years ago, an American lady showed up late at an exclusive Parisian store and was turned away. The outraged shopper was Oprah Winfrey, who charged racial bias; a companion said it was ''one of the most humiliating moments of her life.'' Oprah may have been denied a prerogative of elite status in our new gilded age—being waited on in luxury stores after hours—but had she been the victim of racism?

In ''The Race Card,'' a sharp, tightly argued and delightfully contentious work, Richard Thompson Ford flatly disagrees, finding ''something Orwellian'' about Winfrey's ''egalitarian demand for one's rightful position as V.I.P.—a civil rights claim to a colorblind hierarchy of the rich and famous.'' Winfrey's complaint, Ford writes, is typical of a class of grievances that has created a crisis in the social and legal meaning of race: playing the race card, defined as making ''false or exaggerated claims of bias'' that ''piggyback on real instances of victimization.''

The sleazy Tawana Brawley episode...is of a piece with Clarence Thomas's shameless accusation of a ''high-tech lynching,'' Michael Jackson's claim that the low sales of one of his albums were due to a ''racist conspiracy'' by his record company, and explanations of the Hurricane Katrina disaster that attributed it to racism...

It was an “exaggerated claim of bias,” Patterson told us, to say that race was involved in Katrina. But one month later, he watches an ad—and he can’t help but think certain things about Clinton! He rushes off to say such things—before saying that he may just be wrong.

So it goes when people like Patterson make a joke of our culture and politics.

But then, this deeply stupid piece of work captures the problem we have examined at this site for the past ten years. In the past few months, nitwits like Patterson have yelled race every time—and they’ve tortured their minds, finding distinctions with similar events which plainly weren’t racial. (Mondale’s ad wasn’t racist—but Clinton’s ad is. Unless it isn’t, of course.) But our political discourse has been in the hands of hacks like this for a good long while. Increasingly, our discourse is driven by addled elites—elites which tells you the stories they like, as we’ve described for ten years.

For another example, consider Michiko Kakutani. In today’s Times, she reviews a deeply troubling new book about the death of fact and logic. Here’s how Kakutani, herself a vast offender, begins her high-minded report:

KAKUTANI (3/1/08): There are few subjects more timely than the one tackled by Susan Jacoby in her new book, ''The Age of American Unreason,'' in which she asserts that ''America is now ill with a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism.''

For more than a decade there have been growing symptoms of this affliction, from fundamentalist assaults on the teaching of evolution to the Bush administration's willful disavowal of expert opinion on global warming and strategies for prosecuting the war in Iraq. Conservatives have turned the term ''intellectual,'' like the term '' liberal,'' into a dirty word in politics (even though neo-conservative intellectuals played a formative role in making the case for war against Iraq); policy positions tend to get less attention than personality and tactics in the current presidential campaign; and the democratizing influence of the Internet is working to banish expertise altogether, making everyone an authority on everything...

Poor Kakutani! As she laments the anti-rationalism found all around her, she offers a comical point: “policy positions tend to get less attention than personality and tactics in the current presidential campaign.” In the current presidential campaign? Our analysts laughed out loud—till they cried. During Campaign 2000, after all, Kakutani wrote a front-page piece that was perhaps the most dishonest piece of writing from that astounding campaign; she broke the rules of logic in half, trying to peddle her cohort’s view of Candidate Gore’s “personality and tactics.” (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/23/07, with links to real-time report.) Now, typing from inside the walls of Versailles, she pretends that this is something new—something from the current campaign. Like Patterson rolling her eyes at Winfrey, she pretends that the problem is happening elsewhere, that her hands are clean in such affairs.

But then, we’ve discussed this phenomenon for the past decade. At some point, readers, you either see it or you don’t—and most of your career liberal leaders are paid to keep you from seeing it. (Patterson and Kakutani are part of the protected band—as is inane Linda Hirshman.) Today’s op-ed piece is well past embarrassing; it’s deeply, stunningly stupid. When we surrender to what we “could not help but think,” we return to the world of the tribe, of the clan—to the world that existed before the Enlightenment taught us how to assess our impulses. In his last paragraph, Patterson finally says it—he finally says that the novel he’s typing may just be wrong. But before he offers this disclaimer, he goes deeply negative—and plays the race card very hard. He was upset when Clinton went negative—and so he yelled race in reply.

Oprah Winfrey was deeply wrong to do this bad thing, of course.

But then, this loud, deeply stupid novelization has driven our politics for the past sixteen years. Increasingly, these practices come from the top, from addled elites posing as “journalists” and “professors.” This is one of the dumbest—and most negative—columns ever placed on an op-ed page. But almost surely, its most troubling words appear in its saddening tag-line:

“Orlando Patterson is a professor...at Harvard.”

Those words should fill your soul with dread—with concern about the future of our anti-rational political culture.

CAN YOU FOLLOW PATTERSON’S LOGIC: Can you understand the highlighted claim from this column? Frankly, we cannot:

PATTERSON: I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad's central image—innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger—it brought to my mind scenes from the past. I couldn't help but think of D. W. Griffith's ''Birth of a Nation,'' the racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of black men lurking in the bushes around white society. The danger implicit in the phone ad—as I see it—is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.

The ad could easily have removed its racist sub-message by including images of a black child, mother or father—or by stating that the danger was external terrorism. Instead, the child on whom the camera first focuses is blond. Two other sleeping children, presumably in another bed, are not blond, but they are dimly lighted, leaving them ambiguous. Still it is obvious that they are not black—both, in fact, seem vaguely Latino.

“The ad could easily have removed its racist sub-message...by stating that the danger was external terrorism?” Don’t make us run through it, but that makes no apparent sense, given what the previous paragraph says. But then, Patterson is very like Hirshman in this regard: Screaming mimis rarely make sense when they play their various cards. Why do editors put such work into print? That’s another question.

By the way, we’ve looked at the kids in the ad. To us, they don’t seem vaguely Latino—and it isn’t obvious that they aren’t black. Our suggestion? People who report how things “vaguely seem” should avoid tying vague impressions to the most serious charge in our culture. That, of course, would require professors to stop behaving as if they are nuts.