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FRIDAY, MARCH 25, 2011

Kevin and Krugman fight on: “We live in a fictitious world.”

Michael Moore said it eight years ago. Isn’t it time to revisit this statement? To help the public understand what it means? To use that statement to build a new “paradigm”—a new way of viewing our politics?

How fictitious is our world? For starters, consider this seminal post by Kevin Drum. (Headline: “The New Media Rules.”) Kevin notes a major breakdown in our society’s intellectual practice, especially when major Republicans engage in fairly ridiculous flip-flops:

DRUM (3/23/11): Back in the day, I remember a lot of people saying that it was getting harder for politicians to shade their positions—either over time or for different audiences—because everything was now on video and the internet made it so easy to catch inconsistencies. But that's turned out not to really be true. Unless you're in the middle of a high-profile political campaign, it turns out you just need to be really brazen about your flip-flops. Sure, sites like ThinkProgress or Politifact with catch you, and the first few times that happens maybe you're a little worried about what's going to happen. But then it dawns on you: nothing is going to happen. Your base doesn't read ThinkProgress. The media doesn't really care and is happy to accept whatever obvious nonsense you offer up in explanation. The morning chat shows will continue to book you. It just doesn't matter.

And that's got to be pretty damn liberating. You can literally say anything you want! And no one cares! That's quite a discovery.

That’s true—it’s quite a discovery. But this peculiar state of affairs has begun to obtain in the “liberal” world too. Some liberals can’t conceive of the notion that Rachel Maddow may tell them things that aren’t true, even as she swears to them that she always corrects her own mistakes. “You can literally say anything you want?” Increasingly, “no one cares” about that in our tribe either! And Kevin is right: The fact that powerful players can behave this way really is quite a discovery.

Increasingly, tribal fictitions rule. In effect, Paul Krugman writes about one form of this problem in today’s column—and then too, there was Caroline Heldman on last night’s Hannity.

Heldman is one of the three million youngish blonde women employed to comment on Fox. She is always introduced as “an associate professor of political science at Occidental Courage,” which we tend to find a bit strange since Occidental is in L.A. and Heldman always seems to be live and direct in Hannity’s New York studio. (For a capsule bio, click here.) Heldman sits in the liberal chair on Hannity’s three-member panels. In fact, she does tend to advance progressive positions, sometimes in ways which make such positions seem a bit over the top.

But alas! Last night, it came time to discuss Donald Trump’s deep concern about Obama’s strange birth. Heldman battled with Hannity and two Republican stooges—and she was remarkably clueless, hopelessly unprepared:

HELDMAN (3/24/11): I think we are asking for the birth certificate because we have a black man in the White House. The idea that he's not a citizen is ludicrous.

HANNITY: This has happened before! It was Harrison's vice president, it became an issue whether he or not he was born in Canada and whether or not he had come from Ireland and people wanted to see the birth certificate.

MCGUIRK: John McCain too.

HANNITY: John McCain, hang on, that's another issue.

HELDMAN: No, let's look at John McCain. There wasn't a big push during the campaign on McCain's certificate.

HANNITY: They thought he was born in Panama.

HELDMAN: Indeed, but why not have equal attention paid to those two? Much more attention was paid to Obama and it is absolutely ludicrous for mainstream media to be supporting this.

EHRLICH: I don't like the issue either, but why not put it to bed? [Presumably, by presenting the birth certificate.]

HELDMAN: Because it is insulting and it's racist!

MCGUIRK: It's racist!

HELDMAN: Because we wouldn't be asking a white president for his birth certificate!

HANNITY: They asked John McCain in the last presidential cycle.

HELDMAN: Who? Did he have an entire group—

HANNITY: I have a story on NBC where they were saying, they were raising the whole question, was he born in America?

HELDMAN: There was a response to that question—

HANNITY: Doesn't the constitution talk about naturalized citizens, 35 years of age?

HELDMAN: But, you know, there's no way that there's collusion between a paper in Honolulu—

HANNITY: If I asked for the birth certificate, can I get it?

HELDMAN: I assume that you could, Sean.

Good God. On what planet do these professors live? In this hapless exchange, three million Fox viewers saw a progressive professor offer standard complaints about how racist this whole thing is. Here’s what they didn’t see her say: They didn’t see her say that Obama has already presented his birth certificate—that the document has been vouched for by Hawaii’s Republican governor!

Heldman was just as unprepared as Behar, Goldberg and Walters before her. Over the past two nights, in fact, a Fox viewer may have seen tape of all four women without ever seeing anyone note the most obvious factual point. Should we really be surprised if such viewers come away thinking that Obama really has withheld his birth certificate?

In this way, fictitions spread. Your culture turns into a madhouse.

We had planned to write a bit more about liberals and race this week, working off this earlier post by Drum. We’ll postpone till early next week. But please note: For Heldman, it was so easy to squawk about race that she passed over the bone-simple, basic factual point: Obama has shown his birth certificate! Hannity doesn’t have to “ask”—and Heldman doesn’t have to “assume.”

Our culture is spiraling into tribal insanity—and our tribe now plays a role in this process, where once the nonsense all came from the right or from the “mainstream” press. (Al Gore said he inspired Love Story! It came from Rich and Dowd.) Next week, let’s go “south toward home,” as many African-Americans have apparently done (click here). Let’s go to Mississippi again. Let’s talk about Haley Barbour!

Final point: In today’s column, David Brooks marvels at the way Qaddafi controls the minds of Libyans, turning Libya into “the most censored country in the Middle East and North Africa.” And we agree—it sounds pretty crazy as we read that column.

But the way our discussion is now getting “censored” is pretty amazing too. In many parts of our public discussion, it’s almost impossible to hear accurate facts. Every factual claim is false—and it’s very hard to find corrections.

In the end, just how different is that from the Libyan lunacy? Brooks describes a crazy world. We’d suggest he stay closer to home.

Special report: He was the son of a teacher, man!

PART 4—WHILE BIG ED SLEPT (permalink): “We live in a fictitious world.” Michael Moore was right on the mark when he made that statement in March 2003.

How “fictitious” is our world? Consider the blizzard of “ficitions” which drive our “education discussion”—fictitions which come at the public from both sides of the political aisle.

Let’s start with some basic fictitions from the “our teachers are just the pits” side:

Fictitions from Michelle Rhee: Michelle Rhee has paraded about the country for years, making a highly implausible claim about her own vast success as a teacher. This alleged success has formed the basis for her remarkably narrow ideas of “education reform”—ideas which revolve around the twin pleasures of insulting and firing teachers.

About a month ago, it became even more clear that Rhee’s self-serving miracle claim had been a big public fraud. But so what? NBC News continues to fawn over Rhee; the network shows little sign of knowing that Rhee is a controversial figure with limited ideas, not a secular saint. Meanwhile, a fawning new bio of Rhee has appeared; it may be the most sycophantic book we have ever read. In part, the book was funded by the Broad Foundation, one of the powerful foundations started by the “education reform billionaires.”

Fictitions from Bill Gates: Bill Gates, the world’s second-richest man, is spending vast sums to promote his own ideas of education reform. In a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Gates made familiar disparaging claims about America’s schools. At best, his disparaging claims were grossly misleading. More directly judged, his disparaging claims were just false.

Gates’ claims disparaged American students and teachers—and his claims were basically fraudulent. But so what? Gates’ wife sits on the board at the Post, and his money is being widely dispersed. (The Post itself is grossly conflicted; its parent corporation makes its money in educational testing.)

In fairness, Gates’ fictitious claims are widely advanced in our education discourse, by everyone from President Obama on down.

Now, let’s turn to some fictitions from the allegedly pro-teacher side:

Fictitions from Diane Ravitch: Just this week, Ravitch posted her most recent set of fictitious claims about American schools. A ridiculous irony obtains here, of course. Even though Ravitch has weirdly become a favorite of many American teachers, her fictitious claims, like those of Rhee and Gates, tend to run down our teachers’ accomplishments, which seem to have been rather significant over the past twenty years.

But so what? How far was Ravitch willing to go in promoting the claim that our schools are a mess? Good God! She even cited a bungled claim by Barbara Bush, a former first lady who doesn’t know squat or squadoodle about educational data.

In fairness, Ravitch never said Bush’s claims were accurate. She just let readers think so.

Fictitions from Wisconsin Democrats: Then there are some recent fictitions from Wisconsin, offered by the state’s Democratic Party during its fight with Scott Walker. These fictitions are highly unusual; for once, someone has made a bungled claim which overstates educational success! That said, Wisconsin Democrats should be embarrassed by their bungled, know-nothing assertions. And omigod! When Politifact tried to fact-check these claims, the site didn’t really know how!

That’s right: Our educational discourse is so bungled that our Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-check site doesn’t know how to proceed in this area. But so it goes when the liberal world quits on low-income kids.

How hopeless is the American discourse? Consider Wisconsin’s ficitions:

On February 21, Politifact fact-checked a claim which was being advanced by Wisconsin’s Democratic Party. They paraphrased the claim in their headline:

“The five states that outlaw collective bargaining for teachers all rank below 44th in the nation in test scores, while Wisconsin ranks 2nd.”

Collective bargaining rocks! As Politifact started its report, it quoted the Democrats’ claim more precisely—a claim it had scored as “false:”

POLITIFACT (2/21/11): In tweets and Facebook postings, supporters of labor unions in Wisconsin have promoted statistics that would suggest that collective bargaining for teachers…is correlated with higher scores on standardized academic tests.

On Feb. 23, we found the following version on Facebook by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin:

"Only 5 states do not have collective bargaining for educators and have deemed it illegal. Those states and their ranking on ACT/SAT scores are as follows: South Carolina, 50th/ North Carolina, 49th/ Georgia, 48th/ Texas, 47th/ Virginia, 44th. If you are wondering, Wisconsin is currently ranked #2."

When a reader brought this to our attention, we thought it deserved a look.

Politifact went on to rate this claim “False” for various reasons. But the site seemed to have little idea how utterly worthless this claim really was. Politifact did note some of the problems with the use of SAT scores to make this kind of state-to-state comparison. But Politifact didn’t seem to understand how hard it is to base such judgments on scores from the SAT. Nor did the site seem to know that data from the National Assessment of Education Progress are much better suited for making this kind of assessment.

Oof! In all candor, Politifact seemed to know very little about educational data. But then, for the past thirty years, our national discourse has been a sick joke when it comes to such matters. Every kind of hustler and hack has paraded about, pimping disparaging fictitions about American schools. Rhee, Gates and Ravitch are three striking examples, but other examples are legion. In effect, you live in a banana republic when it comes to public debate on this topic. Clowns, hacks and frauds have held sway for years. Liberals and the mainstream press have shown no sign that they care.

Liberals liked the Wisconsin fictition for fairly obvious reasons. It seemed to say that union-fed schools produce better results in the classroom; it also gave liberals the old sick thrill of seeing southern states denigrated. But is it true? Do Wisconsin’s schools have reason to boast when we look at appropriate data? In fact, Wisconsin’s schools come off rather poorly if we use data from the NAEP, the universally-acclaimed “gold standard” of educational testing.

Selecting her facts in a dense cherry orchard, Ravitch gave us libs the sick thrill of seeing Texas derided. So did the Wisconsin Dems when they pimped their know-nothing claim. But in fact, Texas schools surpass those in Wisconsin in virtually every way if we review the NAEP data, which let us match apples with apples. To wit: Black kids in Texas outscore their Wisconsin peers by very substantial margins. By lesser margins, white kids in Texas and Hispanic kids outscore their Wisconsin counterparts too—and so do low-income kids. Meanwhile, how do Wisconsin kids do on the NAEP as compared to kids from those five southern states? In the tables below, we’ll look at white kids and black kids in fourth grade reading, showing you how Wisconsin did as compared to those five states from the tobacco-spitting backwoods.

By a very rough rule of thumb, ten points on the NAEP scale is often said to represent roughly one academic year:

Black students, average score in fourth-grade reading, NAEP, 2009:
Wisconsin: 191.8
Georgia: 204.3
North Carolina: 203.7
South Carolina: 200.1
Texas: 212.8
Virginia: 210.0

White students, average score in fourth-grade reading, NAEP, 2009:
Wisconsin: 226.9
Georgia: 229.0
North Carolina: 230.0
South Carolina: 226.4
Texas: 232.1
Virginia: 233.8

We didn’t cherry-pick the subject. Wisconsin schools tend to underperform on the NAEP, in pretty much every measure. In particular, Texas schools pretty much outscore Wisconsin’s in every demographic, in all four subjects the NAEP tests—fourth grade and eighth grade reading and math. (Eighth-grade reading, Ravitch’s favorite? Black kids in Wisconsin, 237.6. Black kids in Texas, 248.9.)

We live in fictitious times. In fact, from Barack Obama on down, it’s quite rare to hear a claim about American schools which isn’t howlingly wrong. Everyone has his ax to grind—his favorite ficitition to pimp. We live in a world of hustlers and clowns—though the vast majority of current fictitions disparage American schools.

This brings us to Ed Schultz, whose late mother was a teacher at Norfolk’s Granby High School.

First, God bless Schultz’s late mother. On March 1, Schultz recalled his mother’s devotion to her students. His recollection was offered in the context of the Wisconsin budget fight:

SCHULTZ (3/1/11): I said at the top of this broadcast tonight that this is personal to me. Every time I talked to a teacher in Wisconsin when I was on the road a couple weeks ago covering this story, I thought about my mother.

My mother was a high school English teacher…She taught English at Granby High School in Norfolk, Virginia. She had three accelerated classes and three regular classes.

My mother—she graded papers until the wee hours of the morning. She got her kids off to school every day. And when she came home in the afternoon, she was still grading papers, and then she was working on lesson plans on Saturdays. And then she was grading papers on Sunday afternoon.

My mother was a teacher. And I saw my mother love what she did. She used to take tremendous pride in knowing that John Ruff went off to the University of Virginia and became a doctor, see what kids were graduating from what college. And she took a tremendous amount of pride in being part of helping that student in their education.

And I know in my heart that teachers haven’t changed over the years even though my mom died years ago and came from a different generation. They’re still same. I know they’re the same because I was in that crowd at Madison and I looked in the eyes of those teachers. They haven’t changed a bit.

But you know what’s changed in America? Our priorities and our conversation is not as serious about education as it should be.

Now we have teachers who are nothing more than political tools, pawns. They’re bargaining chips in negotiations is what they are. We don’t value them the way they used to.

We agree with every word. But Schultz has been part of the problem.

Ed Schultz works for NBC News. At least since last fall, the network has been an undisguised propagandist in the current political war in which “our conversation is not as serious about education as it should be”—in the war in which teachers “are nothing more than political tools.” (Students are pawns in this sick game too, although Schultz didn’t say so.) But neither Schultz, nor anyone else at The One True Channel, has said Word the First about this network-driven propaganda since it began last fall. Public schools don’t exist on MSNBC; neither do the children who attend them. As his network endlessly pimps Michelle Rhee, Rhee’s name has never been mentioned on Schultz’s program. It has never been mentioned by Maddow or O’Donnell. Keith Olbermann never went there.

(Chris Matthews interviewed Rhee last fall. Of course, he heavily fawned.)

Public schools simply don’t exist on MSNBC. Neither do public school children. Black and Hispanic kids can go hang. These millionaire hosts don’t care.

On March 1, Schultz went on and on and on about the greatness of teachers. Soon, he offered the great sign of ultimate respect:

“Remember to answer tonight’s text question: Are our nation’s teachers getting the respect and pay they deserve? Text A for yes, text B for no, to 622639. Or go to our new blog at Ed.MSNBC.com. I want to know what you think. I`ll bring you the results later on in the show.”

You’re right—that was a bit of a gong-show. But on March 2, Schultz continued to voice his fury at “the vilification of teachers.” As he did, he told us about an upcoming special treat:

SCHULTZ (3/2/11): We don’t have respect for teachers the way we used to because they haven’t had a voice, and their only voice is collective bargaining. So someone can stand up and tell the rest of the country what it’s really like in the classroom of public schools, while all these governors around vilifying these teachers saying that they’re really nothing but trade bait in a political debate when it comes to the budget.

We’ve got a lot of work to do in this country, and I’m not giving up on it. Next week, I’m going to be in my hometown of Norfolk, Virginia, and I’m going to go to my high school, because I have faith the teachers that I had in high school aren’t there anymore. But I’ll bet you anything that Maury High School probably has some great teachers. And I’m going to introduce you to some of them next week when I’m in Norfolk, because I have confidence that public education can work.


Over the decades, things have changed. We’ve allowed teachers to become this political pawn and trade bait in a budget debate in this country, in each state. And it’s wrong.

Somebody’s got to say it. I’ll be the one to do it, because I have faith that these professionals in the classroom, they care. They care day in and day out. And they live their profession.

So brave! So fearless! Such a man of the people! And sure enough: On March 10, Schultz broadcast his program from Maury High, where he made a roomful of students and students cool their heels for most of the hour, before he staged an utterly uninformed and desultory rather short interview segment.

Ed Schultz was the son of a teacher, man! We were surprised when we heard him say it, because Schultz—like all the MSNBC hosts—hadn’t offered a peep as teachers got trashed, from stem to stern, on his own NBC network. That “vilification” has been quite constant. And guess what? Your fiery liberals on The One True Channel don’t give a good flying fig!

To read a document which screams of indifference, just read those lifeless interviews Schultz staged. Click here, then scroll to the end.

You live in a world of massive fictition. When it comes to public education, teachers and children are endlessly disparaged; more significantly, mountains of baldly fictitious claims rain down on the public’s heads. But the liberal world quit on this topic a long time ago. The modern career liberal don’t care.

Deserving black kids can go jump in the lake! We will continue to dishonor a mother’s devotion, as we’ve done for a very long time.