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DEFINING DEVIANCY UP! The Pulitzer folk have come a long way, movin’ on up from Dowd: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, APRIL 13, 2010

Nailing down a rule of thumb: Last Friday, the Washington Post published an important op-ed column by Joel Klein and two other authors whose names shall be lost to history. (Klein is chancellor of New York City’s schools.) The entire column is well worth reading. But the highlighted passage struck us as important:

KLEIN (4/9/10): Consider the latest national math scores of fourth- and eighth-graders, which show startling differences among results for low-income African American students in different cities. In Boston, Charlotte, New York and Houston, these fourth-graders scored 20 to 30 points higher than students in the same socioeconomic group in Detroit, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and the District of Columbia. Boston fourth-graders outscored those in Detroit by 33 points. Ten points approximates one year's worth of learning on these national tests, which means that by fourth grade, poor African American children in Detroit are already three grades behind their peers in Boston.

Klein and the others were discussing the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP), widely known as “the nation’s report card.” In that passage, Klein endorsed the very rough rule of thumb we have discussed many times: Ten points on the NAEP scale approximates one year's worth of learning.

A key word there is “approximates.” We regard this as a very rough rule of thumb—but it does give us a rough idea of what scores, and score changes, might mean on these federally-managed tests. We were glad to see Klein’s statement in the Post because it brings us closer to the day when big newspapers, in their news reporting, may start discussing the large score gains which have been recorded on the NAEP.

What do those score gains actually mean? It’s time for big papers to interview (actual) experts and make an attempt to explain.

What is happening in the academic lives of low-income and minority children? Leading liberals rarely dirty their hands with such worthless topics. Our side quit on those kids long ago; we virtually never discuss them. That said, other entities may want to forge an assessment of those kids’ academic progress, and the NAEP is the most reliable tool we have for that purpose. And as we told you just last week: If we apply that rough rule of thumb, very large scores gains have occurred on the NAEP, just in the past dozen years. Examples: From 2000 through 2009, black fourth-graders gained nineteen points on the NAEP in math; so did Hispanic fourth-graders. (White fourth-graders gained fourteen points.) If we accept that rough rule of thumb, those score gains seem to represent remarkable progress. But we’d like to see some actual experts explain what they think those scores mean.

(For more information about NAEP gains, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/7/10.)

It was odd to see the Washington Post printing that statement by Klein. Just one week earlier, the same newspaper, on the same op-ed page, had printed a column by Diane Ravitch; she seemed to say that no progress in reading and math has occurred during this period—and she too cited those NAEP scores as her source! In the face of such contradictory claims, our major newspapers should start explaining what those rising NAEP scores mean. In truth, they should have done this long ago. But now that Klein has given them cover, they really should get at it now.

We’ll hit you again with an observation: It’s stunning to see the way the “liberal” world has taken a pass on these topics. We white liberals are highly skilled at prancing and parading about, assuring the world of our own racial greatness. But what’s happening to black and brown kids? Go ahead—search your favorite liberal journals and sites! See if they’ve ever dirtied their hands producing work on this dull topic.

White liberals are full of racial greatness—except when the lives of minority kids are at stake. At such moments, we take a pass. Go ahead, check it out—go search your favorite fiery site! Go examine the work of the fiery editors who never fail to assure the world of their own racial grandeur.

Can we talk? As it turns out, we liberals are remarkably small, ratty people. Go ahead—just search those sites! You couldn’t make liberal editors publish work about low-income kids—unless an article on the topic could somehow get them on Hardball.

Chris Matthews, of course, hasn’t been re-purposed to that extent yet. Final question: Why don’t “liberal” shows on Our Own News Channel discuss the lives of low-income kids? Crackers! Could the answer be more clear? They know we white “liberals” don’t care!

To all appearances, neither do they. It makes for a heavenly marriage.

DEFINING DEVIANCY UP (permalink): Will women in certain traditional cultures ever catch a break? Just consider the women of Saudi Arabia. By tradition, their culture deeply restricts their life choices.

And now, as if things weren’t bad enough, they have to sit around taking counsel from the likes of Maureen Dowd:

DOWD (4/11/10): When I was in Saudi Arabia, I had tea and sweets with a group of educated and sophisticated young professional women.

I asked why they were not more upset about living in a country where women’s rights were strangled, an inbred and autocratic state more like an archaic men’s club than a modern nation...

Is there no indignity to which these women won’t be exposed? That asked, we thought of Maureen Dowd this morning when we saw that the Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker—once described as “southern-fried Dowd”—had won this year’s Pulitzer Prize.

Dowd won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1999. Parker has won it eleven years later. But let’s give credit where credit is due: In its long, slow move up to Parker from Dowd, the Pulitzer people have made the long climb from moral squalor all the way up to mediocrity. Let’s give credit where credit is due: In its eleven-year climb back from Dowd, the Pulitzer committee has defined deviancy up.

In fairness, Parker’s work simply isn’t defined by Maureen Dowd’s moral squalor. In recent years, Parker has largely reinvented herself, moving from a center-right voice in the Clinton/Bush years to a moderate voice in the Age of Obama. (During this same period, she moved from syndication by the Chicago Tribune to syndication by the Washington Post. Her column began appearing in the Post on a regular basis in August 2008.) Presumably, Parker is being rewarded for that shift in tone.

Parker’s work isn’t defined by late-90s moral squalor. Her work is merely mediocre, the hallmark of the mainstream press in the post-Clinton/Gore, post-Bush/Cheney era. Here’s why we call Parker’s work mediocre: Can you think of a single thing you know or understand because Parker has had a column for two decades? Because she has appeared on so many weekend talk programs? There’s nothing wrong with mediocrity, and Parker is generally witty and pleasant. But her prize defines the press corps’ current play-it-pleasant culture: It’s stunning to think that such an ordinary performer has been given this cult’s top prize.

With Dowd, things were different. As happenstance has it, we’re currently reviewing The Year of Dowd (1999) for the book we’re posting at our companion site (just click here). As Parker, a general mediocrity, receives her Pulitzer Prize, we thought it might be worth remembering how much worse it was in this inbred cult when their top prize was handed to Dowd.

Gaze on the face of moral squalor—on the banality of evil! Dowd was awarded her prize in April 1999, praised for her blood-churning columns about Bill and Monica’s sexy-time. (Sorry—for her “fresh and insightful columns on the impact of President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky.”) A few months later, in late July, Dowd returned to her post at the Times after an absence of nearly a month. What was on her award-winning mind? These are the topics the lady engaged in her return to the wars:

July 28, 1999: She described her recent lazer eye surgery.
August 1:
She reviewed the movie “Runaway Bride.”
August 4:
She discussed a new Talk magazine piece about the Clintons’ marriage.
August 8:
Bob Dole on the prospect of being “first gentleman.” (Elizabeth Dole was running for president.)
August 11:
She compared and contrasted two “blond icons”—Hillary Clinton and Marilyn Monroe.
August 15:
Might Warren Beatty run for the White House?
August 18:
Bush and the question of youthful drug use.
August 22:
Bush and the question of youthful drug use.
August 25:
She reviewed a Showtime film about the sexy-time relationship between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas.
August 29:
She psychoanalyzed John McCain’s reasons for seeking the White House.
September 1:
“I ran into Kato Kaelin the other night,” she wrote, before discussing Monica Lewinsky’s plan to launch a lipstick line.
September 5:
She offered her reactions to Paris, a new Las Vegas casino hotel.

Dowd was, and is, a moral cipher. On September 8, 1999, she returned to her favorite subject—the Clintons’ marriage—writing about their “marital pratfalls,” their “kooky connubial bliss.” On September 12, she took things farther. In a column headlined “Sure I Would,” she ran through the names of the various White House contenders, asking herself, one by one, if she would have sex with these fellers (excerpt below). Needless to say, Dowd had a very serious sub-text for this deeply thoughtful column. So too when she tormented the housewives of Riyadh just a few weeks ago.

Two months after that chain of columns in 1999, the boys and girls of the mainstream press started their month-long trashing of Naomi Wolf—and through her, of Candidate Gore. On November 3, 1999, Dowd helped drive this “virtual wilding” along (Dan Kennedy’s term), offering a smutty, factually-challenged column in which she repeated a smutty claim she had toyed with two years before—the claim that Wolf, in one of her books, “urged women to release their inner sluts.” Two days later, the very same smutty, life-draining claim popped up in the Washington Post.

Darlings! It was divine! And this was the soul of the era.

At present, we’re reliving November 1999 each day in our work for How he got there. It had been seven months since Dowd won her Pulitzer Prize when her “inner slut” column appeared. It was a time of moral squalor, of moral depravity, of journalistic promiscuity. Some of your favorites drove this along (Arianna Huffington, Frank Rich). Others simply refused to complain (E. J. Dionne, the newly-divine David Remnick.) But the Pulitzer people have come a long way since the time when they gave Dowd their prize. In their award to Kathleen Parker, they’ve given their prize to mediocrity. In that sense, they have defined the press corps’ deviancy up.

Heroically, the committee has moved up from depravity in the eleven years gone by. But alas! Pleasing the darlings, Dowd savaged Wolf—and George Bush got to the White House.

Where things stood: The Pulitzer folk have moved up from deviancy. This was their best they thought we had, back in 1999:

DOWD (9/12/99): Al Gore wears expensive pantsuits, drapey around his legs, hiding the ankles that some women mistakenly call thick, and flat shoes. He still looks like the smartest guy at the dance, the guy not smart enough to escape his vulnerability nor ambitious enough to escape his longing. Would I? Sure I would.

Rudolph Giuliani's hair is bright and fixed. But sometimes a tendril of it will come loose and fall into his face and he will seem open to the intrigue of dishevelment. That radical combover, that comb-hither look, makes me shiver. Most women seem to miss his raw appeal: Only a very sexually confident man would slap handcuffs on Wall Street traders right in the middle of the workday. Would I? Sure I would.

I think it would be easy to get Alan Keyes flustered. One little wink would do it. He's a complete fruitcake, but that's what makes him so irresistibly saucy. Would I? Sure I would.

W.'s eyes, set so close together, squeezed above that long space between the nose and mouth, give him a strange simian magnetism. His rather wide ears sport those macho, mesquite tufts of hair. Cowboys make me weak. Would I? Sure I would.

I don't care that Bill Bradley has a boring voice and a belly and a bald spot and ratty sneakers. His palatial chin packs a lewd wallop. It is enigmatic in its capacity for adjustment. It seems both the origin and repository of his secrets. Would I? Sure I would.

“Al Gore wears expensive pantsuits.” We’d never even noticed that one before. But the age was drenched with such work.

The Pulitzer people have come a long way. Dowd herself? Not so much.