Are you as smart as an advanced fourth grader: The ineptitude of upper-end journalists is a long-standing point of fascination for us at this incomparable site.
Case in point: On Monday, the New York Times offered an editorial about a new national civics test. Heres how the foolishness started:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (5/9/11): Can You Explain the War Powers Act?
The Department of Educations latest assessment of what young Americans know about civics shows that the light of democracy burns steadily in schools, if too dimly.
The test was given last year to 27,000 children in the 4th, 8th and 12th grades. Basic knowledge for an eighth grader meant being able to identify a right protected by the First Amendment. A proficient 12th grader could define melting pot and argue whether or not the United States is one. An advanced fourth grader could explain two ways countries can deal with shared problems.
The results show the needle stuck on mediocre...
Predictably, the editors went to cluck about the dumbness of Americas children. But we were struck by that highlighted passage.
Could you answer the highlighted question? Herat THE HOWLER, we couldnt! In fact, we have little idea what that question even means. Perhaps in context, the question makes better sense. But as the editors rushed to discuss the dumbness of 9-year-old children, they didnt seem to notice the dumbness of their own presentation.
Are you as smart as an advanced fourth grader? Here at THE HOWLER, we arent! That said, how dumb does upper-end journalism get? This morning, Roberts and Argetsinger establish a new, depressing standard at the Washington Post.
We know, we knowits just The Reliable Source, the Posts semi-gossip column. But Reliable Source is one of the Posts most-read, most-discussed daily features. This morning, the ladies wanted to muse about the Schwarzenegger-Shriver separationand they apparently wanted to make their prose especially juicy.
But good God! This is the way the ladies began. Even by prevailing press standards, this is just extra dumb:
ROBERTS/ARGETSINGER (5/11/11): The Schwarzenegger-Shriver split: Till end of term do us part?
So, is this how it goes in political marriagesnot just stay together until the kids grow up, but stay together until his career is done?
Last year, the splits of John and Elizabeth Edwards and Al and Tipper Goreafter so many years, so much endured together in the public eyehad the world asking, Why now? Both came not long after the men exited the political stage. And now, just four months after he wrapped up the seven years as California governor that topped off their uniquely high-profile quarter-century together, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver announced they have separated.
Darlings! Why restrict ourselves to one separation if we can cluck about three! That said, how hard did the ladies have to work to find a way to drag in those other political splits? According to the thigh-rubbing ladies, the Edwards and Gore splits came not long after the men exited the political stage. And omigod! Thats just like this newest split!
The ladies had spotted a pattern! They then clucked and mused and creamed as they considered their find.
Even by this cohorts standards, that is just extra dumb. Al Gore left office in January 2001. The Gores separation was announced in June 2010more than nine years later. When the separation was announced, Al Gore was still quite active on the scene. His career wasnt close to done.
In our thirteen years at THE HOWLER, we have perhaps been most struck by this observation: Most people have a very hard time articulating an important fact: We are a very dumb people. (Most of us dont seem to mind.)
That said: Are you as smart as two major Post writers? Were going to pray that you are.
THE WAY OF ALL FLESH (permalink): In Mondays New York Times, Paul Krugman described a remarkable problem: Within our culture, there is no sanction for being wrong. Or at least, there is no sanction for being wrong if youre one of our ruling elites.
The Unwisdom of Elites, said Krugmans headline. It was a play on a famous phrase: The wisdom of crowds/of the crowd.
As he started, Krugman described the way certain powerful elites are now blaming the clueless rabble for our recent economic disasters. This whole thing is the publics fault, these reigning elites have claimed:
KRUGMAN (5/9/11): The past three years have been a disaster for most Western economies. The United States has mass long-term unemployment for the first time since the 1930s. Meanwhile, Europes single currency is coming apart at the seams. How did it all go so wrong?
Well, what Ive been hearing with growing frequency from members of the policy eliteself-appointed wise men, officials, and pundits in good standingis the claim that its mostly the publics fault. The idea is that we got into this mess because voters wanted something for nothing, and weak-minded politicians catered to the electorates foolishness.
This blame-the-public view isnt just self-serving, its dead wrong, Krugman writes. In the rest of his column, he describes the way those very elites created the mess were in. With few exceptions, he writes, we got into our current mess because of policies championed by small groups of influential peoplein many cases, the same people now lecturing the rest of us.
Influential elites created this mess. But so what? Theyre still in charge, and theyre blaming everyone else! This is precisely the way our political culture has worked in the past decade or two. At the end of his column, Krugman described the price we pay for this ongoing cultural gong-show:
KRUGMAN: Does any of this matter? Why should we be concerned about the effort to shift the blame for bad policies onto the general public?
One answer is simple accountability. People who advocated budget-busting policies during the Bush years shouldnt be allowed to pass themselves off as deficit hawks; people who praised Ireland as a role model shouldnt be giving lectures on responsible government.
But the larger answer, Id argue, is that by making up stories about our current predicament that absolve the people who put us here there, we cut off any chance to learn from the crisis. We need to place the blame where it belongs, to chasten our policy elites. Otherwise, theyll do even more damage in the years ahead.
The same elites who created this mess are making up stories to blame other people. If we fail to sanction these people, theyll do even more damage in the years ahead.
That is very true. That said, this same pattern obtains among our current liberal elites. But first:
How inane are the regal elites to whom Krugman refers in this column? Krugman is talking about self-appointed wise men, officials, and pundits in good standingthe players who sit at the very top of our political culture, creating the policies, and frameworks of understanding, which guide so much of our conduct.
How low are standards for these hapless players? Consider ex-senator Alan Simpson, who has managed to put his vast (apparent) cluelessness on display once again.
In an interview with the Huffington Posts Ryan Grim, Simpson recited a long string of howlers, groaners and hapless non sequiturs about the Social Security program. (To read Grims sterling report, click here.) Why is this ignorance a problem? Simpson was co-chairman of Obamas debt commission; as such, he remains a major player in our ongoing budget debates.
Among current elites, Simpson ranks as a wise man. Despite his (apparent) cosmic cluelessness, he is one of the people who has been assigned to lead us out of the fiscal woods.
Is Simpson as clueless as he seems? Its never easy to tell. In her post about Simpsons interview, Digby suggest that he really is this dumb about the basic issues he bungled. Normally I would suggest that he was just a liar, Digby writes, but from this account it's pretty clear to me that he really doesn't understand.
Is Alan Simpson really this dumb? We understand why Digby judged that he (probably) is. Speaking with Grim, Simpson made a string of statements which were just amazingly stupid. Professional communicators dont have to do this. If they actually understand their subject, they can slide away from unwanted questions without making themselves look like ginormous fools in the process.
Professional communicators do this all the timebut Simpson didnt take that approach. It may be that he really is this cluelessclueless to the bone.
That said, there will be no penalty for Simpson, certainly not within the elite mainstream press. Indeed, Simpson has put his massive (apparent) ignorance on display on other occasions. For one example, lets recall his stunning interview with Alex Lawson in June of last year.
That interview was truly stunning. In a rational world, it would it have got Simpson fired. In that session from June of last year, the solon uncorked a long string of familiar howlers about the Social Security system. As we noted last year, he ticked off all the golden oldiesthe claim that Social Security will go broke in 2037; the claim that no one is talking about cuts to the program; the claim that the systems trust fund is just a bunch of IOUs. There was more: When I was your age, there were sixteen people paying into the system and one taking out, and today there are three people paying into the system and one taking out, Simpson said, in a tribute to the favorite (misleading) talking-point of the late elite kingpin, Tim Russert. Needless to say, he quickly recited the famous old howler about the way the systems developers had set the retirement age at 65 because they thought you would die at 57 Now the life expectancy is 78, whatever it is, and so we have to adjust that and make it work for the future people like you in the United States.
Simpsons session with Lawson was truly astounding. It was those stupid statements about retirement age and life expectancy to which he returned this week.
Go ahead! Read that HOWLER from last September. Better read, read the transcript of Simpsons interview with Lawson. If we take Simpsons statements at face value, that interview showed that Simpson knows almost nothing about the Social Security system. But people! So what? Who cared?
Did anyone in the mainstream press corps react to Simpsons gong-show last year? If they did, they did so quietly. Indeed, weve seen many liberals slam Simpson for this weeks ridiculous session with Grim. But we have seen no one recall last years disaster, an interview which was widely ignored by various mainstream elites.
Simple story: There is no expectation of competence for our major elites. There is no sanctionnone at allfor complete, astonishing ignorance. (Beyond that, there is no expectation of even modestly honest behavior.) Elites like Simpson are allowed to blunder ahead, even after theyve made it clear that they (apparently) have no idea what theyre actually doing.
This is a form of professional courtesy. This norm has obtained among our elites for a very long time now. Krugman described this banana republic-style culture quite accurately. The K-man was right on the mark.
We will only add one point: This gong-show culture plainly obtains within the liberal world too.
Krugmans description is right on target. Among members of the policy eliteamong our self-appointed wise men, officials, and pundits in good standingthere is absolutely no sanction for being disastrously wrong. Clueless elites are allowed to retain high position no matter how often they bungle and fail. As Krugman notes, they even get to make up stories about their bunglesbogus tales which reinvent the disasters they themselves made.
Through this highly permissive system, these elites are allowed to stay in power. They get to create more disasters.
Sadly, that is precisely the way we liberals now run our own burgeoning world! In large part, were in the disastrous shape were in because of the gruesome past failures of our own liberal/progressive elites. One major example among many: They failed us completely in the Clinton/Gore years, never more so than in the twenty months of Campaign 2000. Many of our current liberal leaders worked quite actively to take out Candidate Gore. (Huffington, Matthews, Rich, ODonnell and a string of others.) Most of our other liberal leaders agreed to look away. Joan Walsh would be our current ranking example, although there any many others. By the way: Did we spot Joan chuckling with Chris on Hardball just last night?
Today, these tools remain in power; they continue to sit at the top of our burgeoning liberal culture. No one has ever asked them why they behaved as they did in the past. If we think they behaved in good faith, this means their judgment is simply awful. In many cases, they didnt behave in good faith, ofcourse. And of course, they quickly started making up stories about what happened to Clinton, then Gore.
These are inept, dishonest players. Their judgment is bad; their morals are worse. But so what? We liberals continue to follow these leaders! In the same pattern Krugman described, they survive, to mislead us again.
Might we adapt Krugmans language here? We need to place the blame where it belongs, to chasten our [liberal] elites. Otherwise, theyll do even more damage in the years ahead.
That will never happen, of course; as it turns out, we liberals are basically ditto-heads too. But that would be very sound advice. Its advice that wont be taken.
Three cheers for Ryan Grim: By the way, three cheers for Ryan Grim, who conducted the recent session with Simpson. Grim did something thats very unusual: He heard Simpson make a deeply stupid statement, then called him up to ask him about it. A remarkable interview ensuedan interview which will have no consequence in the real world.