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BRUNI AGONISTES! The New York Times’ newest op-ed star was troubled by Bristol’s new jaw: // link // print // previous // next //

Learning to hate the other tribe/Fourth of July edition: In June, Marist conducted an information survey concerning the Fourth of July.

Respondents were asked two questions. Here they are:

Questions asked in the Marist survey:
“On July 4th we celebrate Independence Day. From which country did the United States win its independence?”

“In which year did the United States declare its independence?”

These were open-ended questions. Respondents were required to volunteer answers. No possible answers were provided.

As is always the case in such matters, the public’s knowledge was less than perfect. Only 76 percent of respondents named Great Britain as the country from which we won independence. Only 58 percent named 1776 as the year independence was declared.

(Presumably, Marist accepted “England” as a correct answer to that first question. But in typical expert fashion, Marist didn’t clarify this point in its press release on the survey. For the full press release, with all Marist data, just click this.)

On July 3, Steve Benen discussed the Marist survey. After quoting the press release giving the survey’s results, Benen offered his thoughts about the survey’s “internals.” Skillfully, he helped liberal readers learn to deride The Other:

BENEN (7/3/11): Taking a look at the internals, a couple of other angles stand out. For one thing, there’s a noticeable regional difference—Americans living in the South did noticeably worse than everyone else in both questions.

There are also age differences—on both questions, the younger the respondent, the more likely he/she was to be wrong. Here’s hoping wisdom comes with age.

Steve said he hopes wisdom comes with age. Perhaps he was being ironic.

How did Steve interpret the data? After quoting Marist’s basic findings, he quickly cited “a noticeable regional difference,” with the South doing “noticeably worse than everyone else in both questions.” In this way, Steve helped liberal readers enjoy a favorite habit—mocking the dumb-ass ways of the red-state South.

Sorry. Steve was basically playing you again, as he sometimes does. In fact, the differences are fairly small among the four regions identified in the data, although the South scored lowest on both questions.

Where does a much larger difference occur? Being a party-line man, Steve would never tell you. But a much larger difference occurs when Marist breaks the data down by race (white versus non-white), as you will quickly see if you review “the internals.” Example: 67 percent of whites got the year of independence right, versus 39 percent of non-whites. This 28-point difference dwarfs the difference between the score of the South and the scores of the other regions.

By the way: Are we aware that the South has a larger non-white population than higher-scoring regions?

Given the sweep of American history, it shouldn’t come as a giant surprise that whites did better with these questions than non-whites did. Nor should it come as a giant surprise when Benen spins readers the way he does. How were readers supposed to react to his remarkably selective presentation of “the internals?” In comments, one of Benen’s misled readers barked out a preferred party-line:

COMMENTER: “There's a noticeable regional difference—Americans living in the South did noticeably worse than everyone else in both questions.”

Why I'm shocked, SHOCKED, that the heavily RightWing South is so extremely ignorant.

Sad. In fact, there is no evidence in the Marist data that the “right-wing (i.e., white or conservative or Republican) South” proved any more ignorant than anyone else about this historical topic. But so what? This commenter greedily swallowed the bait his affable host had served.

Did Steve intend for readers to have this sort of reaction? We don’t know. But here’s how he ended his post:

BENEN (continuing directly from above): Rick Santorum recently argued the public’s limited historical knowledge is the result of a liberal conspiracy—apparently, ignorance will help lefties “impose…new values” on the country”—but under the circumstances, it appears we’d be much better off if Americans simply ignored the historical recollections of people like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin.

In the past month, Bachman and Palin have made some historical misstatements. But there is no sign in the Marist data that Republicans did worse on these measures than we brilliant Democrats did. We’d guess that they probably did better, though Marist didn’t keep track.

Let’s repeat: Given the sweep of American history, it shouldn’t come as a giant surprise that whites did better with these questions than non-whites did. (Presumably, this may also be a reflection of more recent immigration patterns.) But might we make a further note about Benen’s work? Like many assembly-line pseudo-liberals, he rarely stoops to discuss the public education issues which are suggested by data like these. In fact, Benen almost never discusses public school topics at all. In the pseudo-liberal coalition his type has assembled, black and brown children no longer count. They simply aren’t one of the groups we discuss. As far as we pseudo-libs seem to care, they can go hang in the yard.

Are southern Republicans dumber than northeastern Democrats on the measures surveyed by Marist? There is no indication of that in the data. But so what? We pseudos just want to have fun!

Remember: “Divide and conquer” is an oligarch strategy. In the long run, it stands in the way of progressive advance; it keeps average people in the two tribes from seeing their common situation. But it also provides a lot of good fun for those who enjoy tribal politics.

Rush and Sean have always played it this way. How quickly our tribe moved to ape them once we emerged from the woods!

Special report: Sargent’s portrait!

PART 1—BRUNI AGONISTES (permalink): Last Saturday, a letter to the Washington Post critiqued the paper’s editorial judgment. The Post is focusing on the wrong things, a distant reader said:

LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (7/2/11): Bernie, Not Bachmann

On Monday, Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), gave a 90-minute dissertation on ways to negotiate the debt ceiling on the Senate floor. Not one word on your front page. Instead readers got a photo of Michele Bachmann, who will probably not win the GOP presidential nomination and certainly won't be president. What is the matter with The Post? Your front page amounts to the adoration of political clowns instead of serious politicians who are interested in helping with the serious problems facing us all.

S. R., Point Roberts, Wash.

Did the Post err in offering front-page coverage of Bachmann’s official kick-off event? Not necessarily, no. (To view the paper’s front-page lay-out that day, click this.) But the Washington Post, like the New York Times, has made little extended attempt to explain the complexities of our budget situation.

Sanders’ ideas have been ignored, but then again, so have everyone else’s. To all intents and purposes, it’s impossible for citizens to be well-informed about our most basic policy issues.

In large part, this situation reflects the sad, silly culture of our “mainstream press corps.” How ridiculous is the well-entrenched culture of this pitiful “D-plus elite?” On Sunday, an opinion piece in the New York Times helped us take the group’s measure.

People! At long last, Frank Bruni is back, offering his deathless insights on American politics! Late in May, Jeremy Peters broke the news in a New York Times news report. “Frank Bruni, whose writing career at The New York Times has spanned two presidential campaigns, part of a papacy and more than five years as chief restaurant critic, has been named an Op-Ed columnist,” Peters wrote. Eventually, Peters quoted the “full memo” from Andrew Rosenthal, the paper’s op-ed editor.

Rosenthal was very excited to report Bruni’s return:

ROSENTHAL (5/24/11): I am very excited to announce today that Frank Bruni has agreed to join the ranks of Times Op-Ed columnists. Frank will be, first off, writing the Page 2 column in the remake of the Week in Review.

This column, which will be a new anchor feature of the section, will be a sharp, opinionated look at a big event of the last week, from a different or unexpected angle, or a small event that was really important but everyone seems to have missed, or something entirely different. It will fast become a destination for our readers with Frank at the keyboard.

Frank also will be writing a regular Op-Ed column in our print pages and online, most likely on Thursdays. He is a net addition to our lineup, not a replacement for anyone or anything.

Frank needs no introduction. His work as a political writer, a foreign correspondent, food critic and magazine writer for the Times have been popular with our readers for almost 16 years.

His first column will appear in the first edition of the new section, unless, of course, he decides to write sooner.

Bruni “needs no introduction,” Rosenthal declared. We beg to differ, though only a tad. But first, let’s review Bruni’s column from this Sunday—the second column he has written for his newspaper’s new Sunday section.

Change is everywhere at the Times! The old Sunday section was “Week in Review.” Now, the section is “Sunday Review.” That said, can we talk?

Your nation is sliding into the sea. Its economy is in extremely bad shape; its politics is even worse. Potentially disastrous decisions face us in just the next several weeks. But people! So what?

Given a highly visible platform in the Sunday New York Times, what topic did Bruni choose to discuss? The fact that our presidential candidates sometimes mention their children in public! Presumably, this was, in Rosenthal’s language, “a small event that was really important but everyone seems to have missed.” (Or maybe it was “something entirely different.”) But Bruni was deeply concerned by this problem. Here’s the way he started:

BRUNI (7/3/11): Time for Oratorical Contraception

Elections routinely start with candidates' pledging more debates than they'll ever really consent to, committing to a positivity that sours faster than unrefrigerated milk and promising to listen as much as they talk, a congenital impossibility.

For the 2012 presidential race, I'd like them to make a different vow—and actually keep it.

How about everyone's agreeing to shut up about their kids?

As he continued, Bruni discussed the various acts which had him so upset. When Michelle Obama went to South Africa, she took her daughters with her—and even let them be videotaped reading a book at one point! (Perhaps she should place them in purdah.) And not only that! When Jon Huntsman announced he was running for president, six of his children were present as well! Indeed, quite a few Republican candidates have offended Bruni this way:

BRUNI: At least the president shows more restraint than many of his Republican challengers, who used the opening minutes of their presidential debate a few weeks ago to engage in a kind of reproductive arms race, each of them one-upping the other on the fecundity front.

Rick Santorum mentioned his seven children. Michele Bachmann followed up by plugging her five children and her 23 foster kids, making the latter sound like permanent charges rather than the temporary lodgers they were. Mitt Romney ticked off five sons, five daughters-in-law and, lest he let Bachmann lap him, 16 grandchildren.

Then Ron Paul outpaced them all. Instead of giving a count of his own kids (five), he tallied roughly 4,000 lives that he, as a physician, had helped usher into the world. Go, babies, go.

Jon Huntsman wasn't on hand, but a week later he answered his rivals' verbal ploys with a visual one. He and his wife rounded up six of their seven children for an endless trek across a verdant lawn to the podium set up for his presidential announcement. As the Huntsmans marched in a photogenic phalanx, each step was like a mantra: family man, family man, family man.

“Rick Santorum mentioned his seven children!” To Bruni, this was part of the week’s most significant topic. And needless to say, it had to happen! Before he was done, Bruni was chiding Bristol Palin for “hav[ing] surgery to reshape her jaw.”

Bristol did this “for medical reasons, she contends.” So the thoughtful analyst wrote, letting us know he’s not certain.

Columnist Bruni needs no introduction, Rosenthal said in his memo. Indeed: If you followed Bruni’s coverage of Campaign 2000, when he was the Times’ Bush correspondent, you weren’t surprised by the fatuous topic which had him worked up this week.

For the most part, Bruni’s reporting on Candidate Bush tended toward silly and facile. (He also displayed a strong instinct to fawn. And to withhold unflattering news until he wrote his campaign book, well after the election was over.) Who can forget the thoughtful way he opened a lengthy news report early in the New Hampshire primary?

BRUNI (9/14/99): When Gov. George W. Bush of Texas first hit the Presidential campaign trail in June, he wore monogrammed cowboy boots, the perfect accessory for his folksy affability and casual self-assurance.

But when he visited New Hampshire early last week, he was shod in a pair of conservative, shiny black loafers that seemed to reflect more than the pants cuffs above them. They suggested an impulse by Mr. Bush to put at least a bit of a damper on his brash irreverence, which has earned him affection but is a less certain invitation for respect.

Reporter Bruni drew plenty of meaning from Bush’s shiny black loafers this day. Similar nonsense became his trademark as the campaign unfolded.

You can’t really blame this on Bruni. By the time of Campaign 2000, the mainstream press corps was thoroughly steeped in an utterly fatuous culture. Bruni served this culture quite well. But the culture belonged to his “D-plus elite.” It wasn’t Bruni’s invention.

In May, Rosenthal told the world how excited he was by Bruni’s return. In recent years, Bruni has been his newspaper’s chief restaurant critic. Now, he would return to more seminal topics.

Or would he?

On Sunday, Bruni gave us a look at the fatuous soul of a destructive D-plus elite. Please remember the context here. You yourself may have been annoyed at some point by the way politicians display their kids. But Bruni was given a chance to address the world on any possible topic—and he chose to ponder this trivial topic above all the rest.

Greg Sargent did a good job last week describing the culture of the upper-class press corps. For the rest of the week, let’s ask ourselves two basic questions:

How did press corps culture descend to this point? And why do so few liberals notice?

Tomorrow: Sargent’s portrait