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BIGGEST PROBLEM! The biggest problem with Wendy Kopp involves a key word—“influential:” // link // print // previous // next //

THE ROLE OF THE EASY TAKE: At last, we have our old Maureen back! Obama is “already in danger of seeming too prissy about food,” the high-flying fatuist tells us today, screaming and wailing from inside the walls of the sanitarium known as Versailles. And right at the start, she includes a citation of prostitutes and cocaine. People, Clark Hoyt can just go $#^% himself! We have our old Dowd back:

DOWD (7/16/08): When I interviewed Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for Rolling Stone a couple years ago, I wondered what Barack Obama would mean for them.

“It seems like a President Obama would be harder to make fun of than these guys,” I said.

“Are you kidding me?” Stewart scoffed.

Then he and Colbert both said at the same time: “His dad was a goat-herder!”

When I noted that Obama, in his memoir, had revealed that he had done some pot, booze and “maybe a little blow,” the two comedians began riffing about the dapper senator’s familiarity with drug slang.

Colbert: Wow, that’s a very street way of putting it. ‘A little blow.’

Stewart: A little bit of the white rabbit.

Colbert: ‘Yeah, I packed a cocktail straw of cocaine and had a prostitute blow it in my ear, but that is all I did. High-fivin.’ ’

Flash forward to the kerfuffle—and Obama’s icy reaction—over this week’s New Yorker cover parodying fears about the Obamas.

That may be how the Rolling Stone interview went—though Dowd has been known to imagine. But on a day when Dowd is worried that we can’t kill time making fun of Obama, we’ll only note that Rolling Stone didn’t publish the transcript that way (just click here). In Rolling Stone, this Q-and-A stopped at the goat-herder joke; the cocaine/prostitute stuff, inspired by Dowd, apparently got discarded. If the remarks in question were actually made, their dumping may reflect an editorial judgment about taste. Which leads to the current discussion.

Are grumpy Dem critics playing the priss when they knock that New Yorker cover? In this column, Dowd remains an unfailing guide to the shallows of press corps thinking. In the passage which follows, she fails to see that there might be something unwise or problematic in that cover’s wondrous parody. Inside her thin brain, it was just a joke—a joke like any other:

DOWD: Certainly, as the potential first black president, and as a contender with tender experience, Obama must feel under strain to be serious.

But he does not want the “take” on him to become that he’s so tightly wrapped, overcalculated and circumspect that he can’t even allow anyone to make jokes about him, and that his supporters are so evangelical and eager for a champion to rescue America that their response to any razzing is a sanctimonious: Don’t mess with our messiah!

If Obama keeps being stingy with his quips and smiles, and if the dominant perception of him is that you can’t make jokes about him, it might infect his campaign with an airless quality. His humorlessness could spark humor.

To Dowd, the current flap suggests the idea that “you can’t make jokes about” Obama—no distinctions offered. Her column never considers the possibility that some jokes may be less equal than others—a possibility which may have occurred to the editors of Rolling Stone. (Whatever you may think of their judgment in dumping the prostitute rap.)

Can people make jokes about Obama? Dowd refers to Bill Carter’s front-page piece in Tuesday’s Times, in which he examined that question. As we read it, we noted, without surprise, that Bill Maher isn’t having that problem. But then, Bill isn’t a dope:

CARTER (7/15/08): Jimmy Kimmel, the host of the ABC late-night talk show “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” said of Mr. Obama, “There’s a weird reverse racism going on. You can’t joke about him because he’s half-white. It’s silly. I think it’s more a problem because he’s so polished, he doesn’t seem to have any flaws.”

Mr. Maher said that being sensitive to Mr. Obama was in no way interfering with his commentary, though on HBO he has more freedom about content than other comedians. “There’s been this question about whether he’s black enough,” Mr. Maher said. “I have this joke: What does he have to do? Dunk? He bowled a 37—to me, that’s black enough.”

Mr. Kimmel said, “His ears should be the focus of the jokes.”

Alas, poor Kimmel! But few would complain about Maher’s joke, for fairly obvious reasons. It isn’t stupid; it isn’t nasty; and it doesn’t traffic in viral themes involving age-old, destructive fantasies concerning race and religion. It was perfectly clear where the joke was directed—which isn’t the case with the New Yorker cover. For unknown reasons, Kimmel thinks “you can’t joke about Obama because he’s half-white.” Maybe you just “can’t” do certain jokes—the jokes of the dim and sub-prime.

Meanwhile, back in the hall of the howling wretches, Dowd is offering further thoughts about the ways of high humor. As usual, the lady seems to write from a distant land where contemplation has been forbidden. Trust Dowd to find a kindred spirit in the half-formed complaints of poor Kimmel:

DOWD: Many of the late-night comics and their writers—nearly all white—now admit to The New York Times’s Bill Carter that because of race and because there is nothing “buffoonish” about Obama—and because many in their audiences are intoxicated by him and resistant to seeing him skewered—he has not been flayed by the sort of ridicule that diminished Dukakis, Gore and Kerry.

“There’s a weird reverse racism going on,” Jimmy Kimmel said.

Carter also observed that there’s no easy comedic “take” on Obama, “like allegations of Bill Clinton’s womanizing, or President Bush’s goofy bumbling or Al Gore’s robotic personality.”

It doesn’t seem to occur to Dowd that it might be desirable if Obama, or some other candidate (including McCain), isn’t “flayed by the sort of ridicule that diminished Dukakis, Gore and Kerry.” There’s no “easy comedic take” on Obama? It doesn’t seem to occur to Dowd that the ongoing use of “easy takes” has produced a giant problem.

Why do some late-night comics (and their writers) prefer those “easy takes?” Because of the meaning of “easy!” They have to go on the air every night—and they often have little or nothing to offer. They also want to work from premises even their least alert viewers will recognize; product marketing on TV is about entrapping the young and the feckless. In this way, they may resemble our less insightful “political” columnists. In part, our pundits have churned “easy takes” on White House candidates because they want to punish those they despise. In part, though, they’ve churned those “easy takes” because they’re so farking stupid.

For years, Dowd has been at the heart of this dim-witted culture. Dim-witted—and deeply destructive.

We all understand the “easy takes” that were churned about Kerry and Gore. Such “easy takes” are replacements for thought—and they’re vehicles by which the Dowds convey their fatuous, treasured Group Judgments. Pseudo-journos adore their use—and their use keeps undermining our discourse. For one example, consider the day in April 1999 when Dan Quayle announced his run for the White House. Was it good for America when David Von Drehle published that mocking report on the Post’s front page—a report in which he repeated an error the Post had committed, at Quayle’s expense, and then had corrected, some years before? (Eager to prove how dumb Quayle was, Von Drehle made a groaning error himself—in a front-page piece dripping with condescension. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/13/05.) Von Drehle so loved the “easy take” that he bungled his front-page reporting in service to its demands. And then, his colleagues spent the next nineteen months doing the same thing to Gore.

Al Gore’s Christmas card shows how phony he is! Yes, Al Kamen wrote that. Christmas Eve morning, 1999.

Our discourse has thus been damaged—just this side of destroyed—by the culture of the “easy take.” The world has paid a massive price for its role in Campaign 2000. Conceivably, it could get even worse if the Kimmels and Dowds decide to toy with viral themes concerning race and religion. But like so many inside palace walls, Dowd seems completely unable to understand the role of the easy take in our recent elections. She wails and brays and howls at the moon, demanding the right to her dim-witted musings. To this very day, she doesn’t seem to have devoted a thought to the question of where this has led us.

Guess what? The dead of Iraq are in the ground because of the role of those “easy takes.” Because one candidate’s Christmas card revealed him as a big phony.

The role of limits: In that Rolling Stone interview, Stewart told Dowd that there are limits—that taste and judgment play a role in what he says and does as a comedian. He also seemed to suggest that he stays away from those “easy takes:”

STEWART (10/31/06): We rarely do ad hominem attacks. There's the occasional one—Cheney, I guess we do a little bit. But in general it's based in frustration over reality. We almost never do the, you know, Bush is dumb.

DOWD: So it’s impossible to go too far?

STEWART: No, too far is different for every person. I would hope that my sense of humanity prevents me from saying things that are exploitative or so denigrating and derogatory as to be offensive.

In that passage, Stewart mentions exploitation, denigration, offense. That’s somewhat different from the problem that arises when we traffic in viral themes. But it starts to get in the same ball park.

Even the bright ones don’t majorly get it: Dowd is one of the press corps’ most fatuous. Timothy Egan quite plainly is not. But in this morning’s New York Times, he too discusses the New Yorker cover—and his analysis could have come from The Onion. Truly, this is amazing:

EGAN (7/16/08): A big red-headed guy in a pickup pulling a fishing boat stopped in front of Barack Obama headquarters here—loaded for bear, as they say.

Land Tawney, a fifth-generation Montanan with a gap-toothed smile, was wearing a plaid shirt and a camouflage cap atop his head. He belongs to Sportsmen for Obama, which sounds like Facebook Users for McCain, or Linguists for Bush.

I asked him whether fellow members of the hook-and-bullet community are concerned about Obama’s race, or the depictions of him as un-American. Montana, after all, has a black population of less than one-half of one percent.

“For 95 percent of the people, it doesn’t matter or even come up,” said Tawney...“For the other 5 percent, yeah, there’s some talk.”

The furor over this week’s New Yorker cover—the satirical cartoon of Barack and Michelle Obama in Muslim and black-militant poses—boils down to this: We get it, but what will those folks in fly-over country think?

The answer is that they get it as well. Irony, it turns out, does cross the Hudson River.

Truly, that’s amazing. Three problems:

First, note the way we gather our evidence. Egan reaches a sweeping judgment—based on an estimate one person gives him. How does he know there isn’t a problem? Simple. Land Tawney said!

Second, let’s suppose Tawney is right. Given the way our recent elections have worked, five percent is a very large number!

Third, note the instant, invidious framing. In Egan’s construction, the current complaint involves a bunch of swells looking down on people in “fly-over country.” But viral themes are active everywhere. Who singled out Montana?

Final note: The “easy take” does affect Montana—along with the rest of humanity. We marveled at this part of Egan’s column. In our view, they completely don’t get it:

EGAN: “There’s a lot of talk about Obama and guns, and—I’ll be honest with you—a lot of fear,” said Tawney. “But at least he’s not trying to fake it. Not like John Kerry with a dead goose over his shoulder and new hunting outfit one month before the election.”

Only in the New York Times! Tawney, reciting the last “easy take,”assures us that the new one won’t matter! Kerry, like Gore, was just a big fake, a Montanan quickly volunteered.

Special report: Worst interview ever?

ENJOY EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT: Charlie Rose and Wendy Kopp may have staged the worst interview ever:

PART 1: Charlie Rose rolled over and died. Kopp seemed like a music man. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/10/08.

PART 2: Kopp told Rose some pleasing tales. But were the pleasing tales accurate? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/11/08.

PART 3: The studies say TFA ain’t all that—so Rose avoided the studies. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/14/08.

PART 4: Rose kept asking an obvious question. Kopp gave the worst answers ever. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/14/08.

Today, the biggest problem:

EPILOG—BIGGEST PROBLEM: There comes a time when you have to demand that the nonsense stop. At moments like this, Wendy Kopp comes off like a cult leader:

DILLON (6/19/08): Ms. Kopp describes Teach for America as a social movement to improve education for the poor. ''We have the potential to end educational inequity,'' she said in an interview at her headquarters in the garment district of Manhattan. ''I truly believe that.''

And she has big ambitions; she is urging alumni to run for public office, aiming to see 100 elected by 2010.

Does Teach for America “have the potential to end educational inequity?” Kopp said she truly believes it does—and she thinks her program’s alumni should now start running for office.

People are free to believe what they like, but after nineteen years in the field, the studies provide no current basis for such grandiosity. Let’s review some basic ideas from this past week’s series:

Once these basics are understood, the Charlie Rose program of July 1 starts resembling an act of consumer fraud. You can’t display pictures of Cadillacs if you’re actually selling Schwinns. In the business world, people who misrepresent their product to the extent Kopp does will sometimes end up in large trouble.

And Rose’s performance was inexcusable. You can’t let a CEO come on your show and rattle off unsupportable anecdotes about the transformative brilliance of her program. You can’t ignore a raft of studies which contradict the portrait being aired. But Wendy Kopp is a Manhattan darling—and her claims routinely get treated this way. Rose failed to serve viewers—and the public at large—when he rolled over for Kopp.

The biggest problem with this show will be discussed at the end of this post. First, let’s run through a few basic topics.

The problems kids face: At the start of the interview, Kopp listed three “extra challenges” faced by (some) low-income kids. We said we found her list somewhat selective. Once again, here’s what she said:

KOPP (7/1/08): You know, kids who are growing up in low-income communities just face extra challenges. First of all, even before they show up at the schoolhouse door, you know, anything from lack of adequate nutrition to lack of adequate health care and access to high-quality pre-school programs. So they’re facing extra challenges.

Some kids do face some or all of those challenges. But Kopp is being a bit polite here—in our view, at the expense of low-income children. Who knows? Maybe it all depends on what the meaning of “pre-school program” is. But as Paul Tough explained in his 2006 New York Times magazine piece, many kids from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds are disadvantaged by the relatively low literacy they encounter in the home (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/4/06). This doesn’t mean they don’t come from a loving home (though some kids don’t). But loving parents from low-literacy backgrounds can’t pass on what they don’t have—what they may not understand. In one part of his report, the scribe gave a little Tough talk:

TOUGH (11/26/06): Researchers began peering deep into American homes, studying up close the interactions between parents and children. The first scholars to emerge with a specific culprit in hand were Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, child psychologists at the University of Kansas, who in 1995 published the results of an intensive research project on language acquisition...They found, first, that vocabulary growth differed sharply by [social] class and that the gap between the classes opened early. By age 3, children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children whose parents were on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words. The children's I.Q.'s correlated closely to their vocabularies. The average I.Q. among the professional children was 117, and the welfare children had an average I.Q. of 79.

Such circumstances help explain why deserving children may be far “behind” on the day they enter kindergarten—or, perhaps, on the day they begin a “high-quality pre-school program.” If we listed the reasons why deserving, low-income kids often struggle, we’d be inclined to start right here. After that, we’d start looking for ways to address this problem. How is William Raspberry’s program doing? For a refresher, just click here.)

About those infernal lists: On Charlie Rose, Kopp was quickly bragging and boasting about her young charges’ superior insights. Good lord, those kids are sharp! As we noted last week, this is their list of the reasons “why we have low educational outcomes in low-income communities,” to use Kopp’s language:

What TFA alumni think is the problem:
1) Teacher quality
2) Principal quality
3) Academic expectations for kids

In our view, that’s a somewhat odd list. We’re not even sure what it means.

What does it mean when we list “teacher quality” as the number-one reason for “low educational outcomes in low-income schools?” Does it mean this: If you switched the faculties between two schools (low-scoring inner-city; high-scoring suburban), the low-income school would now get the high test scores? Everyone knows that wouldn’t happen—so what exactly does this list mean? We can all imagine superior teachers who could magically transform struggling classrooms; indeed, Kopp seem to imagine such teachers every time she goes on TV. But academic studies don’t seem to have found them in high numbers inside TFA. In our view, it’s time to stop pretending they exist in the types of numbers that would be needed to address the problem we face.

Can we talk: Why does Kopp present a selective list? We don’t know, but we’ll offer a guess. Consider this passage from her session with Rose. She discusses what would happen if people thought low-income kids and their parents were the cause of the problem:

KOPP: I do think there’s a shared understanding at some level that we need to improve public education. I guess the question is whether we truly believe as a country that we can in fact solve the problem.

ROSE: Why would we think we couldn’t?

KOPP: I guess I wonder whether we do. I mean, when we think about the Gallup poll that we talked about earlier, and we realize that in general, you know, our—the public believes we have the problem because of, because the kids lack motivation and the families don’t care. At some level, if that’s what you believe, you think, Well, what can we do? What will different policies and practices and priorities of the country do when the problem is with kids and families and communities? I think through our work, we just have seen so clearly, over and over, in every kind of community across the country that actually, no, when kids and families are given the opportunities they deserve, you know, they do very, very well.

As we’ve noted, the academic studies don’t seem to show that low-income kids “do very, very well” whenever they’re super-lucky enough to encounter Kopp’s program. The next time Kopp says such things on TV, we hope she’ll be asked to speak further. But please note: In the highlighted passage, Kopp says she fears that society will simply throw up its hands if it comes to believe that “the problem is with kids and families and communities.” Does this help explain the way she parcels out explanations? When we taught here in Baltimore, we didn’t find that our students lacked motivation (though some students do); we didn’t find that their parents didn’t care (though some parents don’t). But that doesn’t mean that children from low-literacy backgrounds are just like children from the professional classes. Through no “fault” of their own—through no “fault” of their parents—low-income kid are often far “behind” by their early years. Kopp’s polite talk and magical thinking can’t make that critical fact go away. Though it might make her listeners feel very high-minded.

Magical thinking: It was odd to see Kopp spend so much time telling Rose that there are no “easy answers” or “silver bullets”—that there is “no magic to this.” Why odd? Because it’s hard to recall when someone has seemed so devoted to magical thinking! In Kopp World, the magic seems to be Kopp herself—Kopp herself, and her magical acolytes. Just sign them up, and the magic begins! In this passage, Kopp rejects the work of districts which haven’t made use of such magic:

KOPP: Ultimately, we see our districts making marginal progress, you know, a percentage or two in terms of looking at student outcome data, progress in some places. Yet that`s not the kind of—when you think about kids moving from the 32nd percentile against the national norm to the 33rd percentile against the national norm, that’s not progress that’s transformative for kids.

Kopp isn’t happy with that marginal progress—and she shouldn’t be. But uh-oh! When Time magazine recently sanctified Kopp, it cited that 2004 study by Mathematic Policy Research as its evidence that “Kopp’s idea is working.” But what did that MPR study find? It found that TFA made no difference when it came to reading—and that TFA teachers had moved their kids from the 14th percentile to the 17th percentile in math. BTD! Big transformative deal!

The biggest problem: This may have been the worst interview ever. Kopp’s non-answer answers were bad beyond bad—and Rose completely failed to perform. But the biggest problem with this show involves two words: “most influential.”

Has anyone ever pimped “easy answers” in the ridiculous way Kopp does? She seems to know nothing about low-income classrooms—unsurprising, since she’s never taught. She keeps making grandiose claims for her program—claims the studies don’t seem to support. But so what? Ever since the 1960s, our elites have favored pleasing, non-answer answers to the problem of low-income schools. They’ve always loved the music men who come along with their magic solutions. This new music man is especially helpful, since her program can be used to take silly shots at teachers unions, which simply aren’t the cause of this problem. But whatever! Manhattan elites have settled on Kopp. She provides the latest version of the pleasing, high-minded tale.

Our elites have tended toward this sort of thing since (soon after) Day One. They’ve always loved the pleasing tale in which our finest children, from our finest schools, solve this nagging problem with ease. That helps explain a tragicomical fact: Our finest children have been solving this problem for the bulk of the last forty years! Kopp’s just the latest pseudo-influential—the latest music man.

The problem lies in Kopp’s “most influential” status. As long as we pretend she knows what to do, others won’t bother to search.