BIGGEST PROBLEM! The biggest problem with Wendy Kopp involves a key wordinfluential: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, JULY 16, 2008
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:
That may be how the Rolling Stone interview wentthough Dowd has been known to imagine. But on a day when Dowd is worried that we cant kill time making fun of Obama, well only note that Rolling Stone didnt 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 covers wondrous parody. Inside her thin brain, it was just a jokea joke like any other:
To Dowd, the current flap suggests the idea that you cant make jokes about Obamano distinctions offered. Her column never considers the possibility that some jokes may be less equal than othersa 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 Carters front-page piece in Tuesdays Times, in which he examined that question. As we read it, we noted, without surprise, that Bill Maher isnt having that problem. But then, Bill isnt a dope:
Alas, poor Kimmel! But few would complain about Mahers joke, for fairly obvious reasons. It isnt stupid; it isnt nasty; and it doesnt traffic in viral themes involving age-old, destructive fantasies concerning race and religion. It was perfectly clear where the joke was directedwhich isnt the case with the New Yorker cover. For unknown reasons, Kimmel thinks you cant joke about Obama because hes half-white. Maybe you just cant do certain jokesthe 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:
It doesnt seem to occur to Dowd that it might be desirable if Obama, or some other candidate (including McCain), isnt flayed by the sort of ridicule that diminished Dukakis, Gore and Kerry. Theres no easy comedic take on Obama? It doesnt 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 nightand 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, theyve churned those easy takes because theyre so farking stupid.
For years, Dowd has been at the heart of this dim-witted culture. Dim-wittedand deeply destructive.
We all understand the easy takes that were churned about Kerry and Gore. Such easy takes are replacements for thoughtand theyre vehicles by which the Dowds convey their fatuous, treasured Group Judgments. Pseudo-journos adore their useand 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 Posts front pagea report in which he repeated an error the Post had committed, at Quayles expense, and then had corrected, some years before? (Eager to prove how dumb Quayle was, Von Drehle made a groaning error himselfin 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 Gores Christmas card shows how phony he is! Yes, Al Kamen wrote that. Christmas Eve morning, 1999.
Our discourse has thus been damagedjust this side of destroyedby 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 doesnt 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 candidates Christmas card revealed him as a big phony.
The role of limits: In that Rolling Stone interview, Stewart told Dowd that there are limitsthat 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:
In that passage, Stewart mentions exploitation, denigration, offense. Thats 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 dont majorly get it: Dowd is one of the press corps most fatuous. Timothy Egan quite plainly is not. But in this mornings New York Times, he too discusses the New Yorker coverand his analysis could have come from The Onion. Truly, this is amazing:
Truly, thats amazing. Three problems:
First, note the way we gather our evidence. Egan reaches a sweeping judgmentbased on an estimate one person gives him. How does he know there isnt a problem? Simple. Land Tawney said!
Second, lets 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 Egans 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 Montanaalong with the rest of humanity. We marveled at this part of Egans column. In our view, they completely dont get it:
Only in the New York Times! Tawney, reciting the last easy take,assures us that the new one wont matter! Kerry, like Gore, was just a big fake, a Montanan quickly volunteered.
Today, the biggest problem:
EPILOGBIGGEST 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:
Does Teach for America have the potential to end educational inequity? Kopp said she truly believes it doesand she thinks her programs 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. Lets review some basic ideas from this past weeks series:
Once these basics are understood, the Charlie Rose program of July 1 starts resembling an act of consumer fraud. You cant display pictures of Cadillacs if youre 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 Roses performance was inexcusable. You cant let a CEO come on your show and rattle off unsupportable anecdotes about the transformative brilliance of her program. You cant ignore a raft of studies which contradict the portrait being aired. But Wendy Kopp is a Manhattan darlingand her claims routinely get treated this way. Rose failed to serve viewersand the public at largewhen he rolled over for Kopp.
The biggest problem with this show will be discussed at the end of this post. First, lets 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, heres what she said:
Some kids do face some or all of those challenges. But Kopp is being a bit polite herein 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 doesnt mean they dont come from a loving home (though some kids dont). But loving parents from low-literacy backgrounds cant pass on what they dont havewhat they may not understand. In one part of his report, the scribe gave a little Tough talk:
Such circumstances help explain why deserving children may be far behind on the day they enter kindergartenor, perhaps, on the day they begin a high-quality pre-school program. If we listed the reasons why deserving, low-income kids often struggle, wed be inclined to start right here. After that, wed start looking for ways to address this problem. How is William Raspberrys 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 Kopps language:
In our view, thats a somewhat odd list. Were 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 wouldnt happenso 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 dont seem to have found them in high numbers inside TFA. In our view, its 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 dont know, but well 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:
As weve noted, the academic studies dont seem to show that low-income kids do very, very well whenever theyre super-lucky enough to encounter Kopps program. The next time Kopp says such things on TV, we hope shell 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 didnt find that our students lacked motivation (though some students do); we didnt find that their parents didnt care (though some parents dont). But that doesnt mean that children from low-literacy backgrounds are just like children from the professional classes. Through no fault of their ownthrough no fault of their parentslow-income kid are often far behind by their early years. Kopps polite talk and magical thinking cant 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 bulletsthat there is no magic to this. Why odd? Because its hard to recall when someone has seemed so devoted to magical thinking! In Kopp World, the magic seems to be Kopp herselfKopp herself, and her magical acolytes. Just sign them up, and the magic begins! In this passage, Kopp rejects the work of districts which havent made use of such magic:
Kopp isnt happy with that marginal progressand she shouldnt be. But uh-oh! When Time magazine recently sanctified Kopp, it cited that 2004 study by Mathematic Policy Research as its evidence that Kopps idea is working. But what did that MPR study find? It found that TFA made no difference when it came to readingand 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. Kopps non-answer answers were bad beyond badand 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 classroomsunsurprising, since shes never taught. She keeps making grandiose claims for her programclaims the studies dont 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. Theyve 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 arent 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. Theyve 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! Kopps just the latest pseudo-influentialthe latest music man.
The problem lies in Kopps most influential status. As long as we pretend she knows what to do, others wont bother to search.