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GIDGET GOES THOROUGHLY TRIBAL! Josh Marshall was very bright at the start. By now, he’s gone thoroughly tribal: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 13, 2010

Epilogue—Tom Friedman, world’s biggest fraud: It’s hard to fathom the sheer incompetence of America’s upper-end press corps—the ineptitude of its front-page reporting, the utterly Potemkin pretentions of its most famous pundits.

When it comes to hapless front-page reporting, consider something which appeared in Saturday’s Washington Post.

A hapless reporter named Aaron Davis wrote a front-page news report about the Maryland gubernatorial race—a report which focused on the performance of Maryland’s schools under Governor Martin O’Malley, who is seeking re-election. (This is a local story for the Post, which serves local readers in Virginia and Maryland as well as those in the District.) In paragraph 4, on the Post’s front page, Davis typed a peculiar statement:

DAVIS (9/11/10): Educators agree that on the whole, Maryland has some of the best-performing schools in the country, even as closing the achievement gap between traditionally better ones in such areas as Montgomery County and those in poorer areas of Baltimore and Prince George's County remains a major challenge. But how highly they place among top-tier states depends on which expert is asked and what measurement is cited.

Much of the basis for Maryland's No. 1 rank rests in a score of a B+, graded on a curve in a national education magazine. By other measures, including raising test scores in failing schools, it's in the middle of the pack. On a closely watched eighth-grade math score, Maryland ranks last among the 50 states.

Say what? “On a closely watched eighth-grade math score, Maryland ranks last among the 50 states?” Anyone with an ounce of knowledge about Maryland’s schools would know how peculiar that statement was. In fact, when it came to average score, Maryland ranked twelfth among the fifty states on the math test in question, the 2009 test by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But there the peculiar statement sat, right on the Washington Post’s front page, part of the paper’s attempt to help Maryland readers evaluate the race for governor.

More on that peculiar statement below. First, let’s note the latest clowning by Thomas Friedman, who may be the world’s the biggest fraud.

In Sunday’s New York Times, Friedman was talking about the nation’s schools again, a subject on which he knows nothing. Well—he does know his cohort’s Standard Accepted Group Narratives! Since Robert Samuelson had recently voiced one official narrative, Friedman went there too.

What follows is complete utter nonsense—a journalistic and moral disgrace. If you lived in a serious nation (you don’t), serious people would pelt Friedman with rotten grapes when he tried to walk in the streets:

FRIEDMAN (9/12/10): I want to share a couple of articles I recently came across that, I believe, speak to the core of what ails America today but is too little discussed. The first was in Newsweek under the ironic headline “We’re No. 11!” …

The second piece, which could have been called “Why We’re No. 11,” was by the Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson. Why, he asked, have we spent so much money on school reform in America and have so little to show for it in terms of scalable solutions that produce better student test scores? Maybe, he answered, it is not just because of bad teachers, weak principals or selfish unions.

“The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation,” wrote Samuelson. “Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a ‘good’ college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school ‘reform’ is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers.” Wrong, he said. “Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited ‘student apathy.’ ”

There is a lot to Samuelson’s point—and it is a microcosm of a larger problem we have not faced honestly as we have dug out of this recession: We had a values breakdown—a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism.

Friedman’s claims are unspeakably vile. They will be opposed by no liberals.

Friedman is a thorough Potemkin—a man who parades about repeating the claims of his journalistic elite, even on topics like this topic, about which he seems to know nothing. (In this case, Friedman is also vouching for Samuelson, an utterly sour-and-dour—and dishonest—“conservative.”) According to Friedman, we have spent “[oodles of] money on school reform in America,” and yet we have “little to show for it in terms of scalable solutions that produce better student test scores.” Friedman then agrees with Samuelson about the causes of this problem, not failing to mention our “bad teachers,” our “weak principals” and our “selfish unions.”

Friedman had tickled every key that Modern Power loves. But there was another cause of our crummy test scores—the “values breakdown” among American kids! These are kids “of all races and economic classes,” Friedman notes, lest you think that he’s trashing our lazy and worthless black kids—and our Hispanic kids too.

In fact, as we have spent weeks noting, we have seen massively “better student tests scores” over the past dozen years. Almost surely, Friedman doesn’t know this; he doesn’t know this because he has never looked at the data himself, and because he keeps reading disinformation from loathsome people like Samuelson. Of course, he has read the same disinformation peddled by people like Diane Ravitch—even in journals like the Nation! Almost surely, Friedman believes that we have failed to “produce better student test scores.”

In that belief, he is baldly mistaken. That said, you can stake your life on one sure thing—he has never lifted a finger to examine the data himself.

To recall the facts about improved scores, just see last Friday’s post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/10/10). But alas! Two days after we printed that data-filled post, Friedman’s column appeared in the Times—and massively disinformed the nation again. So it goes in your clown-like nation, with its parade of Potemkin columnists.

Friedman should be reviled when he attempts to walk in the streets. But he won’t be, in large part for these reasons:

Liberals simply don’t care about black kids. We quit on such kids several decades ago. Today, we mainly enjoy bashing Bush. This requires us to pretend that those large score gains don’t exist.

No liberal will challenge what Friedman wrote. Joan Walsh won’t open her big fat trap; you’ll hear no complaint on your “liberal” channel. Big Ed’s buttons won’t be firing.

Aren’t modern “liberals” grand?

About that 2009 math test: “On a closely watched eighth-grade math score, Maryland ranks last among the 50 states?” Why in the world did the Washington Post print such a peculiar statement—on its front page, no less? More to the point, what in the world could reporter Aaron Davis have meant by that puzzling statement? Readers got their first hint in paragraph 11 of Davis’ piece (click here). But it wasn’t until paragraph 19 (out of 26) that Davis semi-explained what his peculiar statement meant. Even then, he chose to repeat his original misleading statement:

DAVIS: In a new "math progress index" published this year along with its state rankings, Education Week, in fact, ranked Maryland 50th in one category: the poverty gap in eighth-grade test scores. Maryland's longtime state superintendent of schools, Nancy S. Grasmick, said she is well aware that there is still room for improvement. But she was comfortable calling Maryland No. 1 despite the last-place finish in eighth-grade math scores.

According to Davis, Maryland ranked 50th in the eighth-grade math test in a category called “the poverty gap.” Davis didn’t bother explaining, so we will: This is a measure of the achievement gap between a state’s low-income students (those who are eligible for the national school lunch program) and the rest of its students. But even here, Davis again referred to Maryland’s “last-place finish in eighth-grade math scores,” a call-back to the vastly misleading statement which had appeared on the Post’s front page.

In fact, that front-page statement was simply inaccurate. Was Maryland really 50th on the poverty gap on this eighth-grade math test? Yes, but it was 50th out of 51 (including DC); the state of Connecticut had a larger “poverty gap” on this particular test. (As such, the statement on the Post’s front page is just factually wrong.) And by the way: Davis didn’t bother explaining, but Maryland’s low-income eighth-graders actually scored higher on this test, on average, than the nation’s low-income eighth-graders as a whole. The “gap” occurred because the rest of Maryland’s students outscored their peers across the nation by an even wider margin. To examine all relevant scores, go ahead—just click this.

Minor clue: This gap will often occur in higher-income states, where the state’s higher-income majority population outscores the nation by a larger margin than the state’s lower-income kids. (By definition, “low-income” kids have the same family income in every state. In higher-income states, the rest of the kids have higher average incomes than their peers nationwide.) We’ll bet the store that Davis didn’t know any of this—and neither did his hapless editors. But his formulation, on the Post’s front page, was factually wrong—and grossly misleading. Isn’t it great that the Washington Post is helping us rubes in Maryland decide how to vote for governor?

For the record: Davis’ utterly hapless presentation tilted against the incumbent Democrat, in favor of the Republican challenger. Ain’t life in Washington grand?

GIDGET GOES THOROUGHLY TRIBAL (permalink): Increasingly, contemporary politics is tribal. Here’s the bad news: As long as this situation obtains, plutocratic power will continue to consolidate its hold on our politics and our media, while two large groups of distracted haters yell insults at each other.

(One tribe will call the other “low-information bigots.” The second tribe will revile Tribe the first as a gang of “godless elitists.” With large chunks of the working- and middle-class electorate thus divided, oligarchic power will consolidate its control. Through the ages, this has had a name: “Divide and conquer.”)

In our view, this tribal politics is death for progressive objectives. Progressive reforms will never be achieved in this situation. It seems to us that savvy progressive leaders would warn against this tribal division.

That’s why we were so intrigued by several recent posts by Josh Marshall. In these posts, Josh gives us a portrait of the way a certain type of liberal “intellectual leader” may decide to go thoroughly tribal.

When Josh arrived on the Internet, he was a very bright player; he was a doctoral candidate at Brown, and he acted a good deal like same. Yes, he played it safe in 2002, hemming and hawing and seeing all sides when it came to the proposed war in Iraq. But there may have been a good reason for that! In this profile of Josh in the New York Times, Noam Cohen quoted Josh describing his career outlook in the early years of his on-line tenure:

COHEN (2/25/08): Seven years ago, Mr. Marshall was a Ph.D candidate in early American history at Brown University; the Washington editor of a liberal magazine, The American Prospect; and a new blogger. He had started the blog as an outlet for his ideas and to track the recount fight in Florida—the name came from a term bandied about during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

''If I had quickly happened into a staff position at The New Yorker, I probably wouldn't have done this,'' Mr. Marshall, 39, said of his migration to full-time online journalism.

By 2008, Josh was running a full-time site, not his original blog. But if he’d happened into a position as a career journalist, he probably wouldn’t have done that.

In other words: When Josh started his blogging, he was part of the career journalism world (through his spot at the American Prospect)—and he was still imagining the possibility of a full-time career in upper-end, established media. And can we talk? In 2002, if you wanted such a career, you tended to cast yourself as a Serious Person. You puffed on your pipe and you hemmed and you hawed. When it came to the war in Iraq, you saw all sides of Bush’s thoughtful proposal.

You weren’t sure that war was best—but you certainly saw all the angles! This may be why Josh walked such a Serious line in the months leading up to Iraq.

Today, though, all is different. At some point, Josh stopped being a blogger. Instead, he became a businessman; he now runs a silly, massively tabloidized site which panders to low-information, high-credulity liberals. Josh himself doesn’t do much writing; presumably, he’s busy running the business. (In principle, there’s nothing wrong with that.) When he does write, he often hurries back with an instant “update,” explaining what he really meant or explaining away what he said. But over the weekend, Josh offered several short posts about the Park51/Cordoba House project which struck us as very intriguing—and as rather unintelligent, unlike the kind of work he did when he first came on-line.

We thought these posts help us imagine the way a midget like Josh might decide to go thoroughly tribal.

In the first of these posts (click here), Josh volunteered two thoughtful paragraphs about Saturday’s rally in New York—the rally conducted by the crackpot Pamela Geller. Josh’s post was completely mundane, but he may have received some pushback. At any rate, he quickly hurried back on-line to offer this editor’s note:

MARSHALL (9/11/10) [ed.note: I should add that I know there are a lot of people who are against the Park51 project, by most counts a majority of the country, though I think those numbers are placed in an important context by the equally clear polling data showing that Americans overwhelmingly support the right of the builders to go ahead with it—which is key. I don't for a moment believe that all of those people are haters. I think some have just gotten a very distorted impression of what's being planned. Others know the facts but just disagree. I respect that. But the people behind this protest, this is the rancid, hating fringe. If only it were more fringe.]

Here at THE HOWLER, we tend to agree with that note, in which Josh discusses the very large number of people who say they would rather see the community center built at another location. In a typical sop to tribalists, Josh can only bring himself to say that these people aren’t all haters; he also says, completely correctly, that many people have presumably “gotten a very distorted impression of what's being planned.” (In keeping with its low-IQ, tabloidized nature, Josh’s site has made a very modest attempt to chronicle all the distortions, including the ton of disinformation aimed at Imam Rauf.) “Others know the facts but just disagree. I respect that,” Josh said, failing to explain the basis on which a well-informed non-hater might oppose the current proposed site.

This post was Typical Contemporary Josh—a hurried, utterly pointless initial statement adorned with instant hedging. But within a few hours, Josh had received an e-mail from someone who had made a less-hurried point; his reader noted “an important distinction” between “those who are directly offended by the [community center], versus those who think it is a bad idea because others are offended.” “I suspect the latter category is quite large,” Josh’s e-mailer said, referring to people who are “not personally bothered by [the proposed location], but who feel that it should be moved to spare the feelings of others.” “In that sense,” the e-mailer said, “they shouldn't really be counted as part of the majority who oppose the building—and without them, I doubt it would be a majority.”

That last suspicion may be true; we haven’t checked, but we suspect there are some polls which could shed some light on this matter. But once again, Josh leaped into action, clarifying his carelessly-rendered position once again. This time, we thought his post was remarkably clarifying. For this second post, just click here.

How does a very smart person who sold his soul end up going thoroughly tribal? We think Josh’s silly rambling helps us see how it works:

MARSHALL (9/11/10): I think I half agree with [the e-mailer]. I think they are part of the majority who oppose the building. I don't see how you get around that. But I do think it's important to note and contextualize the different sorts of opposition.

In other respects, the nature of the question (Yes! or No! in old-fashioned Crossfire or McLaughlin Group fashion) is uncomfortable and distorting. Do I support the Park51 project or oppose it? Frankly, I'd like to be able to have no opinion at all and just let it go ahead like a million others do without any input from me at all. I'd prefer to be indifferent to the project and just be among those who support the right (which one would hope would go without saying) to build it. But at some point in this madness that position simply became untenable. In a climate like this really supporting the right to build it means supporting it. So I'm for it.

Let’s paraphrase, since this post, like most of Josh’s posts, is rushed and somewhat poorly expressed.

If we understand what Josh has said, he would like to live in a world where he didn’t have to take a position on the proposed community center at all. After all, all kinds of projects get proposed, all over the country, pretty much all the time; in a normal situation, uninvolved parties don’t “take a position” on such projects. But according to Josh, that is no longer possible in this case. In the current climate, given the madness, “really supporting the right to build it means supporting it. So I'm for it,” Josh says.

Let’s paraphrase again, since Josh’s closing point is hurried and unclear: Josh seems to be saying that, in this climate, “really supporting the right to build” the community center at the proposed location means actively supporting the idea that it should be built at that location. That’s why “I’m for it,” Josh says.

What a steaming pile.

Obviously, Imam Rauf and his associates have the right to build a community center at the proposed location. But unless they’ve been thoroughly tribalized, serious people should still consider “the wisdom” (President Obama’s term) of such an idea, however they may end up deciding. If building the community center there would be very unwise for some reaosn, why in the world would Josh support such an idea? Simple! Because the other tribe is opposed to the project! Because he wants to pander to his readers, who are majorly tribal.

How big a hack is Josh? In a third, utterly worthless post, Josh notes that a well-known Muslim writer has come out in favor of building the community center at a different location. This is Josh’s complete attempt to offer his thoughts on the subject:

MARSHALL (9/12/10): Tariq Ramadan of all people says the organizers of Park51 should choose another spot to build on.

Sorry, but that’s the full post! Why does Ramadan favor a different site? What is wrong with Ramadan’s reasoning? Josh makes no attempt to say! He just tickles tribal readers with another content-free, we-all-think-the-same post.

What is wrong with Josh’s posture? How about this:

Some people think that building at the current proposed site could lead to years of cultural warfare. They think this could put the lives of Muslim-Americans at risk. They think this could undercut the vast amount of good the proposed community center could do at some other site.

If those people are right, building at the proposed location might set back the efforts of people like Imam Rauf to continue folding Muslim Americans into the broader American fabric—a very good goal. If they are right in this assessment, why would we want to go ahead with the proposed location?

Of course! For the primal reason! To defeat the other tribe!

One person with some second thoughts is, of course, Imam Rauf himself. On two major TV programs, he has now said that, if he knew the opposition the proposed site would occasion, he would have proposed a different location. In these statements, Rauf has acknowledged an obvious point—there was never any particular reason why the center had to be built at that site.

Why then does the current madness require Josh to support going ahead with construction at the proposed location? You’ll have to figure that out for yourself! Josh is to too busy—and too dishonest—to explain that in real words.

We’ll only offer one more thought about the career of Dr. King, going all the way back to the Montgomery bus boycott:

If you read Stride Toward Freedom, you will see that Dr. King endlessly deferred, on points which weren’t essential, to people who were massively wrong on the larger questions. He repeatedly deferred to leaders of Montgomery’s white community—to the mayor; to the police commissioner; to the bus company; to white business leaders. He deferred on non-essential points, even as he kept pursuing the larger goal of defeating legal segregation and “social oppression.” He didn’t choose to stand and fight every time the other tribe annoyed, offended or opposed him. He didn’t do that because he was a deeply serious person. He wasn’t a hack like Josh.

Dr. King knew that, if you fight every non-essential fight, you will likely lose out in the end, especially if you’re opposing entrenched power. And Dr. King wanted to win. He wasn’t trying to please the rubes by accepting every possible fight.

Dr. Marshall wants to win as well; he wants to win ratings from high-credulity “liberal” readers. His own book might be called Stride Toward Hackdom. A couple of tinny, too-busy-to-be-bothered chapters were recently posted on-line.