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HE WILL FOLLOW HIM! Bob Herbert says we should follow Bill Gates. He doesn’t say where Gates is going: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 29, 2009

Flu shots and the death of the dollar: Last night (2 AM re-airing), the analysts were reeling from Rachel Maddow’s deeply incoherent statements about Medicare. At a commercial break, they switched over to Glenn Beck, who was running a special program. “We have a very special show tonight,” he had said, early on. “We have moms from all across the country.”

Beck was running a group discussion. Almost as soon as the analysts flipped, they were treated to this:

BECK (9/28/09): Real quick—I don't want to go down this road. I just want to get a hand-raise on this answer. How many people believe that it is a real possibility that in five years, the dollar no longer exists?

That is incredible. That is incredible. Two hands. Two hands. All right. This one I want to talk about—parents losing their rights. As a dad, I have had this wrestle in my mind and I'm doing homework on it right now. I'm talking to one of the top five doctors in the world and I'm trying to find out the flu. Am I going to allow the government to give my child a flu shot?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, don't do it.

BECK: I have already made my decision, but everyone has to make their own decision. Who will allow this government to give their child—look, Jamie has all gotten— Who will allow their children to be given a flu shot by this government? What happens if they say to you, “Well, it's mandatory—you have to?”

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Take them out of school—

BECK: Well, what do you mean?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There are all sorts of mandatory shots. If your children don't have shots, they can't go to school. Forget the flu shots. There's loads of mandatory shots!

BECK: But Bonnie, haven't we changed? Haven't we— There are things we did just a few years ago, things that we—things that, you know, look, you might not have been, you know— It might have been somebody who said, "You know what? We can keep spending this way. We can afford that program."

But now, you look at things a little differently, right? Isn't it the same thing with the shots? We may have said, "Well, you know what? I want my kids to go to school" and blah, blah, blah. But have you changed? Have you crossed over a line where you're like, "No more?”

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's right!

We’re a bit confused by the “two hands” reference in the transcript. We would have thought that a lot of hands went up about the dollar’s five-year death sentence. (We can’t find tape of this exchange.) At any rate, within moments of switching over to Beck, we were exposed to two new concerns:

This brings us back to New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt, who has done a good job, overall, at that post. Our question:

Has the New York Times been slow to react to these conservative concerns?

Another question: When such unusual ideas are being pushed so widely, should a newspaper like the Times report this matter, as news?

Maddow’s work was often embarrassingly bad last night. (In her first segment, her work was quite good.) She even returned, after all this time, to her apparently bogus old claim about not owning a television! But when the analysts switched away, that transcript records what they got at Fox. The analysts thus came to us with a question:

What would a newspaper do?

Special report: You may live in an idiocracy if!

PART 2—HE WILL FOLLOW HIM: One complaint: When Mike Judge made his film, Idiocracy, he made idiocracy seem like a bad thing. Here’s the way the film is described at Wikipedia:

WIKIPEDIA: The film tells the story of two ordinary people who are taken into a top-secret military hibernation experiment that goes awry, and awaken 500 years in the future. They discover that the world has degenerated into a dystopia where advertising, commercialism and cultural anti-intellectualism run rampant and dysgenic pressure has resulted in a uniformly stupid human society devoid of individual responsibility or consequences.

Somehow, that makes it sound dirty! In fact, you may already live in an idiocracy, however much the elitists, like Judge, try talking that system down.

You may live in an idiocracy if: Your society is “hurtling toward catastrophe but nobody wants to hear about it,” the situation described by Paul Krugman is yesterday’s under-shrill column (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/28/09). And not only that:

You may live in an idiocracy if: You open your nation’s most famous newspaper and discover a column like this one.

The column to which we link today was written by Bob Herbert. It appears today in the New York Times, our most famous upper-end newspaper. Just a guess: Some people will skim Herbert’s column today and think they’ve ingested some lofty, high thoughts.

We had a different reaction.

In today’s column, Herbert pretends to write about education, a pose he adopts several times each year. As so many big pundits do, he uses the occasion as an excuse to gush about the world’s richest person, Bill Gates (so ranked by Forbes). In fact, Herbert wrote a virtual carbon copy of today’s column back in April 2008, building his piece around “a discussion over lunch” with the head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. For our discussion of that earlier column, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/22/08.

In today’s column, Herbert says that this famous, fifteen-year-old foundation is “the world’s largest philanthropic organization.” And good news! In his preparation for today’s piece, Herbert got to play groupie to Gates himself, not to some bureaucrat flunky:

HERBERT (9/29/09): A whoop went up in the classroom and the teenagers became giddy when they realized that the man and woman being escorted to the front of the room were Bill and Melinda Gates.

“Ohmigod!” shrieked one girl, her eyes and mouth wide with astonishment.

Are you the real Bill Gates?” asked another.

The Gateses were in the Algebra 1 class at West Charlotte High School (a venerable, mostly black institution that over the decades has reached academic highs and touched ignominious lows) to learn, not teach. They have been traveling the country trying to see for themselves what really works and what has gone haywire in public education in the United States.

Sometimes, top writers will invent fictional characters; these fictional characters are then used to express the writer’s own reactions. Having seen Hebert (and others) fawn to Gates down through the years, we’re not sure it wasn’t Herbert himself who shrieked, whooped and became a bit giddy when he gazed on the world’s richest man.

It certainly wasn’t Gates’ ideas which produced Herbert’s excitement. Just as he did in 2008, Herbert writes an entire column about Gates’s determination to improve education—without saying a single word about anything Gates would actually do to produce that high-minded outcome.

If we don’t yet live in an idiocracy, this column gives a rough idea of how it will feel when we do.

As he continues from the passage above, Herbert does what he typically does in such columns. He offers gloomy assessments of our educational miseries—assessments which are factually bogus. He then showers praise on Gates and Gates for their lofty determination to make things massively better. But he never says a single word about how we might make such outcomes occur. Does Bill Gates have any actual ideas about how to improve our educational outcomes? If he does, he didn’t tell Herbert—or Herbert chose not to tell us.

Go ahead! Read the whole column! See if you can find a single word about how the Gateses think we might improve our miserable situation. The Gates Foundation has focused on education for years, yet Herbert acts as if Gates and Gates were making their very first field trip. Not a single word crosses Herbert’s lips about what is correctibly wrong in our schools. Not a word crosses his lips about how we can make improvements.

We made the same critique of that April 2008 column. Herbert’s work was weirdly idiocratic then—and it’s the same way today.

Herbert is of course eager to tell us how bad our situation is. As he continues from the passage above, his offers this gloomy assessment—an assessment which is simply inaccurate:

HERBERT (continuing directly): For a country that once led the world in educating its citizens, we are now moving decidedly in the wrong direction. As Mr. Gates points out: “Our performance at every level—primary and secondary school achievement, high school graduation, college entry, college completion—is dropping against the rest of the world.”

This has consequences. As Melinda Gates notes: “America’s long history of upward mobility is in danger.”

Who knows? In context, that highlighted statement by Bill Gates may be accurate in some way. But on several basic international measures, American children have been gaining on the rest of the world in the past decade. But then, when it comes to public education, Herbert seems to have been off the planet over the past several decades. Late in his column, he offers this deeply puzzling assessment:

HERBERT: I’m not sure how or why so many Americans over the past few decades took their eyes off the critical importance of education as the pathway to personal and societal success. In their book, “The Race Between Education and Technology,” the Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz pointed out that educational attainment in the U.S. “was exceptionally rapid and continuous for the first three-quarters of the 20th century.” And then, foolishly, we applied the brakes and advancement “slowed considerably for young adults beginning in the 1970s and for the overall labor force by the early 1980s.”

As with Gates, so with Goldin and Katz: In context, their quoted statement may make perfect sense of some sort. But Herbert starts with a truly weird claim: He somehow believes that “many Americans over the past few decades took their eyes off the critical importance of education as the pathway to personal and societal success.” Can we talk? Public education has been debated exceptionally widely in the past few decades, going back to the “education summit” headlined by President George H. W. Bush and then-Governor Bill Clinton in September 1989. In our view, the approaches which have predominated during this period have been picked from a rather thin pallette. But education has been widely discussed over the past several decades. And during that period, American achievement levels seem to have risen, on both domestic and international measures.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t have problems—giant problems, in fact. As far as we know, the statistics in this passage are accurate:

HERBERT: Visiting classrooms is like peering into the nation’s future. Right now the view is somewhat frightening. American kids drop out of high school at an average of one every 26 seconds. Only about a third of those who graduate are prepared to move on to a four-year college. And in the savage economic downturn that has gripped the U.S. for the better part of the past two years, retrenchment in public schools and colleges is widespread.

Later, Herbert describes a more horrific situation. As usual, Melinda Gates is right there, holding a hanky and offering fatuous words:

HERBERT: But the many challenges will have to be met and overcome if the U.S. is to maintain a successful society. The American work force is becoming increasingly black and Hispanic, and a two-year or four-year college credential has become a prerequisite to a middle-class standard of living. With that in mind, it’s not difficult to see how disastrous it is to have nearly 50 percent of minority kids dropping out of school before they even get a high school diploma.

“It is so important,” said Melinda Gates, “to get all of the children educated.”

The Gateses are committed, but they need so many more to follow their lead.

You might want to note Melinda Gates’ view: We should get all the children educated!

In this utterly silly passage, Herbert’s lips are locked on the Gates lady’s keister. But what would the Gateses actually do to lower that gruesome dropout rate? Herbert says we should “follow their lead.” But where are the Gateses going?

Go ahead! Read this column! See if you can find a single word which addresses that basic question. Bob Herbert wants us to follow Bill Gates. He forgets to say where Gates is headed.

People! You may live in an idiocracy if: Major columnists keep standing in line to kiss the ass of the world’s richest person. A few years ago, David Broder kissed that particular keister so wetly that he made the world’s most ridiculous statement: No doubt misunderstanding something some Gates aide had said, he announced that kids are dropping out of high school because they aren’t forced to read enough Plato! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/27/06.) In today’s column, Herbert avoids saying something that foolish in a famous old way; he simply avoids discussion of substance at all! He just keeps praising the Gateses’ intentions. After that, his column is done.

You may live in an idiocracy if: You open your nation’s best-known newspaper and see fawning fatuity of this order on its op-ed page—repeatedly.