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Print view: As liberals snarked at Murray's thesis, we saw its effects all around
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DOES JUAN WILLIAMS NEED A PSYCHIATRIST! As liberals snarked at Murray’s thesis, we saw its effects all around: // link // print // previous // next //

We need to develop our language: Over the weekend, we marveled at Jonathan Alter’s hour-long chat with Dinesh D’Souza. The discussion aired on C-Span, part of the network’s In Depth series.

To watch the full session, click here.

The pair discussed D’Souza’s recent, ludicrous book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage. Alter started with an excellent question, and debated valiantly from there. Near the 45-minute mark, he did fumble badly, insisting that D’Souza had “misquoted” his own book about Obama when it seems fairly clear that this isn’t the case. But for the most part, Alter argued valiantly—and he made little real headway against D’Souza’s absurd presentations.

As we watched, we couldn’t help thinking that Alter would have benefited from the use of appropriate language.

Throughout the hour, Alter complained about the “speculations” and “suppositions” which drive D’Souza’s ludicrous book. But he never described what D’Souza has done: D’Souza has written a novel! He has taken various events from Obama’s life and turned them into a pleasing story, built around a pre-existing idea about Obama’s mental life. But that is what a novelist does. Given D’Souza’s loose standards of proof, a writer could take those same events and write the story of Obama’s life and presidency a hundred other ways.

Long ago, we noted the conduct driving the Clinton-era press corps. The mainstream press corps was “novelizing the news,” we incomparably said. In March 2000, ombudsman E. R. Shipp used similar language to describe the way her own newspaper, the Washington Post, was presenting the 2000 White House campaign. In effect, the Post was scripting a drama, Shipp wrote, in a piece titled “Typecasting Candidates.”

How was the Washington Post approaching the 2000 campaign? Shipp referred to the “roles that The Post seems to have assigned to the actors in this unfolding political drama.” She noted the way the Post was deep-sixing certain facts—and inventing some others—to maintain its preferred story-lines. In the Post’s pseudo-reporting, the various candidates—the “actors” in the paper’s “drama”—were required to conform to the “roles” they had been pre-assigned.

When they behaved in other ways, their conduct didn’t get reported! “As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys; others seem to get a free pass,” Shipp wrote, in a prescient account of the way the mainstream press would handle this whole campaign. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/7/00.)

Watching Alter debate D’Souza, we admired his attempt to undermine D’Souza’s ludicrous book—and we marveled at his lack of language. In effect, D’Souza has typecast a drama about Obama; more precisely, we’d say he has written a novel. But Alter never used any such language in his valiant, hour-long struggle. We thought his lack of effective language largely doomed his effort.

Does it matter what language we use? Yes, it actually does. Viewers should have been helped to see the essence of what D’Souza has done. In a famous 1962 book, Thomas Kuhn described this general process as the creation of a new “paradigm”—as a “paradigm shift.” Just last week, we saw Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, on a college bookstore shelf, still required after all these years.

By the late 1990s, the mainstream press corps had largely stopped reporting news; in large part, it was writing novels, built around characters who were required to behave in pre-assigned ways. Alter accepted many of that era’s novels; this may make it harder for him to adopt the type of language which could have helped his viewers see what D’Souza has done. Alter fought hard all through this hour. But we thought he eschewed the use of a powerful tool.

Simply put, he never described the essence of what D’Souza has done in his ludicrous book. Our guess? More viewers would have understood if Alter had used better language—if he had simply charged D’Souza with what he has actually done.

Special report: From the annals of elite epistemic closure!

PART 1—DOES JUAN WILLIAMS NEED A PSYCHIATRIST (permalink): It’s the law! Every liberal knows he must reject all work by Charles Murray. In part for that reason, the snark was general about Murray’s piece in the Post “Outlook” section this Sunday.

In these parts, we disagree. We think progressives should consider the syndrome described in Murray’s piece—a syndrome we saw at play in a series of harmful political events just in this past week alone.

Murray writes about the rise of a “New Elite.” In this passage, he says his thesis isn’t controversial—presumably, among sociologists:

MURRAY (10/24/10): That a New Elite has emerged over the past 30 years is not really controversial. That its members differ from former elites is not controversial. What sets the tea party apart from other observers of the New Elite is its hostility, rooted in the charge that elites are isolated from mainstream America and ignorant about the lives of ordinary Americans.

Let me propose that those allegations have merit.

According to Murray, what makes this New Elite different from past elites? According to Murray, the older elites were populated by “bluebloods and the wealthy;” members of the New Elite are more likely to earn their way into the fold through successful performance at the nation’s elite universities and graduate schools. But this still produces a New Elite which is largely drawn from the upper middle-class, Murray notes. And it produces a New Elite which tends to live a bunkered existence:

MURRAY: Far from spending their college years in a meritocratic melting pot, the New Elite spend school with people who are mostly just like them—which might not be so bad, except that so many of them have been ensconced in affluent suburbs from birth and have never been outside the bubble of privilege. Few of them grew up in the small cities, towns or rural areas where more than a third of all Americans still live.

When they leave college, the New Elite remain in the bubble. Harvard seniors surveyed in 2007 were headed toward a small number of elite graduate schools (Harvard and Cambridge in the lead) and a small number of elite professional fields (finance and consulting were tied for top choice). Jobs in businesses that provide bread-and-butter goods and services to individual Americans, which make up the overwhelming majority of entry-level openings for aspiring managers, attracted just 1.7 percent of the Harvard students who went to work right after graduation.

In time, the New Elite inter-marry—and they start to breed! “The New Elite marry each other,” Murray writes, “combining their large incomes and genius genes, and then produce offspring who get the benefit of both.” (This is a tendency we’ve often noted among our inbred mainstream press corps.) In that passage, Murray creates a comical image—and he ensures, through his reference to genes, that no good liberal will pay a bit of attention to a word he says. And not only that! In his next paragraph, he mentions his 1994 book, The Bell Curve. He doesn’t cite the parts of that book which were widely reviled at the time of publication. But these references make it certain that many good liberals will give no thought to the relevance of his current thesis.

Murray ends up portraying a society whose elites have little understanding of the lives of its average members. Late in his piece, he cites a survey which seems to suggest that the members of this New Elite tend to start out on “the left” in their general political outlook. (“In that Harvard survey I mentioned, 72 percent of Harvard seniors said their beliefs were to the left of the nation as a whole, compared with 10 percent who said theirs were to the right of it.”) “But the politics of the New Elite are not the main point,” he quickly says. “When it comes to the schools where they were educated, the degrees they hold, the Zip codes where they reside and the television shows they watch, I doubt if there is much to differentiate the staff of the conservative Weekly Standard from that of the liberal New Republic, or the scholars at the American Enterprise Institute from those of the Brookings Institution, or Republican senators from Democratic ones.”

Are this country’s institutions run by a New Elite—by people who are relatively clueless about the values and views of the wider society? We’ll answer that question with one of our own: Does Juan Williams need a psychiatrist? Last week, one of our elite news organizations finally fired the hapless pundit—and this news org’s hapless chief executive quickly suggested that he did. She has since apologized for her remark. But in this wonderfully typical comment, this member of a journalistic elite helped us see the way progressive interests get battered by the cluelessness of this elite—by what a person might even describe as this group’s “epistemic closure.”

Routinely, progressive interests get harmed in this manner. But so what? We liberals love denouncing people like Murray—and we hate considering the possibility that Murray’s thesis could have some actual merit.

All around the political world, we saw incidents in the past week which illustrated Murray’s larger thesis—incidents which worked to harm liberal and progressive interests. But all around the liberal web, snarking liberals showed disdain for Murray’s thesis—even as progressive interests were harmed by the type of conduct which stems from the general syndrome he describes.

It wasn’t just the clueless conduct of NPR, which should have canned Williams long ago. In our view, progressive interests were recently harmed, in various ways, by the syndrome Murray describes. Here’s the good news: You don’t have to be a Harvard grad to take part in this general syndrome. All around the liberal world, our own elite revels in its own epistemic closure. Proposed examples will follow all week.

Tomorrow—part 2: The unbearable lightness of Schiller