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2 December 1999

Our current howler (part IV): Six—count ’em—six

Synopsis: As literature, Kakutani’s review of Earth in the Balance reads like something from oppo research.

Between the Lines, Revealing Glimpses Of Five Candidates
Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times, 11/22/99

Behind the Oval Office
Dick Morris, Renaissance Books, 1999

Earth in the Balance
Al Gore, Houghton Mifflin, 1992

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Gov. John Engler (R-MI)
Hardball, CNBC, 11/23/99

Kakutani's first paragraph on Earth in the Balance makes a variety of claims:

KAKUTANI (paragraph 5): Vice President Al Gore emerges from "Earth in the Balance" (Plume), his 1992 book about the environment, as the quintessential A-student who has belatedly discovered New Age psychobabble. Like his speeches, his book veers between detailed policy assessments (predictably illustrated with lots of charts and graphs) and high-decibel outbursts of passion, between energetically researched historical disquisitions and loony asides about "inner ecology" and "spiritual triangulation"—asides that may help explain his curious affinity with his feminist consultant, Naomi Wolf.

We thought that paragraph was truly remarkable, especially in a review that can't find time to tell readers what Earth even says. In this paragraph, Kakutani says that both Gore and Wolf are somehow "loony," and that there is something "curious" about Gore's "affinity" for Wolf. (And that he deals in New Age psychobabble.) That Wolf is even mentioned struck us as strange; a reviewer who has no time to tell us what a book says does find time to speculate about something remarkably peripheral—an alleged "affinity" which Kakutani shows no sign of knowing anything about. Like many who have reacted to the Wolf brouhaha, Kakutani finds something strange about her employment by Gore—so strange that Kakutani would rather obsess on that than explain what Gore's book even says. But is there something strange about it? We're puzzled as to what that would be. Suppose Kakutani had read Dick Morris' book, in which Morris describes working with Wolf in 1996. The first passage about Wolf goes like this:

MORRIS: Two to three times a week, [a number of advisers] met with me to formulate [ad] copy...Author Naomi Wolf was sometimes with us. I myself met with Naomi every few weeks for nearly a year to get her advice on how to target women voters. She also gave me remarkably prescient analyses of the social-cultural trends in the country.

Writing when Wolf was not an issue, Morris says she gave him advice on how to target women voters—and gave him "remarkably prescient" critiques of the culture. Is it odd that a candidate would want to work with someone like that? What exactly is "curious," or needs explaining? Or is it odd that the New York Times' top reviewer spends her time as Kakutani does—making tortured deductions about utter trivia from a book whose major theme she won't state?

Since it's the "loony asides" that "may help explain" Wolf, let's see just how loony they are. The principal examples Kakutani offers are sketched out in her next paragraph:

KAKUTANI (6): One of the book's main themes concerns the mind-body dichotomy and the perils of a "disembodied intellect," and yet strangely mechanistic images repeatedly surface in its pages. In one chapter, [Gore] describes the Constitution as "a blueprint for an ingenious machine that uses pressure valves and compensating forces to achieves a dynamic balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community." In another, he argues that people divide most tasks into "two conceptual halves" and "assign each half to opposite sides of the machine our body resembles."

By the way, just how "repeatedly" do these "strange" images surface? So "repeatedly" that the first one Kakutani cites is from page 171 of Gore's book. (Why does she say it appears "in one chapter?" Because she didn't want to say it appears "in chapter nine.") One would think that, in using words like "strange" and "loony" to describe public figures, one would want to be fairly careful. But Kakutani gives no evidence that these "strange" images occur very often, or that they're even "strange" to begin with. In her second example (from page 213), she plainly misstates the text of the book. Gore doesn't "argue" that people divide tasks as described, he merely reports that they do; Gore is discussing bilateral symmetry, which he briefly describes. Kakutani, happily suggesting that Gore is a nut, goes on to quote the example he cites. Incredibly, in a review which never relates what Gore's book even says, Kakutani wastes her readers' time by pointlessly reciting this example:

KAKUTANI (7): "At breakfast this morning," Mr. Gore writes, "I consolidated my grapefruit with my left hand to keep it from moving on my plate and then manipulated it with my right hand, first by cutting portions away from the whole with a knife, then by eating them with a spoon."

Write that he does, and it sounds pretty strange, just pulled out of context like that. And by the way, it sounds especially strange because Kakutani dropped three words from what she quoted in paragraph 6. In the text which Kakutani chops up in that paragraph, Gore explains that "consolidation and manipulation" are the names of the "two conceptual halves" described in bilateral symmetry. But Kakutani drops that out of her paragraph 6, making what she quotes in paragraph 7 seem more loony. (See postscript for Gore's full text.)

We have no idea of Kakutani's politics; we do not suggest, in any way, that politics drives this review. But the writing she does here—hunting for isolated passages from a lengthy book that can be made to sound silly when torn out of context—is exactly what the two parties do when they engage in "opposition research." It harms our discourse when the parties do it, but here it's done by a major reviewer, in service, not to a political agenda, but to the new god, Conventional Wisdom. This review so loves conventional patter—Gore doesn't know who he is; has a weird girl adviser—that, rather than tell us what his book says, the reviewer hunts and pecks through the text, seeking proof of the exciting diagnosis. Look at the images in the three paragraphs we've quoted! Gore is associated with New Age psychobabble; loony asides; and curious affinities for feminist consultants. And he talks about grapefruit, for no reason! Not only that, but he "veers" from subject to subject, engages in outbursts, and his researching is (explain this) "energetic." But is his research also accurate? Kakutani doesn't say. After all, why bother saying if Gore is right when we don't even know what he's said?

Kakutani misses few opportunities to signal how odd Gore is. One other passage deserves comment. It's in Kakutani's second reference to Wolf—her third, if we count her separate paean to earth tones. In full obsessive Press New Age splendor, she pens this insinuative remark:

KAKUTANI (27): So what else do these books tells us about the candidates?...That Mr. Gore, sounding a lot like Naomi Wolf (who once tried to draw parallels between the Holocaust and anorexia), likes to compare the world's worsening environmental problems to Hitler's rise in the 1930's.

He likes to? How can she possibly know that? Gore makes a comparison, in the third part of the book, but the reason for that is clearly stated. Gore says that we must make the looming environmental crisis the "central organizing principle for civilization." And he says he knows that we can do that, because we have done so twice before in this century—in defeating communism in the Cold War, and before that in seeking "the defeat of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan." Kakutani doesn't mention the Cold War comparison, because in the current climate, that doesn't sound silly enough; and apparently Naomi Wolf—Kakutani's obsession—has never compared anything to imperial Japan. In what other way does Gore compare environmental problems to Hitler's rise? It isn't all that hard to get, and if the science is right, it ain't loony:

GORE: It is worth remembering how long we waited before finally facing the challenge posed by Nazi totalitarianism and Hitler. Many were reluctant to acknowledge that an effort on the scale of what became World War II would be necessary...Thus do we meekly acquiesce inthe disruption of the climate balance we have known since the dawn of the human species.

There's nothing confusing or strange about that. If the science is right, so is the charge.

Our analysts were already steamed with Kakutani, because of the grunt work she put them through; most of her references are so trivial and pointless that they don't show up in Earth's index. (Try looking up "Hitler." He isn't there. That's how much Gore "likes to" chat up his rise.) But one part of Kakutani's odd review really did sadden our workers. It's back in the middle of her paragraph 5, where she's explaining how loony Gore is. She says Gore comes off "as the quintessential A-student who has belatedly discovered New Age psychobabble," and she says his "detailed policy assessments" are "predictably illustrated with lots of charts and graphs." Our analysts were frankly puzzled. You must understand—they have actually read Gore's book, and they didn't recall all the x- and y-axes. And so, grumbling and complaining, and cursing their fate, they thumbed back through the tome's many pages, and they found—that's right; you've done it too—six charts and graphs in the volume! Six! They're on pages 5, 24, 32, 76, 94, and 96. Six—count 'em—six charts and graphs, in a book of almost 400 pages.

Has Kakutani even opened this book? Did she include that remark to make Curious Gore seem more alien? At THE HOWLER, we don't have the slightest idea, any more than her readers know what Earth even says. Of all the nonsense to put in a review, that odd remark really does take the cake. But given the state of our sad press elites, silly nonsense is fully predictable.


Tomorrow: We'd hoped to talk about several tax issues, but one of our favorites is gloriously wrong again. So we're still not sure about tomorrow. Monday: The press on McCain.

Out, out damned antecedents: Speaking of manipulation, here's the text from which those three words disappeared. Dropping the phrase "consolidation and manipulation" from Gore's discussion of bilateral symmetry makes his next sentence pleasingly strange. Again, this trivial passage from Earth was discussed by Kakutani in her paragraphs 6 and 7 (see above). In an 800-word review, Kakutani spends more time on this pointless aside than Gore does in his whole book:

GORE: Our experience of life is also shaped by another aspect of our physical being that is so taken for granted, we almost never notice it...Known as bilateral symmetry, this mirroring feature of our bodies has extensive implications for how we experience the world. In almost everything we do to or with the world, we divide the task into two conceptual halves—consolidation and manipulation—and assign each half to opposite sides of the machine our body resembles. At breakfast this morning, I consolidated my grapefruit with my left hand to keep it from moving on my plate and then manipulated it with my right hand

Does Gore understand bilateral symmetry? We don't know. Neither, we'd guess, does Kakutani—and none of this has a thing to do with describing Gore's actual book.

Governor of invention: While we're on the subject of Earth, our analysts came right up out of their chairs during an exchange on Hardball last week. An obliging talker teed one up for Governor Engler of Michigan:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Let me ask you this other question. It seems to me that you [Republicans] are going to use Al Gore's environmentalism against him. Didn't he say something once about the internal combustion engine being a thing of the past? How did he say it?

Finally we'd get this matter straight! After all, three of the governor's most prominent constituents are CEOs of the automotive Big 3! And as we've related again and again, all world car CEOs, including the Engler Three, have long said that internal combustion is on the way out (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/29/99). And sure enough—we knew he'd do it—the governor just straightened things out:

ENGLER: He thinks it's a great threat, Chris. He thinks that's perhaps one of the great threats to mankind as the 21st century approaches. I think George Bush would target failing schools and kids who don't get an education.

We would target public dissemblers, like the governor and the slick tabloid talker.