THE GUARDIANS FILE: Major professors abandon their posts!


Semantics and paraphrase:
Once upon a time, more than twenty years ago, it began to occur to us that our society's guardians had perhaps abandoned their posts.

The great, dark trees of incoherence cast a deep shade all around. As far as a person could see in the course of a day, or even in the course of a week, there was nothing but incomprehension. It was incompetence and inanity pretty much all the way down.

There was no Fox News at this time. There was no MSNBC. Within the big woods of "cable news," there was only CNN—CNN, and the rational animals who made their livings reciting script upon its various programs.

What made us start to think that the guardians had abandoned their posts? We think first of the great Medicare non-discussion of 1995 and 1996.

Every night, pundits would gather on CNN to pretend to debate the Republican Party's Medicare proposal. This proposal was being advanced by the new House speaker, Newt Gingrich.

Night after night, month after month, the discussion which wasn't a discussion would break down along mandated line—on Crossfire, let's say:

On Crossfire, the two disputants "from the left" would say that Gingrich had proposed cutting $270 billion from the Medicare program.

The two disputants "from the right" would say that no one was cutting the Medicare program at all. According to these disputants, the GOP plan had merely proposed "slowing the rate at which the Medicare program would grow."

Eventually, Republicans began to claim it was demagogic to use the term "Medicare cuts" at all. They began insisting that journalistic use of this term was the latest example of "liberal bias."

In response to this extended attack, journalists began employing a string of euphemisms. These alternative terms were used instead of the allegedly demagogic term, "Medicare cuts."

No one ever quite explained what was wrong with this traditional term. Medicare "cuts?" This term had always been used, within both parties, to describe budget proposals of the type the GOP had made.

But so what? This non-discussion pseudo-discussion went on, night after night, for well over a year. As journalists scrambled to find softer terms, no one untangled the conceptual mess at the heart of this pseudo-discussion.

In policy terms, this badly bungled pseudo-discussion formed the heart and soul of the non-debate pseudo-debate which led up to November 1996 election, in which President Clinton won re-election over Candidate Dole.

Clinton won, Dole lost. But this non-discussion pseudo-discussion lay at the heart of that campaign. Night after night, for month after month, our journalists and cable news pundits performed a scripted non-conversation which spread confusion all over the land.

This non-conversation was, pure and simple, a semantic dispute. The two parties to this discussion agreed on all relevant facts.

That said, no one came forward to clarify this stultifying conceptual mess. Later, it occurred to us that this had been a good example of the guardians leaving their posts.

No logician ever stepped forward to straighten out that semantic conceptual mess. It fell to us to unpack this nonsense in a Baltimore Sun op-ed.

It fell to us, and to Al Franken, who was then still a comedian. Franken clarified this pitiful mess in a comical but instructive part of his 1996 best-seller, Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.

Two comedians had been able to clarify this braindead semantic dispute! As far as we know, no journalists ever did, except perhaps for Maraniss and Weisskopf—and no professor ever stepped forward to serve in a guardian role.

None of our nation's brilliant logicians stepped in to untangle this mess. No other professor came forward to serve in the guardian role.

A few years later, a similar situation obtained when a twenty-month presidential campaign foundered on the basic logic of paraphrase and quotation.

We refer to Campaign 2000, coverage of which which began in earnest in March 1999. As a few graybeards may still recall, that entire campaign turned on the claim that one of the candidates, Candidate Gore, "had a problem with the truth."

Allegedly, this meant that Candidate Gore was like his boss, President Clinton. Clinton had only recently escaped removal from office in his Senate impeachment trial.

For twenty months, that whole campaign turned on the basic logic of paraphrase and quotation. Starting in March 1999, mainstream journalists, again and again, paraphrased and "quoted" statements by Candidate Gore in ways which were designed to show his "problem with the truth."

Had Al Gore said he invented the Internet? Again and again, for twenty straight months, that's what our journalists said.

Had he said he inspired Love Story? Had he said he discovered Love Canal? Had he said he grew up on a farm, when he really grew up in a fancy hotel—even in the Ritz Carlton?

In September 2000, did the candidate lie when he told a joke about a union lullaby? Did he lie about the cost of his pet dog's arthritis pills?

These claims were widely bruited in September 2000, when new polling had made it seem that Candidate Gore was pulling away from Candidate Bush. Early in October, new claims of new lies appeared in the wake of the first Bush-Gore debate, undermining initial impressions that Gore had outperformed Bush.

Simply put, the acts of bogus paraphrase never stopped. Had the candidate "told Time magazine last year that he enacted the Earned Income Tax Credit, which of course went into law before he was ever in Congress?" Lawrence O'Donnell revived that groaner very late in the campaign, appearing on the high-profile syndicated program, The McLaughlin Group.

AL GORE, LIAR! From March 1999 through November 2000, it was the central "journalistic" narrative of Campaign 2000.

The press corps' crescendo of claims turned on highly tendentious acts of paraphrase and quotation. These presentations raised the most basic questions about the logic of these practices, but no logician rose to serve in the time-honored guardian role.

How silent were the professorial lambs? Back in 1978, Professor Bok had published a widely-praised book, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life.

As of Campaign 2000, this highly-regarded book was still in print. Indeed, a new paperback edition had appeared in 1989—and another new edition appeared in 1999!

That said, Professor Bok had nothing to say about the claims against Candidate Gore. Needless to say, no other logician or ethicist stepped forward to discuss the endless claims being lodged by our mainstream "press corps." Darlings, it isn't done!

These are just two examples—examples from long ago. That said, people are dead all over the world because these guardians walked off their posts during Campaign 2000. There's no limit on the disgust we should feel for these cosseted, useless figures.

Our logicians and ethicists had nothing to say about these long-running episodes. That said, these professors had long since been reassigned to posts outside the public square—to posts in mahoganied academic lounges, or perhaps to posts in the south of France.

The public was badly in need of their help, but the public's need wouldn't be served.

These guardians' refusal to serve continues to this day. The perpetual silence of these upper-class lambs helped give us our President Trump.

The polis will always need guardians! So Plato declared long ago in his famous though tedious book, The Republic. It represents one of the very few things Plato clearly got right.

The polis needs guardians, Plato declared. Tomorrow, we'll review his statements on this obvious point.

Our logicians and ethicists ought to be serving in a guardian role! But these people walked off their posts long ago. The silence of these useless people will be explored in our posts all week.

Tomorrow: Plato gets it right!

Short, medium and long: Long ago, when this site was still young, we posted three reports, of varying length, concerning the Medicare non-discussion discussion.

"The Speaker's new language" was our Medicare magnum opus. In it, we quoted Franken's book at some length.

Our shortest treatment of the matter bore the attractive title, "A tale of three numbers." For links to our three reports, you can just click here.

In these reports, we unpacked the basics of this semantic gong-show. That said, our nation's famous logicians offered no help at any point in this process.

Our logicians were locked in their aeries, as they have been for some time. Clownishly, they were discussing the set of all sets not members of themselves. Their refusal to serve helps explain how Donald Trump got where he is.

Years later, Paul Krugman linked to one of our Medicare reports to help clarify this matter. We can't remember when he did it, although you could find it on line.


  1. The problem with the medicare discussion Somerby describes was not one of understanding but of motives. Republicans wished to camouflage what they were proposing whereas Democrats wished to make clear the impact of the proposed changes to Medicare by calling them cuts.

    Somerby says: "No logician ever stepped forward to straighten out that semantic conceptual mess. It fell to us to unpack this nonsense in a Baltimore Sun op-ed."

    But there is no need for a logician when the disagreement is not about logic or even semantics. Either you think the cuts are a good thing or not. If not, you call them cuts. If you favor them, you call them slower growth. It is an argument about framing.

    Bringing out logicians to examine semantics isn't going to change that we have two parties who think different things are a good idea. You have to argue about why cuts are bad, why slower growth is good, not focus on the semantics, as Somerby suggests should have been done, better using logicians. Our country disagrees about what is best for people. It doesn't care about the semantics.

  2. The role of professors is to generate new knowledge and transmit existing knowledge to students. It is not to be gatekeepers and it is not to disentangle semantics.

    Knowledge is certainly dangerous, especially to someone trying to fool people, but that is not why professors generate new knowledge. They do it because they are curious and want to know answers to self-generated questions. It remains to other to apply that knowledge. Teaching is part of making knowledge available to others for whatever their purposes happen to be.

    Somerby has never understood this about professors. He may be confused because SOME professors do get involved in causes beyond their role as academics. But these activities (writing editorials, writing trade books, participating in demonstrations, serving in government as advisors or staff) are in no way part of their role as professors. It is something they do as people with interests beyond their work. Many, if not most, professors DO NOT do any of these additional things and it is not what they are paid to do.

    Journalists and writers translate the knowledge generated by professors into readable form by everyday people. They may do this to achieve certain goals, such as to promote points of view or weigh in on proposed issues in politics or social change. They do not generate new knowledge although they may compile and analyze and contrast views of professors who do so. Journalists and authors communicate to others, mobilize their energies and try to direct them to action.

    Somerby routinely confuses the role of activists, journalists, and professors. They are distinct and very different. Because he doesn't read his comments, he will not confront this confusion and will just go on making the same complaints for another 10 years, while professors ignore him and journalists go their own way.

    1. 12:10

      “In Britain, just one website offers consistently independent media criticism. This is the remarkable Media Lens — remarkable partly because its founders and editors as well as its only writers, David Edwards and David Cromwell, since 2001 have concentrated their gaze not on the usual suspects, the Tory press, but the paragons of reputable liberal journalism: the BBC, The Guardian, Channel 4 News.”

      “What is especially interesting about them is that neither is a journalist. David Edwards is a former teacher, David Cromwell is an oceanographer. Yet, their understanding of the morality of journalism — a term rarely used; let’s call it true objectivity — is a bracing quality of their online Media Lens dispatches.”

      Maybe this is what Somerby means by “guardians.” I think he’s done a good job in his own endeavors as a former teacher and comedian. Care to rebut?


    2. Somerby made it clear that he is talking about professors who have abandoned their posts -- not former teachers or oceanographers.

      Journalism has ethics and these are debated regularly, within their field especially. Try the Columbia Journalism Review.

      I see no particular virtue in singling out the media less abusive of those ethics, in the US or Britain. I would consider the guys you mention more *independent* if they criticized everyone, not just liberals. Similarly, I wouldn't mind Somerby criticizing the liberal media if he would admit to being non-liberal himself. Claiming that he is liberal is not only a lie, but it fools others into giving greater credence to his complaints because they think they are coming from within the fold, not from opposition. Somerby has no liberal credibility. These two guys you are calling independent may not be as independent as you think.

      I think Somerby has not done a good job in a very long time now, and I've been reading him since Gore gave away the presidency.

    3. “Somerby made it clear that he is talking about professors who have abandoned their posts -- not former teachers or oceanographers.”

      You can nitpick all you want. Edwards and Cromwell have ventured into media criticism, just as Somerby did, at roughly the same time.

      “Similarly, I wouldn't mind Somerby criticizing the liberal media if he would admit to being non-liberal himself.” Really, you expect Somerby to proclaim he’s “not a liberal,” to appease your ongoing and tedious discontent? BTW, what is the “liberal media,” you clown? Are we talking about Mother Jones, Current Affairs, In These Times, Harper’s? I’ve never seen Somerby criticize those orgs.

      Oh wait! Is it the NYT? Or the WahoPostP?* MSNBC? We all pick our fights. You’ve been reading him so long, surely you’ve noticed with whom he’s picking those fights. Apparently it’s you, a precious liberal, who simply cannot stand perhaps being lumped into a category that Bob criticizes, that can’t stand his writing, but you come back, over and over again.

      I used to swear on this blog, but I’ve sworn it off. Now all I can say is this: Lick my Grundle.

      *h/t Bartcop


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  3. I think the decline can also be directly traced to the hiring of gossipy women on the tube. Even now it's bad -- and this absolute insistence on good looks is a major insult to women. You're not going to get the best qualified when appearance is such a major factor.

    1. "gossipy women on the tube"

      Are you talking about Rachel Maddow?

      If you watch "All In" with Chris Hayes, you will see that none of his pundits are selected for their looks. On the other hand, I have no doubt that Katy Tur was assigned to the Trump campaign because she is cute (in a Hope Hicks kind of way) and Trump did respond to her with gallantry, calling to her from his podium. Nevertheless, she needed secret service protection from Trump's less chivalrous supporters. In that case, I think her appearance was a qualification since it let her get closer to the story she was covering -- Trump's piggishness on the campaign trail.

  4. I have a feeling that playing semantic games to win votes instead of bothering to have a serious policy discussion long predates 1995.

  5. Had Somerby ever finished his book on the 2000 election, and gotten it published, perhaps he could've reached a larger audience than his blog ever did. After all, the press' misdeeds back then led to deaths all over the world. Somerby's book could have joined "Fools for Scandal" or "The Hunting of the President" as an important document of that era's press malfeasance. But alas, he abandoned that project, yet criticizes unnamed "professors" for not contributing more. Was it not critically important that this account reach a wider audience?

  6. What is this business about "guardians?" Who were they in the mythical time when they supposedly existed? Whose interests did they serve? The people's? Yeah, right.

    And how would a "professor" become a "guardian?" Which professor would that be? Someone like Gödel? He was mentally ill, remember?

    I mean, Carl Sagan years ago and now Neil deGrasse Tyson have tried to be popular advocates for science. But how does a professor (of what? logic? Philosophy?) compete with the organized voices of politics to get some sort of non-ideological message of rational thinking across to the general public? If I remember correctly, Somerby doubts that man is truly the rational animal, so why would messages of rationality find any footing with the general public?

    The democratization (one might say "chaos") of the media via the internet is a fact of life and is here to stay. Who in the world can be a "guardian" of the World Wide Web? Would it involve censorship? Yes the internet is awash with junk and harmful stuff, but the notion that "guardians" or "wise men" ought to protect the sheeple from "harmful" stuff is elitist, and ultimately unworkable. Who gets to decide what is harmful, and who gets to decide who decides? Please specify a reasonable, apolitical process whereby this could be made to work.

    1. Start by deleting all posts containing the word "sheeple."

    2. @2:27 so you favor the censorship approach. Good to know. Well, not really.

    3. There is always censorship, even if it is self-censorship. I'd like to see the trolls go away. Then the Russian and other foreign spam and propaganda deleted. Then recruitment garbage from hate groups -- and yes, there is a way to identify such groups that doesn't take away our freedom. Kiddie predators and kiddie porn traders need to go away. There is already an effort to suppress this stuff going on, so it isn't as if this is anything new. It just needs to encompass the political wrongdoing that distorted the last election result, and some stuff like revenge porn, online bullying and stalking that are current gaps in monitoring internet activity.

      Pretending the internet is currently free is a joke used against those who want to stop certain abuses by claiming that freedom is being repressed. There are judicious, legitimate protections of the individual already in place that should be strengthened.

    4. " tried to be popular advocates for science" I liked Sagan. diGrassi might as well be diCapprio. This comment is one of the better outlines of how truth is to be found. As in court discovery, one must deal with contentious representation.

  7. Here's a cello concerto. The composer was mentally ill. The performer died of multiple slerosis.

  8. "candidate gore".

    blogger is toothache personified.

  9. Darn it, I feel gypped. I really did want to read Bob's conclusions re the problem with Gödel and his theorems. Ah well.

    Sounding good so far Caesar, I'm only 7 minutes into it.


  10. Want to see some really bad science writing?

    Want to read a Wikipedia article that takes a difficult subject and leaves it incomprehensible?

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