WE CALL IT READING A BOOK: In dumbness is the end of the world!

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 24, 2021

Norman O. Brown got it right: It was our former neighbor Thoreau who said it, though it's sometimes misquoted:

"In wildness is the preservation of the world."

No, he didn't say "wilderness." But that tiny misquotation is certainly close enough.

Our neighbor Thoreau made this remark in his lecture-turned-essay, Walking. As part of the essay, he also made the highlighted remark, as was his perhaps unfortunate wont:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. You may safely say, A penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago. 

Our neighbor had a tendency to extend such left-handed sympathy to those who worked for a living. In Walden, this tendency produced one of his most widely-quoted remarks:

"The mass of men [sic] lead lives of quiet desperation."

Do you ever wonder how such statements may have sounded to that "mass of men" as they led their lives of desperation? As they received a type of credit for not having taken their own lives?

We don't know how our neighbor's statements sounded to the masses of his own time. That said, we've thought of these statements in the past few days as we've reviewed the way the elites of Our Own Blue Tribe are conducting themselves in public.

"In wildness is the preservation of the world," our neighbor once said. Unfortunately, in cluelessness is its possible termination. 

Each morning this week, often as we peruse the devolving on-line version of the Washington Post, we've been stunned by the overpowering dumbness. We refer to the dumbness which currently sits in the saddle and rides the  humankind which almost seems to be working, around the clock, to ensure that Trumpism triumphs.

To our ear, the cluelessness of our current blue elite is widespread and ever-present. For those who wonder how a person like Trump could possibly have received so many votes, we'll only say that the answer may be easier to see for those who are willing to look.

To our ear, the cluelessness to which we refer is cluelessness all the way down.  Each day, it's more haughty and more potent, and we'll guess it's more counterproductive.

After perusing the on-line Post and a few of Our Town's other journals, we've been finding it hard to proceed with the project we've been planning. We'd planned to proceed with the reading of a "most important" book—a book whose author said this in his preface:

"I should have liked to produce a good book. That has not come about."

After perusing Our Town's journals, we keep finding it impossible to proceed with that task.

A number of years ago, we began quoting Norman O. Brown from the street-fighting 1960s. Brown was very hot at the time. At one point, he offered this:

BROWN (1966): I sometimes think I see that societies originate in the discovery of some secret, some mystery; and end in exhaustion when there is no longer any secret, when the mystery has been divulged, that is to say profaned...And so there comes a time—I believe we are in such a time—when civilization has to be renewed by the discovery of some new mysteries, by the undemocratic but sovereign power of the imagination, by the undemocratic power which makes poets the unacknowledged legislators of all mankind, the power which makes all things new.

We can't say that we understand what Brown was talking about in that passage. That said, he plainly was saying this:

Absent the discovery of "new mysteries," he said we might be at the point when our society is going to "end in exhaustion." Reading the efforts of Our Town's thought leaders, we keep suspecting that Brown, a classicist by training, may have had it right.

About a decade ago, this statement began showing up in our dreams, and so we began to cite it. We don't think it's ever been so clear that those new mysteries haven't been discovered, and most likely aren't going to be.

In wildness is the preservation of the world? Possibly so, but in tribal cluelessness may lie a society's termination.

We'll try to return to our project next week. Perhaps we need to stop perusing Our Blue Town's journals in the morning. To our ear, the cluelessness we keep encountering in those places is making a mockery of everything else. It's newly surprising each day.

Why aren't we posting examples today? Simple! We can hear the tribals responding! We know what the tribals will say!

As The Others show the world every day, there's no way to talk a true believer out of a tribal true belief. Also, we can hear the experts and scholars as they keep telling us this:

As humans, we're wired to produce tribal dogmas as we make our way towards our latest war. And when we blue voters produce our own (unintelligent) dogmas, we harden The Others in theirs.

In fairness, our brains are wired this way, or so the top experts have said. It's painful to read the present-day Post. To our ear, the tribal dumbness being churned within Our Town just keeps getting worse and worse.

The tribal dumbness, how it burns! Their tribal dumbness, and ours!


The 710 versus the more than four thousand!

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 2021

Statistical dumbness is Us: Just as the experts have said, we simply aren't up to the task of conducting the most basic journalism.

Consider the statistical shakiness which starts to appear in this passage from this morning's New York Times news report:

ROBERTSON (9/23/21): [Gwen] Ifill, who died in 2016 after a distinguished career that included stints at The Washington Post, The Times and NBC News before she became co-anchor of “PBS NewsHour,” raised the issue of what she called “missing white woman syndrome” at a journalism conference in 2004. “If there’s a missing white woman, we are going to cover that, every day,” she noted wryly.

In the years since, national news outlets have continued to deliver frequent, detailed reports that made young, white women such as Natalee Holloway, who disappeared in 2005 while vacationing in Aruba, into household names.

To what "statistical shakiness" do we refer? We refer to this statistical shakiness:

In that passage, the Times reporter, Katie Robertson, quotes Gwen Ifill seeming to say that the mainstream media covers every case in which a there's a missing white woman. Indeed, Ifill seems to say that every such case gets a lot of coverage.

Robertson proceeds to offer an example. She cites a case which did get a lot of attention—back in 2005!

Can you think of a more recent case? The Times report seems to say that there are many such cases, but we'll admit that we can't think of examples, and it almost looks like the Times couldn't do so either..

With that in mind, can you see the shakiness which may be lurking there? We ask that question because the editors at the New York Times 1) couldn't see the shakiness, or 2) just didn't prefer to.

Now, let's consider a case of statistical illiteracy. It comes from that same New York Times report, but it also appeared in the Washington Post, and it's being widely copied as the day proceeds:

ROBERTSON: The demographic makeup of major news organizations is another factor in the emphasis on narratives of white women who go missing or are murdered, said Martin G. Reynolds, co-executive director of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

[...]

The disappearances of people of color tend not to generate the same volume of media interest, despite their occurring at a higher rate. A report from the University of Wyoming found that 710 Indigenous people were reported missing from 2011 to 2020 in that state, which is where Ms. Petito’s remains were found.

Can you see the statistical illiteracy lurking there? The breakdown goes like this:

Robertson links to this report from the University of Wyoming. Making a long story short, the Wyoming report includes this passage:

These records  represent 4,884 unique individuals, 710 of whom were Indigenous. Law  enforcement agencies in Wyoming enter nearly 900 missing person records into NCIC annually. Each year, approximately 13% (n = 120) are records of Indigenous people.

In that passage, we learn that there were 4,884 missing persons in Wyoming during the decade in question. Performing the math, the numbers break down like this:

Missing persons in Wyoming:
Total number of missing persons: 4,884
Missing persons who were Indigenous: 710
Missing persons who weren't Indigenous: 4,174

It's true! You never heard about the 710 missing persons. But duh! You never heard about the 4,174 missing persons either.

Putting it a different way, you never heard about any of those missing persons in the way you've heard about the late Gabby Petito this week. In fact, you never heard about any of those missing persons at all.

For starters, that's because, Ifill's pleasing statement to the contrary,  the mainstream media doesn't cover the cases of "every missing white woman." In fact, the media almost never covers such cases. Almost no missing persons get covered this way, including the blonde and the blue-eyed.

The statistical dumbness of this morning's Times report rises to the level of undisguised, flat-out Stupid. That said, it's very typical of the way our high-end journalists work when confronted with any sort of statistical or pseudo-statistical statement.

In this case, the Times was eager to push Storyline, and so it ran with that absurdly irrelevant statistic. For whatever reason, its unnamed editors didn't remove that irrelevant passage from the report. For all we know, it may be the editors who stuck the passage in.

Increasingly, our journalism is Storyline all the way down. Along with that, our Storyline selection is tribal. 

In this instance, these factors led the Times to pretend that oversized coverage occurs all the time with missing white women, even as they couldn't seem to come up with a recent example—and even as they failed to note one of the obvious reasons why the disappearance of the late Gabby Petito has received so much coverage.

In part, this case has received an outsized amount of coverage because Petito was a travel blogger who had posted tons of footage of her cross-country trip. It has also received outsized coverage because the ludicrous behavior of her  fiancĂ© comes straight out of a cable-friendly, Sleeping With the Enemy-style movie.

That said, also this:

This case has received a lot of coverage because, by conventional norms, Petito was stunningly telegenic. Cable loves to run video footage of conventionally attractive young women, just as it loves to hire such women to appear on the air.

Obviously, race and color play major roles in judgments concerning who is and isn't attractive; this fact is extremely unfortunate. But, as judged by conventional norms, Petito was stunningly telegenic. 

That fact played an obvious role in this week's unusual amount of coverage. As part of its general vapidity, CNN loves to air footage like that, along with equally exciting footage of hurricanes, fires and floods.

That said, gaze upon the statistical dumbness of upper-end newspapers like the Washington Post and the Times. 

In this report, the Post subjects that statistic from Wyoming to even dumber use. This dumbness runs through the coverage of almost every matter our upper-end press corps pursues. 

That dumbness is in the saddle and it rules our journalistic humankind. And no, a modern nation can't hope to survive when its tribunes are so vapid and so incompetent, and so ruled by Storyline.

Concerning Ifill's wry remark, we'll only say this—at least she wasn't covering for her warmongering friend, Condi Rice, on that particular day.

Concerning that astoundingly silly pseudo-statistic, it's a case of the 710 versus the more than four thousand! None of those stories got covered this way—in fact, none of those stories got covered at all. That's because what Ifill said was, and is, transparently bogus.

When we saw the figure 710, we wondered about the other figure, as any competent person would. When we looked at the Wyoming report, we were able to cipher it out—4,174!

This sort of thing is beyond the reach of our upper-end mainstream journalists. Many went to the finest schools, but they rarely show the slightest sign of being able or inclined to handle such questions as this.

Our brains aren't wired for this sort of thing. They're wired to pimp tribal Storyline, or so the top experts all tell us!

The earlier missing white woman: As of 2004, the earlier missing white woman was Chandra Levy. Her case received blanket coverage in 2001 because the crackpot conservative world was using it to push the "Democrats chase after interns" line, with the mainstream press corps politely playing along.

In other words, it was part of the ongoing MSM war against Clinton, Clinton and Gore, the war which  put Bush and Trump in the White House—the inexcusable, brain-damaged war which remains undiscussed.

CNN ran with it, night after night, all through the summer of 2001. (As summertime fare, it was even better than shark attacks!) On September 11, al Qaeda hit, and this much adored, important topic was never mentioned again.

This is the way this guild has functioned over the course of the past many years. Within a year, they were savaging Gore for saying, in a major speech, we should stay out of Iraq. Frank Rich was never more angry than he was with the phony, dishonest Gore! Katie Couric went after him too!

This is who and what we are. Simply put, we're wired this way, disconsolate experts insist.


WE CALL IT READING A BOOK: The logicians probably couldn't have helped!

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 2021

The transparent Dumbness, it burns: Robert Woodward's new book, co-written with Robert Costa, bears a one-word title: 

Peril

Following its 72 chapters, its epilogue ends with a two-word paragraph:

"Peril remains."

The authors refer to the peril facing our democracy in these (ongoing) days of Trump. More expansively, the epilogue ends as shown:

Could Trump work his will again? Were [sic] there any limits to what he and his supporters might do to bring him back to power?

Peril remains.

Even in fuller context, the word "were" doesn't make sense there. But as the book ends, Woodward and Costa are most specifically saying that peril remains if Donald J. Trump seeks the White House again.

Our democracy remains in peril, the authors say in their book. But according to the experts with whom we consult, we've moved past the point of peril. The die has already been cast.

Could the logicians have helped us with this? Most likely, they couldn't have. That said, the logicians—indeed, the "philosophers" and philosophy professors in general—walked off their posts so long ago that the question is hard to assess.

(Could it be they were never on their posts? Yes, that's possible too! It's a point we expect to explore.)

Tomorrow, we'll return to a discussion we introduced last week. We'll return to the preface to Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, "the most important philosophy book of the 20th century."

It was rated the most important such book, but no one has the slightest idea what its author might have said! So it goes within a culture where academic elites, as a group, have walked away from their posts—have ceased to function as a "guardian" class. 

In our view, Philosophical Investigations could have served as a highly instructive guide to what might be called "daily logic." Hard to parse though its text may be, a great deal of instruction can be teased from its bewildering numbered passages.

No such effort has ever been undertaken. That said, we'll plow ahead with an attempt to define the gains which could have been made. Tomorrow, we'll return to Wittgenstein's attempts, in his preface, to describe his intentions in writing the book, and we'll discuss his attempts to describe his book's shortcomings.

For today, one particular news report filled us with instant despair. The statistical dumbness, how it burned! We'll describe that hurtful report in today's afternoon post.

As it turns out, we the people weren't designed to run something like a democracy. Our brains were wired for Storyline, and as it turns out, we're pretty much tribal pretty much all the way down.

Regarding the preface to which we've referred, we briefly discussed it last Wednesday. To review that discussion, click here.

We'll resume that discussion tomorrow. Next week, we'll move on to the start of the most important philosophy book's unexplored text.

Could a different approach to this book have helped? Alas! Even as we continue to work in the garden, we're going to stick with a no.

Tomorrow:  "I should have liked to produce a good book. That has not come about."


Did Quayle call Pence, or did Pence call Quayle?

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 2021

As performed on Morning Joe: Yesterday morning, we made a point of watching Morning Joe. Woodward and Costa were going to be there to discuss their under-sourced new book.

Seven minutes into the segment, Woodward mentioned former Vice President Pence. Was he perhaps a bit too kind in what he said about Pence? 

WOODWARD (9/21/21): [As January 6 approaches], Pence is really working hard to see if he can do something to stay on the good side of Trump. At the same time, as Bob [Costa] pointed out, amidst Dan Quayle, who calls him and reads him the Constitution and the law and says, You are not an actor is this. You simply mechanically count the votes. And Pence is under lots of pressure from Trump, and his lawyers and confidantes are just saying, You cannot do this, and in the end Pence stood up and did the constitutional right thing. At the same time, when he's there and they're voting to certify, if he'd just said, "Oh, I'm confused" and walked off, we would have had worse than a constitutional crisis, because it would have undermined the legitimacy of the presidency.

In Woodward's account, Quayle called Pence and told him that he had to do the right thing. On January 6, Woodward says that Pence did exactly that, despite lots of pressure from Trump. 

This may not have been negative enough concerning Pence. Also, did Quayle call Pence or did Pence call Quayle? Continuing directly, Willie got the overall story back on track, while performing an unannounced correction:

GEIST (continuing directly): But Bob Costa, as you report in the book, Bob, it's, you know—he was fishing around, Vice President Pence, for a reason to get this done for President Trump, calling Vice President Quayle, who shut him down pretty quickly...

That was more like it! Willie stressed the way Pence was fishing around for a way to get the election undone. 

Also, in Willie's account, it was Pence who called Quayle, not the way Woodward had it. Heroically, Quayle shut him down!

How about it? Did Pence call Quayle, or did Quayle call Pence? Assuming that any of this occurred, it wouldn't exactly matter.

That said, when Maddow read from the book last Tuesday night, it was Pence who telephoned Quayle, and that is what it says in the book. ("In late December, Pence phoned former vice president Dan Quayle.") 

Yesterday morning, Woodward had that fact turned around. Willie simply plowed ahead, blowing past Woodward's apparent misstatement and getting the overall story back on track.

Did Pence call Quayle, or did Quayle call Pence? More importantly, what happened when the two men spoke, assuming they actually did? And on what basis can Woodward and Costa report what the two fellows said? 

On what basis should we assume that their account of this alleged call is actually accurate? Who or what is the source of their account, in which they literally quote substantial parts of this conversation?

As widely presented on liberal cable, this new book launched a pleasingly unflattering story about Pence. But on what basis should anyone think that Woodward and Costa's account of this matter is accurate? (It certainly may be, of course.)

These are the obvious questions to ask. But given the clownish way our upper-end corporate discourse works, none of the millionaires of "cable news" are ever going to ask them. Our discourse is Storyline all the way down, and the big players all know this.

You'd almost think that our logicians (or our "epistemologists") might speak up at some point. As it turns out, they have better things to do:

Revisionists versus Unitarians, they're debating the (unreadable) Theaetetus!


WE CALL IT READING A BOOK: Did Pence call Quayle, or did Quayle call Pence?

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 2021

We call it reading a transcript: Yesterday morning, we made a point of watching the segment in question.

The bodacious Bobcats, Woodward and Costa, were scheduled to appear on Morning Joe. Their new book was extremely hot—and as with many of Woodward's books, it may have been perhaps a bit  and somewhat shakily sourced.

An irony lurks in that possibility. Back in the day, Woodward and Bernstein became iconic journalistic figures due to their Watergate reporting for the Washington Post.

Out of that iconic episode, an iconic story emerged. They'd managed to get (almost) everything right because their editor, the iconic Ben Bradlee, had required two (2) sources for their factual claims.

That was then, but this is now. Yesterday, over at Slate, Fred Kaplan described an alleged problem with Woodward's current techniques:

KAPLAN (9/21/21): [Woodward's books] follow a pattern, so consistent, over the past few decades, that it might be dubbed “Woodwardian.” The author amasses vast quantities of scoops, some of them extraordinary. He subjects them to little, if any, analysis. Instead, he channels his anecdotes through the viewpoints of well-known characters, who tend to be either heroes (who often coincide with sources who have told him a lot) or villains (who usually haven’t).

Thar she blows! If you cooperate with Woodward, you get treated as a hero in his subsequent book. If you refuse to be interviewed, you find yourself cast as a goat. So runs one of the allegations about Woodward's allegedly shaky methods over the past many years.

We never discuss our conversations with high-ranking federal officials. But way back in the 1990s, one such high-ranking federal official voiced this very complaint to us, explaining why he had turned out to be one of the goats in Woodward's latest Clinton-era book.

(For the record, we have no way of knowing if what we were told was accurate.)

This allegation about Woodward's technique has been somewhat widely voiced in recent decades. As he continued, Kaplan expanded on his theme:

KAPLAN (continuing directly): This last trait is common among Washington journalists who rely too much on insider sources, but Woodward takes the practice to extremes. The main hero in Peril, as many have noted, is Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is portrayed as the warrior-savior who kept the world at peace during Donald Trump’s most turbulent outbursts. Milley exaggerates, and Woodward lets him...

Woodward’s credulity of his favored sources taints his own credibility on matters large and small. For instance, there’s a passage describing the events of June 1, 2020, as protests are erupting, some violent, in reaction to the police killing of George Floyd. News footage that day revealed Milley strutting through the streets of downtown Washington, D.C., in combat fatigues, as if he were inspecting the troops in wartime. He was much criticized for this and, 10 days later, apologized. But Woodward treats the general’s wardrobe as innocuous, writing, “Milley left the White House and headed downtown to visit the FBI command post monitoring the demonstrations. Expecting a late night, he changed into his uniform of camouflage fatigues to be more comfortable.”

I have no doubt this is the explanation Milley fed him. I am stunned that, after 45 years of high-level journalism, Woodward still lacks a functioning bullshit detector.

Kaplan goes on to explain why he says that Woodward has taken "bullshit" from General Milley and presented it as fact. These complaints about Woodward's methods never go away.

In this instance, Woodward has told readers what Milley was "expecting" on the day in question. He has also told readers why Milley changed into his camouflage fatigues, but he's done these things without reporting his sources—without explaining how he can know that what he has written is true.

Woodward rose to fame on the strength of requiring two sources. Today, traditional sourcing of any kind rarely exists in his books.

In Woodward's easy-reader books, we're offered highly novelized easy-reader tales. We're supposed to assume that his statements are accurate, with zero questions asked.

General Milley was the hero of the passages in this book which were released for promotional purposes. At the same time, a pleasing villain was offered—former Vice President Pence.

Last Tuesday night, Rachel Maddow pleased us rubes with the standard account of Pence's supposed behavior. Concerning Pence, this was her nugget presentation:

MADDOW (9/14/21): In this new book, one of the things that [Woodward and Costa] report is that Mike Pence, in their telling, was far more reluctant to do his job, far more reluctant to do his constitutional duty than the public narrative has suggested. Bottom line, Vice President Pence didn't ultimately accede to Trump's wishes to block the certification of the election, to overturn the election results, to leave Trump in power or to render the election results unknowable. But it was not, apparently, for a lack of him trying to find a way to do that.

Thus spake the bulk of the liberal world's Cablethustra! Tomorrow, we'll show you more of what Maddow said that night—but as always, her account was tribally pleasing in the ultimate way.

Question:

How does Maddow know that Woodward's account is accurate? Even if she's interpreting the book's presentation correctly—we're not assuming that she is—how does she know that Woodward's account isn't just the latest version of bullshit? The latest punishment of a possible source who refused to come across?

As she pleased us flunkies that night, Maddow read at length from the pleasing new book. At some points, Woodward is explicitly quoting what Quayle and Pence are said to have said to each other during the phone call in question.

Question: 

How is it possible for Woodward to quote the exact words these two fellows said? Did he have a tape? Did he have a transcript? What's the source for those quoted remarks?

Maddow, of course, didn't raise any such point. As he she performed her tribal services, Our Rhodes Scholar didn't ask.

Maddow's account was the first we saw of this exciting new book. As we watched her discuss Pence and Quayle, we were struck by her gullibility, or perhaps by her lack of something resembling honesty, as she performed in precisely the way a tribal bullshitter should.

Maddow recently scored a $30 million contract as a result of such faithful service. Tomorrow, we'll continue exploring this particular topic, the one involving what Pence and Quayle allegedly said and did, and what Pence allegedly wanted.

As for the service we've rendered today, we call it "reading a transcript." We also call it "an education," much as Tara Westover did.

Woodward's latest book has put pleasing stories in play. But to what extent should we believe that the stories are actually accurate?

None of our nation's vaunted logicians have managed to offer a word on this basic matter of Daily Logic. That said, our logicians walked off their posts long ago, Wittgenstein maybe among them.

Final question:

Did Pence call Quayle, or did Quayle call Pence? To see the comical way our discourse works, come back for this afternoon's compost.

We'll be quoting from Morning Joe. We made a point of watching.

Tomorrow: Back to Wittgenstein's Preface