METAPHORS AND FACTS: He’s looked at life from one side now!


Part 5—Touré gets it (exactly half) right: At one time, the American press corps was Walter and David. People, that was it!

The press corps today is more varied. The range of voices from which we hear is being greatly expanded.


Major newspapers and major web sites are hiring an amazing number of 20-somethings. Youth is being widely served. Often, this produces very poor journalistic results.

A wider array of progressive voices are being featured at some news orgs, MSNBC being one major example. And a wider array of blacks and Hispanics appear at our major orgs.

In theory, these are good ideas. In practice, mileage may vary. Example:

In the Outlook section of Sunday’s Washington Post, Professor Dyson was holding forth. How did that work out?

A detractor would say that Dyson was working at Maureen Dowd’s level. As Dowd would do in Wednesday’s column, Dyson complained about Obama’s reactions to Ferguson.

Obama has been “cautious to a fault” in discussing Ferguson, Dyson said. On matters of race, “the president mostly weighs in only when exigent demands leave him little choice:”
DYSON (8/24/14): That was the case when Obama eloquently explained the grief and anger that swept black communities after Zimmerman, the killer of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, went unpunished. It was also true with Ferguson. If Obama felt and looked weary at the prospect of repeating himself—"I've said this before," he reminded us—it hardly matched the moral weariness of black victims witnessing history tragically repeat itself. Like a Hollywood film franchise, race in the United States—especially police violence against blacks—is haunted by sequels: The locations may change, the actors are different, but the story remains the same.

Given Obama's extraordinary talent for talking the nation through tough times, his remarks on Ferguson were extremely disappointing.


The best thing Obama did was to send Attorney General Eric Holder to Ferguson, although he should go himself, just as he went to Newtown, Conn., and to communities ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.
Dyson often drives us nuts. What kind of professor can’t see the difference between Newtown, Hurricane Sandy and Ferguson—the last of the three being the site of an ongoing criminal investigation?

What kind of professor can’t see the difference between a president speaking after a trial (the Zimmerman trial), as opposed to during a grand jury probe (the Ferguson investigation)?

Further question: What makes Dyson think that Obama, with his low approval ratings, possesses the kind of “extraordinary talent” that would let him “talk the nation through” the “tough times” posed by events at Ferguson?

Ferguson involves matters of race, the gigantic topic on which it’s hardest to get people to abandon their preconceptions (many of which may be admirable). Beyond that, we live in absurdly tribal times.

No matter what Obama chose to say on a trip to St. Louis, can we really imagine a case in which his comments turned out to be helpful? Where we the people would let the fellow of whom we no longer approve talk us through the events?

Let’s give Obama some credit! We’ll guess that he understands the way the world works better than the professor does, the professor the corporate suits have picked for Our Own Cable Channel.

In theory, it seems like a good idea when the press corps includes a wider range of voices—when youth is served, when black and brown observers appear, when progressive ideas are expressed.

In practice, though, a black professor can work at the level of Dowd. Concerning her most recent column, in which she joined Dyson in complaining that Obama hasn’t journeyed to Ferguson, we’ll outsource the labor to Brother Pierce, only noting two points:

No one who wrote an unreadable mess like Dowd’s Gettysburg Golf Address column could ever get into an AP class at any American high school. Also, when Dowd complained in Wednesday's column that Obama is sleeping behind the caddy shack, her own newspaper was reporting, on its front page, that he was fashioning an end run around Congress to create a world climate regime.

Just like the progressive professor, the clueless Dowd thought Obama should jet to St. Louis on Air Force One to lecture us on the things we should think.

Our guess? Obama knows how crazy that idea is. He is working around his low approvals and his hopeless Congress to change the world in various ways, including on climate and immigration. Is he asleep behind the shack? He even seems to be working out the terms of our next world war!

Dowd’s column was spectacularly clueless, even for her. In his earlier Sunday piece, Dyson made some accurate points about the nation. But he seemed rather clueless to us about the possibilities available to Obama.

That said, the professor thundered and blew. The suits who try to create cable profit looked down and saw it was good!

They give us the young, and they give us a wider range of American voices. This sounds like an obvious great idea, but the work won’t always be great. One more example:

In our view, the work was two steps down from awful when the professor from Nerdland replied to Joe Klein last week. For background, see yesterday's post.

We’ll assume her work was done in bad faith. Can any professor be dumb enough to state the immortal words, “Those are the facts,” in the way this professor did?

Is there any way the professor from Nerdland really thought Klein had a problem with jazz? Rather plainly, wasn’t the slippery scholar just playing a famous old card?

You never know what you’re going to get when the suits pick your leaders for you! That said, Touré got it (exactly half) right in his own column this Sunday, which appeared in the Washington Post’s Outlook section.

Toure is one of the hosts of MSNBC’s The Cycle. As with all opinion pieces, his piece could have been improved.

We’re going to edit out one thing he wrote! But overall, we thought he made a very good point about our so-called “information wars,” the subject of his piece.

This is the way he began:
TOURE (8/24/14): An information war is being waged in Ferguson, Mo., each salvo meant to shape public perceptions of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson.

Through this war we've learned that the 18-year-old Brown had marijuana in his system when he was killed, suggesting he was of poor character, and that police officer Wilson shot Brown six times, a use of force that could seem reckless or excessive. We've been told that Brown was a "gentle giant" who would have started attending classes at a technical college this month, but we've also seen a grainy convenience-store video in which he does not look gentle. We have seen a video of Wilson receiving an award, looking professional and happy...

Such snippets and images are efforts to shape public opinion about these men. They could influence St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch as he weighs whether to bring charges against Wilson. They could also influence the potential jury pool, showing prejudicial evidence that may not be admissible at trial.

In an information war, the news media is deployed as a weapon, our collective mind becomes a battlefield, and biases are land mines waiting to explode.

I feel confident stating that neither Brown nor Wilson is an angel—because no one is. But that doesn't matter, because the two men have been reduced to symbols.
Uh-oh! Try to ignore what he said about angels. (He returned to the imagery later.) Meanwhile, we dropped one snippet which was so poorly sourced that it shouldn’t have gone into print.

That said, Toure gives a helpful account of the familiar tribal warfare he calls “information war.” He is describing real tribal war, of a very familiar type. We’d be more inclined to call it “spin war,” but no phraseology is perfect. “Information war” works OK too.

In these information wars, partisans pick and choose and invent their facts, trying to shape our perceptions of the participants in an event. In this case, the participants are Wilson and Brown.

“The two men have been reduced to symbols,” Toure instructively says. As he continues, he says something else that’s important and accurate—at least up to a point:
TOURE (continuing directly): Information wars suggest that character is destiny and that character is knowable, as if a handful of snapshots or tweets constitute an autopsy of the soul. They are waged in all kinds of legal battles, from civil suits to contract negotiations to public divorces.

But when there's a black victim involved, the information takes a different and predictable turn: The victim becomes thuggified. This is an easy leap for many minds, given the widespread expectation of black criminality. If you become nervous when you see a young black male approaching on the street, it is not hard to convince you that a kid who was shot was not one of the "good ones," that he was scary and maybe did something to deserve it. Information wars thrive on America's empathy gap—the way some people struggle to see any kinship or shared humanity with strangers who don't look like them.
Everything said there is true. But it’s only true up to a point, and something else that's important and true is perhaps being omitted.

It’s true! When a kid like Michael Brown is killed, he will (in some places) be “thuggified.” To some extent, that has actually happened with Brown. To some extent, it happened with Trayvon Martin, whose case Toure discussed in his next paragraph.

It’s also (mostly) true that this unfortunate part of our war “thrives on America's empathy gap—the way some people struggle to see any kinship or shared humanity with strangers who don't look like them.”

That’s an important point. We’ll guess that many white Americans, and some black Americans, have an easy time assuming / imagining / picturing the worst about kids like Michael Brown. There are many reasons for this, the racial disinterest of MSNBC’s multimillionaire hosts being one recent part of the syndrome.

That is accurately called an “empathy gap.” But it’s only one of our country’s empathy gaps—and empathy gaps are quite active all around the world.

Toure did a very good job discussing that empathy gap. For that reason, we were struck by his failure to mention another such gap by the time he ended his column.

Can we talk? In some quarters, there is an obvious “empathy gap” regarding police officers! People will often assume the worst about kids like Michael Brown. Others will sometimes assume the worst about people like Darren Wilson.

What actually happened in Ferguson on August 9? At this point, we can’t really tell you.

We bring one preconception to the case. In our view, police officers shouldn’t fire their guns at people as they flee except for very substantial cause.

That said, what actually happened that day? We’re waiting to find out. But please understand one key point:

There’s lots of empathy in the world, even in eastern Ukraine or in the Islamic State. Unfortunately, this empathy extends to those within the tribe. All other people are loathed.

Toure did a very good job explaining the empathy gap that can affect kids like Michael brown. He pretty much skipped the empathy gap which may harm that other tribe.

For extra credit only: Toure wrote about “perfect victims.” Klein wrote about “perfect metaphors.”

To what extent were they saying the very same thing? Compare, contrast and further discuss, trying to be empathetic.


  1. OMB (Life in the Fifites and Sixties with the OTB)

    "At one time, the American press corps was Walter and David. People, that was it!" BOB

    Advisory note to kids (people with Ivy League degrees but not yet 30)

    There was an earlier time in America. Parents taught responsibility. Bad boys who did terrible things were punished by white parents, and even black parents before liberal values were imposed due to the Civil Rights movement.

    One punishment, for felonies like stealing cigarillos and shoving a clerk, or stealing polywogs and hatcheting a playmate, was to restrict access to newpapers. Only a really bad child was restricted from reading the rich variety of newpapers and magazines at the time. They had to get their news from the nightly half hour broadcasts of Walter Cronkite (CBS) and David Brinkley (NBC).

    Children who were truly no angels grew up thinking only Walter and David were the entirety of the American press corps. Of course they did get to watch cartoons, which were generally limited to broadcasts on Saturday morning. No parents were monsters them. They slept in twin beds and wore ties or pearls at dinner.

    1. Why does Somerby disappear Chet?

    2. His name, after all, was first, as were the ratings of their

      Bob also disappeared their salaries, and Uncle Walter's 48 foot sailboat and his home on Martha's Vineyard.

    3. David Brinkley ran the "Gong Show" that we used to call, "This Week with David Brinkley". You know, the show where Sam and Cokie got to spin insider tales for the Sunday morning audience. Our news was just as stage managed when those two giants bestrode the airways.


  2. Toure also wrote that Brown had become a "symbol," which sounds suspiciously like Klein's description of him as a "metaphor." My guess is that Ms. Harris-Perry doesn't have the same reaction to that word as she did to Klein's use of "metaphor."

  3. Two points. First, Somerby does not refer to race when he says tribe. He says:

    "Ferguson involves matters of race, the gigantic topic on which it’s hardest to get people to abandon their preconceptions (many of which may be admirable). Beyond that, we live in absurdly tribal times."

    When he refers to our tribal times, the phrase "Beyond that" explicitly excludes race.

    Second, to accept the extra credit challenge, the term "perfect victim" refers to an individual whose human foibles (the specifics) have been rounded off to make him more suitable for purposes of outrage. When Klein talks about Ferguson as a metaphor for the 400 year racial struggle, he is not talking about a person but a situation emblematic of an ongoing trend across time. The details of Ferguson that are specific to it and not to the larger racial struggle have been rounded off. It is the rounding off of specifics to focus on the core that is shared in both examples.

    In teacher training, we learn that use of metaphors without explanation of the points of intersection is dangerous because some students will zero in on extraneous details that are not germane to the points of comparison, perhaps not even recognizing what the commonalities between the case at hand and the metaphor are. In middle school, kids are taught to recognize similes and metaphors by dissecting them to see which aspects are shared and which are irrelevant. But many kids do not learn to do this. Leaving on their own, without explaining which points of similarity are intended by the use of the metaphor, will result in major confusion and failure of communication. Using metaphors may be colorful and poetic. It can convey intangibles that are hard to put into words. It is also risky and that is why metaphors are almost never used in science or law or anywhere that precise meaning is required.

    This argument is just a case in point. When there are people who do not wish to understand what someone is saying, metaphors provide a perfect excuse for not just misunderstanding but vilifying others. For example, the word sweaty was perfect for conveying quickly the white visceral disgust for race music back in the 40s & 50s, when it was more sexual and physical and more explicit than white music (and when music was more segregated than today). If you didn't have a parent forbidding you to listen to black music (and that awful Elvis Presley who borrowed from it), you won't understand his reference. The Somerby haters seized on it as if (1) he had said it himself to convey his own reactions, (2) Harris-Perry hadn't meant to suggest Klein shared the historical white aversion to black music when he discussed influences on Brown in her own statements. In that case, a single word drawn from outside music and used figuratively to capture a world of meaning, was instead warped and misapplied to further the tribal aims of our resident trolls. That perfectly illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of writing in metaphor instead of legalistic prose.

    1. This comment may explain why some look at the process of training our teachers with slighly arched brows.

    2. Why, since your conclusion is not self-evident?

    3. I am always so happy, and so is Bob, that he has so many fans, ready and eager to explain what he really means, which is always something far more profound than what he actually wrote.

    4. Truths are self evident notanon. Conclusions are not, like certain rights, endowed by our creator.

  4. It's so much easier to write a column about whether or not the President should get involved. POOMA arguments can be conjured up with little effort.

    OTOH suppose a columnist wanted to write a comprehensively about what is known or reasonably believed as of now. The columnist would have to peruse the official statements by the Police chief. S/he'd have to look at the anonymous sources alleging severe injury to Wilson's face and evaluate their believability. S/he'd have to look at stories from witnesses and evaluate their believability. S/he'd have to read the full post mortem and correlate with testimony of various witnesses.

    It's a lot easier to just make up some stuff about what the President ought to do.

  5. He really doesn't know Dowd at all.

  6. "But when there's a black victim involved, the information takes a different and predictable turn: The victim becomes thuggified. This is an easy leap for many minds, given the widespread expectation of black criminality."

    Come now, it's a bit ridiculous to whine that an individual is being "thuggified" when said individual is on tape knocking over a convenience store.

    If you wish to avoid being "thuggified," try to refrain from behaving in a thug-like manner. Most responsible citizens understand this.

    1. But always shoot first, thuggify later.

    2. Yes, try to refrain from walking home at night carrying candy and sugary drinks. That's thug behavior, for sure. And thugs get what they deserve. Unless they are police. Or "neighborhood watch" volunteers.

    3. I don't remember suggesting that "walking home at night carrying candy and sugary drinks" was thuggish behavior. Were you mistakenly responding to another post?

    4. A kid walking home with candy and sugary drinks sure got "thuggified" in a hurry, didn't he?

      After all, he was wearing a hoodie.

    5. Come now, it's a bit ridiculous to whine that an individual is being "thuggified" when said individual is on tape knocking over a convenience store.

      Ridiculousness has never stopped braindead liberals from saying or doing anything.

    6. Please stop generalizing individual behavior, ridiculous or nit, to all liberals.

  7. I don't remember suggesting that "walking home at night carrying candy and sugary drinks" was thuggish behavior. Were you mistakenly responding to another post?

    1. Apparently I don't know how to respond to a response either. Irony!

    2. This guy refused to identify himself to cops, attempted to walk away when they tried to detain him, listened to nothing the cops said to him (talking over them and repeating himself no responsively), and did not comply when they asked him to put his hands behind his back for cuffs, which is when they finally tased him. Why do people think they know "their rights" and insist that cops cannot do their job? He seemed to think that the presence of his kids should change what was happening, but why would it? This is a great example of really stupid behavior -- how not to interact with cops.

    3. Here's a case like Ferguson, but with the races apparently reversed. (The victim was white or white & Hispanic. The policeman who shot him has been described as "not white") No national uproar. No Justice Dept. Investigation. See

    4. Yes, David. The Dillon Taylor case. Funny how the people Salt Lake are much more intelligent than the right-wing noise machine trying to race-bait on it.

      They have also seen the similarities between the Brown and Taylor killings and have linked them. They want the cops to stop killing unarmed citizens.

      Meanwhile, the protestors in Salt Lake have not been met by a heavily militarized police force pointing assault rifles and machine guns at them -- which of course was the spectacle that really launched the Brown case into national attention for days. Otherwise, it's just another cop-involved homicide.

      There is one big difference, however. Taylor had an outstanding warrant for his arrest for a parole violation. He was on parole for a robbery conviction.

      Where is the right-wing media calling him a "thug"? Oh, I forgot. "Wrong race, no interest."

    5. Yes, indeed. What a "thug." Christopher Lollie refused to identify himself to cops when he had done nothing wrong.

      And you know what? The three charges against him -- trespassing, disorderly conduct and obstructing the legal process -- when not only his video surfaced, but other surveillance video also captured what happened.

      And on top of that, his kid's teacher also filed a witness statement on his behalf.

      And here's the real problem with your "well, he didn't identify himself". Minnesota doesn't have a "stop and identify" statute that would give cops the right to stop any person they want to stop and demand identification for any reason or no reason at all.

      By the time the St. Paul cops arrived, Lollie had left the bench he was sitting on and was walking toward the school. He told the cops what his business was -- when he didn't even need to do that -- and it would have been a simple matter for one of them to check with the school.

      Nope, the guy winds up on the ground, tazed, handcuffed, with three trumped-up charges filed against him.

    6. A tennis buddy of mine, a former police chief who has had experience with this sort of thing, wrote a nice article about this topic for Reuters:
      Never an excuse for shooting unarmed suspects, former police chief says
      Joe has also written a bunch of novels, which may explain why the article is so well written.

    7. He was not randomly stopped. The cops were called to the scene by a bank employee who first asked him to move. So the law you and he cited does not apply, which is why people should not try to be their own lawyers during encounters with police but comply and sort it out later. He is a musician and artist who may have provoked this situation for publicity or attention. Once walking toward the school he refused to stop when they tried to detain him. That is right there on the video. The point was not whether he was picking up his kids but his refusal to identify himself or respond appropriately to their requests.

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  10. Experts who are interviewed saying that there is never an excuse (or reason) to shoot an unarmed suspect are telling a pleasing story. The word "never" is silly. It means there is no conceivable scenario where a cop might shoot someone unarmed. It is easy to imagine any number of scenarios. 1. An unarmed person is running toward a firearm that will make him dangerous if he gets it. 2. An unarmed person is harming a smaller person or child and will inflict grievous harm on them if not stopped. 3. The unarmed person has Ebola (for example) but refuses to stay in quarantine. 4. The unarmed person is irrational and unpredictable and has threatened to harm others and will not stay where others can monitor his behavior. 5. The unarmed person is an arsonist about to start a fire if permitted to depart. You get the idea.

    1. Right you are. In fact, when Joe McNamara's wife sent me the link to Joe's article Never an excuse for shooting unarmed suspects, former police chief says, she wrote, "p.s. He made them take their editor's word Never out of the text, but of course they left it in their headline."

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