Part 1—And of tribal narrative: In a game of three-card monte, can you keep track of the queen?
The person running the three-card game will typically have two skills. He'll be skilled at making you think you can do that. He'll also be skilled at making sure that you can't.
It's hard to keep track of the queen in a game of three-card monte! It's getting to be a bit like that with our deeply flawed national discourse, where our basic topics are moving around as fast as the con man's cards.
Just try to keep track of our topics! Last week, the shootings in San Bernardino supplanted the shootings in Colorado. Just before that, the shootings in Colorado had supplanted the shootings in Paris.
The shootings in Paris had supplanted the problems at Missouri and Yale. Those problems supplanted something else. But who can think back that far?
Roommate problems are universal, of course. They exist in Pakistan and in Missouri. From the front page of today's New York Times:
WALSH (12/7/15): Ms. Malik developed a reputation as someone who purposefully avoided making friends with men and who was deeply rooted in her Saudi upbringing.It all depends on how you react! At Missouri, students settled for getting the president fired. Years after her own roommate problem, the "Saudi girl" took her complaints much farther.
After two years living at Maryam Hall, a hostel for female students, she complained to one faculty member that she was uncomfortable with the behavior of the other women. “She told me, ‘My parents live in Saudi Arabia, and I am not getting along with my roommates and cannot adjust with them, so can you help me?’ ” Dr. Syed Nisar Hussain Shah recalled.
Soon after, Ms. Malik moved into a private house in the city that her parents rented for her. “I would call Tashfeen a Saudi girl,” Dr. Shah said. “She had just come to Pakistan for her degree.”
At any rate, the focus of our national discourse is changing with greater and greater speed. This would be challenging in a society with the capacity for rational discourse.
Our society isn't exactly like that. Or so we thought as we watched the panel discussion on yesterday's Meet the Press.
As usual, the gang was soon limning the prospects of Candidate Trump. Elisabeth Bumiller made a statement which seemed so silly that her pals quickly hooted her down:
BUMILLER (12/6/15): Cruz is not at all popular in the senate. He— Republicans say he may be too disliked to be the nominee. And yeah, there's a real concern about that. And I think the one way to go after Trump, maybe, is go after him as a closet Democrat. That he supportedBumiller is Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, our allegedly smartest newspaper. Her analysis made so little sense that her pals quickly hooted her down.
Democrats in the past. I mean, I'm not saying—
[HOOTING AND CROSSTALK]
BUMILLER: I mean, I'm not saying— I mean, it's an idea.
[HOOTING AND CROSSTALK CONTINUE]
BUMILLER: But no! He gave money to Hillary Clinton, he's got this New York style. I—You know. I offer it up.
Charles Ogletree ("Tree") got more respect. On the merits, we don't know why:
TODD (continuing directly): I don't know. I think, Tree, fitness for office and temperament, that seems to be—Ogletree is a professor at Harvard Law School. On what planet has he spent his sabbatical since developing this view?
OGLETREE: He has a zero chance of successful, of being successful.
TODD: If you say so.
OGLETREE: He's going to lose. There's no question about that.
OGLETREE: He's going to lose now, because people were attracted to him because he was not elected to an office, he was not a politician. And like you said before, he was a person that people said, "Wow, he has the idea!" But the more and more you listen to Donald Trump, the more you have the sense that he's not the person that's going to run the country.
I have strong views—if the Republicans want to put him up, fine.
This is what our discourse is like when it's conducted by our highest elites. Over at the new Salon, they decided to save a few bucks. They let Shane Ryan, a golf writer, publish a piece in which he said that progressives should let Candidate Clinton lose the general election.
Republicans will screw everything up, Ryan said. That will lead to revolutionary progressive reform!
Commenters quickly noted that this was the theory in Campaign 2000. In fairness, it got a zillion clicks.
Having said that, do our Times bureau chiefs and our Harvard professors really outperform our golf writers on these topics? As Meet the Press drew to a close, Ogletree offered these thoughts about possible gun control legislation:
TODD: And Tree, I guess that's a question I've heard from some Democrats quietly saying, "You know what, push for gun control, but not now. Guess what, you're going to get lost, and lose the argument. That the Times editorial actually made it a lot harder.We have no idea what that meant. But that's what counts as a discussion when our highest elites are involved.
OGLETREE: I think we may lose the argument. But I think we have to talk about gun control.
One of my best friends in Mississippi, Dennis Sweet, he has guns, he's taught his son and daughter how to use guns, they're locked in a case. And that's what gun control is about. There's no way you're going to get rid of the Second Amendment, no way you're going to get rid of the First Amendment, and people have to understand how important this is.
But I think that when they see more and more killings, we have to figure out what we're going to do about it, and I don't think the criminal justice system now has an answer.
Earlier, Todd had conducted a debate between two Muslim women who seemed to be debating hard even though they seemed to agree on all things. Did you know what their disagreement concerned? Basically, we did not.
We'll offer a guess:
For many people, it's hard to see the sheer ineptitude of our discourse. When the credentials involved are society's highest—Meet the Press, the New York Times, even Harvard Law!—it may be hard for people to spot the emperors' lack of seasonal clothes.
Throw in the speed of the ever-changing discussion and chaos exists on all points. When's the last time you saw a coherent discussion of any topic? We'd have to search our minds.
In forty years, we're not sure that we've ever seen a coherent discussion of the conduct of low-income schools. On Saturday, the Washington Post ran a front-page piece which displayed the Potemkin nature of much reporting on this subject.
We'll plan to spend next week discussing our reactions to that front-page report.
More frivolously, we've just observed the hundredth anniversary of Einstein's theory of general relativity. We still owe you an analysis of NPR's Thanksgiving-week discussion of same, which involved an explanation we called the worst of all time.
Over the weekend, we think we saw an even worse explanation, part of Nova's hour-long special on the anniversary. That said, NPR and Nova are supposed to be among our very brightest news organs. Let's schedule our discussion of these intellectual breakdowns as a special Christmas-week treat.
For this week, let's discuss a truly surprising outlier. Yesterday morning, against all odds, a fascinating analysis piece headlined the New York Times' Sunday Review.
Starting with a tale of three-card monte, Maria Konnikova explained why sensible people fall victim to an array of cons. We were struck by the way her analysis seemed to speak to a related question.
Why are sensible people so eager to swallow tribal narrative? To our mind, it's a very important question.
In recent decades, the conservative world has widely purchased The Crazy. Meanwhile, our most exalted elites just aren't especially sharp.
If the liberal world starts buying pap, there goes our last hope for a sensible discourse. And it seems to us that our liberal world has been eagerly shopping for pap.
Why do we buy the embellished tales our liberal leaders frequently seem to be selling? As we read Konnikova, we thought we saw an explanation, and we thought of a widely-praised book.
In our view, the book in question sells an array of embellished tales. Our tribe is in love with that book. So are the highest elites.
Tomorrow: The con and the tribal script