THREE-CARD MONTE, TRIBAL SCRIPT: Konnikova explores the lure of the con!


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.

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.”
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.

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 supported
Democrats in the past.
I mean, I'm not saying—


BUMILLER: I mean, I'm not saying— I mean, it's an idea.


BUMILLER: But no! He gave money to Hillary Clinton, he's got this New York style. I—You know. I offer it up.
Bumiller 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.

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: 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.

TODD: When?

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.
Ogletree is a professor at Harvard Law School. On what planet has he spent his sabbatical since developing this view?

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.

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.
We have no idea what that meant. But that's what counts as a discussion when our highest elites are involved.

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


  1. Historical consensus is that Potemkin never actually built those Potemkin villages his political enemies accused him of creating. His accomplishments were real.

    Can someone who doesn't know that complain about the failures to clearly explain relativity?

    1. Well,

      If someone who became a classroom teacher to avoid military service and left as a burnout over three decades ago can offer himself as an expert in education,

      If someone who has demonstrated no involvement whatsoever in electoral politics can offer expertise in causes of campaign outcomes,

      If someone with no educational and little practical experience in a profession can send seventeen years pontificating on the standards and secret conspriacies of that profession,

      If a person can do that they can offer any view they wish on Potemkin and suggest Trotsky survived the melting of the global ice picks as well. In our view.

    2. Five-year attrition in teaching is 40-50% and higher in large urban districts (e.g., 70% in Philadelphia). After teaching in Baltimore public schools for 10 years, Somerby certainly has practical experience. Given that the draft had long been ended one might ask why he remained teaching. Somerby tends to write about testing abuses and the school reform movement. Many progressives consider these to be important subjects.

    3. Well, if you think that burning out in 10 years instead of five --- without setting foot in a classroom for more than three decades --- qualifies someone to speak with authority about testing abuses and school reform, then you have a mighty low threshhold for what you consider authority.

    4. Someone can speak authoritatively about testing abuses and school reform without any years spent teaching if they do their homework on the subject. Journalists who write about the schools have generally spent 0 years teaching.

    5. Anon. @ 11:43: That is truly inane! I assume that means that you think you're smarter than Bob?

    6. Somerby makes a fair point, he just didn't spell it out for you. These days cookies are no where near as sharp as, say, a Catherine the Great was [LINK].

  2. I'm so relieved to know people like Trump and Cruz don't have a chance.

  3. I thought Nixon and Reagan didn't have a chance. I thought GW Bush didn't have a chance. I even thought Obama didn't have a chance. I don't use those words any more. Lots of people thought Hitler didn't have a chance of being elected in Germany. Never underestimate the self-destructive stupidity of voters as a group, especially when they are dazed and confused by unfortunate life events.

  4. Bumiller has a point. The conservative media does criticize Trump for not being conservative.

  5. "In forty years, we're not sure that we've ever seen a coherent discussion of the conduct of low-income schools."

    It has been about that long since Bob Somerby was last in a school which might be so described. Since then he has challenged many a definition of what constitutes low income in the school field.

    I might ask in what sense can a school have conduct or conbduct itself.

    1. He has criticized how students are classified as low income, not how schools are classified. I assume he has talking about how such schools are run. Jonathan Kozol was the last person who described the disgrace of "Savage Inequalities" in public schools, in 1991. The embrace of the charter movement and the coopting of reform by companies looting education budgets sidetracked efforts to help low income students and improve low income (underfunded) schools. This is a real problem that many of us care about. You seem to come out of the woodwork to attack Somerby but how about directing some of that negative energy toward better targets?

    2. "The embrace of the charter movement and the coopting of reform by companies looting education budgets sidetracked efforts to help low income students and improve low income (underfunded) schools. This is a real problem that many of us care about."

      Indeed. And it a real problem that Somerby very seldom, if ever, has addressed -- that is, when he's not obsessed with how much money is made by people younger and smarter than he is.

    3. Except when he is criticizing Michelle Rhee and all those folks who endlessly bemoan how terrible public education is, while test scores keep going up.

    4. Which of course, they are not unless you carefully cherry-pick your data.

    5. Dave the Guitar PlayerDecember 8, 2015 at 12:43 PM

      Which of course means you believe that students today are not scoring better on standardized tests than in years past when fairly compared. If that is what you believe, then it is you that are cherry-picking the data.

  6. "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."

    Freakonomics? Something by Malcolm Gladwell?

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