SNAPSHOTS FROM THE FAIL: Philosopher visits NPR!


Part 2—Gods call discussion a fail:
According to several Olympian gods to whom we've granted anonymity because they haven't been authorized to discuss our unraveling veil of tears, the most revealing event in "human" history occurred on an NPR radio program last Wednesday morning, August 30, 2017, in the heart of New York City.

The gods referred to The Brian Lehrer Show, a daily program on Gotham's WNYC. The program is branded as high end. That's where the comedy starts.

Our interest in last Wednesday's radio show began in the New York Times of Thursday, August 31. On the famous newspaper's recently reimagined page A3, an anonymous journalist cited the program in the Spotlight feature, which can't be seen on-line.

The conversation on Lehrer's program had caught page A3's eye. Here's how the feature started:

On Wednesday, Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of philosophy and law at N.Y.U., who writes the Ethicist column for The Times Magazine, appeared on WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show" to discuss ethical quandaries and his new book, "As If: Idealization and Ideals." An edited and consensed version of their conversation follows; to hear the entire segment, visit
The day before, Appiah had chatted with Lehrer for some 21 minutes. In this Spotlight feature, the Times provided a version of their conversation which was edited and condensed.

Somewhat implausibly, several Olympian gods have now told us that this radio chat was the most revealing event in "human" history. With their smirks and the rolls of their eyes, they inserted scare quotes in that description exactly where we've placed them.

How could a fairly brief radio chat possibly be so revealing? Before we share the gods' perspective, let's get clear on who the participants were that day.

First, the philosopher. As the Spotlight synopsis reveals, Appiah isn't just any philosopher. He's the official "house philosopher" of the New York Times, our most foppish American newspaper.

As such, he's also regarded by the Times as a journalist. This legitimates his presence in the Spotlight feature, which presents "reportage and repartee" from this newspaper's journos.

Appiah isn't just any philosopher; he's the official house philosopher of the New York Times. He spoke last Wednesday with Lehrer, who isn't just any NPR star, he'd an NPR star in New York.

As such, rules of branding established their chat as the brainiest discussion possible within our journalistic firmament. That's why the gods smirked, and rolled their eyes, as they discussed what occurred.

We asked the gods about this program because, when we listened to it on line, we found it so—well, what's the word?

Our youthful analysts had lowered their heads as they listened to Lehrer's exchange with Appiah. We tried to tell them that the chat came straight from the heart of our full-blown fail, and was therefore extremely significant. But nothing we said could excite their interest, and the gods seemed openly derisive when they discussed this chat.

Is Appiah a competent philosopher? Is he a philosopher at all, in any meaningful sense?

Is Lehrer a competent journalist? Would a competent journalist engage in a discussion of the type he staged with Appiah that day?

We ask these questions for an obvious reason. Over the past perhaps thirty years, our American public discourse entered a long slow downward spiral, a downward spiral which has produced our current absolute fail.

That absolute fail is embodied in the rule of Donald J. Trump. His strange behavior was evaluated by the philosopher in the following manner, starting in minute 6 of that NPR program:
APPIAH (8/30/17): It's true that almost everything the current president says is strictly speaking false. But a lot of it is false in the mode of hyperbole, and I don't think we should object to those ones, we shouldn't object to the ones where he's overstating the case. People overstate the case all the time!

LEHRER: Didn't he use a phrase like that in his book, The Art of the Deal? Your phrase [in the book As If] is "strategic untruth," that so many people employ as a method of dealing with reality. And I think he said "strategic hyperbole," or something like that?

APPIAH: Yes, he did, yes. So that's overstatement. So we should expect him to overstate...
We should expect him to overstate! He copped to this in his stupid old book. Why should we be surprised?

A defender of the faith could say that we're quoting Appiah selectively. In tomorrow's report, we'll examine his statements in more detail. But we think a person could fairly say that Appiah seemed to be saying that we shouldn't be all that concerned if "almost everything [Donald J. Trump] says is strictly speaking false."

We should expect him to overstate! He said he would in his book!

What, us worry? So the philosopher seemed to say last Wednesday, with no push-back from the journalist, who seemed to think he might be engaged in some sort of deep discussion.

The philosopher's take on Donald J. Trump may seem a bit odd on its face. But that exchange seems like Einstein's next breakthrough as compared to the philosopher's later remarks, which had the analysts glumly staring into middle distance.

Sad! In our view, the philosopher seemed to be auditioning for a sequel to Being There; the NPR journalist showed no sign of noticing this state of affairs. Tomorrow, we'll look at what the philosopher eventually said, and we'll discuss the mirth of the gods.

Our society's long, ridiculous downward spiral has now produced a total fail. Our "philosophers" and our "journalists" stared into space for thirty years as this fail developed.

The gods smirked as they discussed Wednesday's radio chat, but we thought they also seemed perhaps a bit chagrined. We almost thought the gods believed that a wonderful joke—a source of amusement on Olympus for several millennia—had at long last gone too far, had yielded a tragic result.

Last Wednesday morning, a court philosopher chatted with a name-brand journalist. According to several gods, their discussion can be described as a snapshot from the fail.

We think the gods were strongly on point. Your lizard will tell you we're wrong.

Tomorrow: Human, oh so less than human!

Coming next: Memoirs from the fail


  1. In love: it's "vale of tears" boss

    1. It's a clever pun. A vale, i.e. a valley, can't unravel, but a veil can.

    2. Hmm. Almost seems that *any* possible erroneous use of this phrase could be generously credited as "a clever pun"...

      So even though Mr. Somerby is typically far more likely to telegraph his witticisms, we'll be generous and assume cleverness rather than common error.

    3. Wow, Nona Nym! I hope all that dramatic generosity doesn't do you some permanent harm.

      And this claim intrigues me:

      "Hmm. Almost seems that *any* possible erroneous use of this phrase could be generously credited as 'a clever pun'..."

      Right off hand, I can think of no other possible "erroneous" uses of the phrase. Please enlighten us all, so we can face the future better prepared to follow your lead by pouncing on even the smallest of perceived faults, wherever we may "find" them.

  2. "The philosopher's take on Donald J. Trump may seem a bit odd on its face."

    Hmm, seems fine to me. As for Bob's own extremely odd idea that Mr Trump's style of communications indicates that he must be insane, here's what another philosopher said (from memory):

    'Those who dance appear insane to those who can't hear the music.' So, there.

    1. Those who live under an oligarchy, and laugh as they watch a free country descend to oligarchy, appear insane.

  3. Here, dear Bob, read and learn how to analyze and criticise goebbelsian establishment media:

    1. Wonder if Fox News ever engages in Goebbelsian behavior? Nah, guess they're off the hook..they aren't "establishment" media..or at least, so they themselves conveniently say.

  4. Glad to see that Bob states clearly that Trump is an epic fail.
    But… journalists (or philosopher/journalists) shouldn't call Trump a liar (even if he is) (this from several recent TDH posts), and they shouldn't say that they "expect" him to overstate/make false statements, even though that seems to be obviously true, (based on Trump's "stupid old book"), but they most definitely must discuss Trump’s possibly diseased mental state (again, something Somerby has said recently).
    This all seems a bit confused to me. “Journalists” should stick to facts, agreed. Opinion writers (as well as philosophers) ought to be allowed to make a case for Trump’s lying and/or mental state. Although judging someone’s mental state is a slippery slope, and seems much less easy to determine than whether someone is lying.
    I’m not defending the professor or the NPR person. The discussion, at least as Bob presents it, seems vapid. But I can’t make out Bob’s ultimate criticism, since he makes some odd assertions himself.
    Guess we'll wait for the next post.

  5. Circulation numbers of some major American newspapers, best I could get:
    USA Today - 2,301,917
    The New York Times - 2,101,611
    The Wall Street Journal - 1,337,376
    Los Angeles Times - 467,309
    New York Post - 424,721
    Chicago Tribune - 384,962
    The Washington Post - 356,768
    Newsday - 321,296
    Daily News - 299,538
    National Enquirer 342,071 (should get the Nobel Prize, according to Trump, so I included it)

    Is the New York Times "our most foppish newspaper?"
    Does Somerby peruse the other publications on this list to judge their "foppishness" quotient and compare it to that of the Times?
    What makes the NY Times "foppish?" Is it because they have a style section?
    Darlings...have we ever encountered a newspaper before?
    Is it elitist to assume NY Times is most foppish?

    1. In 1898, with Joseph Pulitzer at the helm, the circulation of the daily New York World was roughly 1,500,000.
      Sorry about the factoid, Bob.

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  8. Somerby sets an appropriately high bar when it is a philosopher who speaks, so I am looking forward to his next post about Appiah. I listened to the NPR interview and waited in vain for a distinction between "idealization" and simple "abstraction." All speech necessarily abstracts any matter under discussion. Idealization seems to deal with taking a position on how things ought to be (not how a more or less abstract description fares as true or false). In this connection, I would agree with Somerby that Appiah's remarks, to the effect that Trump's "hyperbole" should not be troubling, are themselves troubling in the extreme. Cambridge and Oxford philosophers are notorious for proving their cleverness, and getting bogged down in irrelevance, by drawing hyper-fine distinctions that no one ever thought of before. Trump's "expected overstatement" seems like a case in point.