Two sides of a pitiful giant: Yesterday, we asked you if our nation has finally announced itself as Richard Nixon's "pitiful, helpless giant."
Over at New York magazine, David Wallace-Wells was asking a similar question. Wallace-Wells is one of our journalistic real deals—an analogue to the earlier Katherine Boo. His headline read, "America Is Broken." At one point, he offered this:
WALLACE-WELLS (3/12/20): A few days ago, I wrote on Twitter that the coronavirus, and our distressingly inept response, kept bringing to mind an essay by Umair Haque, first published in 2018 and prompted primarily by the opioid crisis, about the U.S. as the world’s first rich failed state. Every day it seems more prescient...We recommend the whole essay.
For the record, we've been a "failed state" on an intellectual basis for several decades now. Consider two new examples.
People tend to think of the CDC as a high-quality scientific enterprise. Yesterday, though, we suggested to you that its director, Robert Redfield, played an embarrassing game of Who's On First when Donald Trump came calling last week.
On last evening's Last Word, Lawrence played tape of Rep. Katie Porter battering Redfield in a congressional hearing. Porter was prepared and dogged. Redfield's performance was sad, until he relented at the end. To watch their full exchange, click here.
That said, who in the world is Robert Redfield? Yesterday, speaking to Terry Gross, Politico's Dan Diamond said this:
GROSS (3/12/20): Well, let's take a look at Robert Redfield, who's the head of the Centers for Disease Control. And he was a well-known AIDS researcher, and you say he was a favorite of Christian conservatives when Trump appointed him in 2018. He helped fight HIV-AIDS in Africa, but his approach was to emphasize abstinence and to recommend condoms only as a last resort. Can you tell us more about that?There's nothing automatically wrong with being "a favorite of Christian conservatives," or with having been appointed by Trump. In our view, there was something wrong with the way Redfield played Who's On First, and possibly with the way he testified with Porter.
DIAMOND: Dr. Redfield emerged in the 1980s and 1990s during the AIDS epidemic, and he was seen in some corners as a very important figure in fighting the AIDS epidemic for his willingness to attack this problem as a scientist at a moment when some conservatives were turning away. But he did highlight abstinence as the best preventive measure, saying that the best way to avoid AIDS was holding off on sex until marriage. He wrote the introduction to a book about 30 years ago called "Christians In The Age Of Aids," where he conflated the public health problem of spreading AIDS and HIV with living in a biblical way and the need to, I quote, "reject false prophets" who were suggesting that Americans should use condoms and free needles.
Those views, Redfield has said more recently, are things that he has broadened from. He has walked away from some of those earlier, stricter positions. But Redfield is still seen in some corners as a suboptimal leader of our public health agency, and it's not just because of these views; it's because of his lack of high-end management experience. If you're looking at some of the breakdowns in fighting the coronavirus outbreak, they may not be because Dr. Redfield had these views 30 years ago; they may be more likely that he is not in position to make big, sweeping and aggressive decisions in the middle of an outbreak, which is tough for anyone but certainly a career scientist who may not have been in a management role like this one.
I do think, Terry, we've seen a pattern of behavior from CDC that's been troubling. The failure to roll out lab tests as promised—that's a CDC problem. The failure to plan ahead for shortfalls in the materials needed to work on tests in the future—that's something that CDC director Redfield admitted this week. And at some level, that goes to the leader. These are management decisions, whether the organization is being proactive and running smoothly or whether it's in chaos at a moment when we really need to count on the CDC to protect us.
At any rate, Redfield's CDC seems to be announcing us as a pitiful, helpless giant. Then too, we give you this pitiful piece by the New York Times' Elisabeth Egan in last Sunday's Book Review.
Redfield is dealing with life-and-death situations. Egan was offering a brief review of Alexis Coe's ludicrous book, You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington.
In the main, Egan was announcing the fact that Coe's ridiculous book is now a Times best-seller. But below, you see the soul-crushing way she opened her short review:
EGAN (3/8/20): Alexis Coe examined a small library of books about our first president and noticed something interesting. She writes, "No woman has written an adult biography of George Washington in more than 40 years, and no woman historian has written one in far longer.” What was more, she says it seemed as if the men “had taken a vow that they would proceed in the exact same way, which starts off by declaring Washington too marvelous to be real. They were mirroring each other with slight differences, but not in content, approach or perspective.”Egan starts by purchasing Coe's claim about the way she came to write her book, and about the way she was condescended to when people learned about it. While refusing to report the nature of Coe's "Thigh Men" insults, she accepts Coe's general characterization of those prior historians.
When Coe, a historian and former research librarian at the New York Public Library, announced that she was working on her own book about Washington, many people asked if she was writing about his marriage, his wife or his social life. “No,” she said. “It’s a biography. Like a man would write.” That biography is YOU NEVER FORGET YOUR FIRST, which lands at No. 11 on this week’s hardcover nonfiction list.
During the course of her research, Coe scoured digitized archives and made several trips to Mount Vernon, Washington’s historic home. Her book topples several tall tales related to Washington, including one about his wooden teeth. She writes, “At best, we can say Washington had a poacher’s smile. His dentists took chunks of ivory from hippopotamuses, walruses and elephants, sculpted them down and affixed them to dentures using brass screws.” (He also paid his slaves for their teeth.)
Most amazingly, though, Egan directly claims that Coe has "toppled" the tall tale about Washington's wooden teeth. Even Coe doesn't make that claim in her ridiculous book, although, as we have noted before, she does seem to be trying to convey that absurdly false impression.
Two Sundays ago in the Washington Post, Professor Kars seemed to suggest that Coe deserves credit for shooting down the myth of the wooden teeth. One week later, in the New York Times, Egan makes that flat assertion.
Even Coe never makes that claim, although she tries to convey that impression. Here's the slippery passage in question:
COE (pages xxvii-xxviii): My preoccupation with Washington began years later, with an attempt to read between the lines of his major biographies—particularly Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life. At first, I found the male historians' fixation on his manliness entertaining, but the sheer repetition of their narratives needled me. They always presented Washington's half brother as his god, for example, and his mother as his scourge. I began to dig into the primary sources they cited and was, almost immediately, vexed by some of their interpretations and the opportunities they missed. They seemed bound to follow rote protocols, distancing us from a man we really ought to know better. And then we, in turn, end up inadvertently perpetrating many stereotypes and exaggerations.From that passage, a gullible reader may get the impression that Chernow, and the other male historians, have been pushing the bogus story about Washington having wooden teeth. A gullible reader might even get the impression that the daring female historian, Coe, has finally "toppled" that tale, thanks to her dogged research.
Consider, for instance, the old story about Washington's wooden teeth. If you actually think about it, it doesn't really make sense...
Alas! As a careful reader can see, Coe doesn't explicitly make those claims, but a gullible reader might think she did. And if that gullible reader works for the Times, she'll likely be too dumb, too lazy and too uncomprehending to perform a simple fact check of the matter at hand.
So it went with Egan. As a result, Times readers were told, in last Sunday's Book Review, that the daring Coe has toppled that old tale.
In fact, the notion that Washington had wooden teeth was dispensed with in 1973 by Reidar Sognnaes, a Norwegian academic and the founder of the UCLA School of Dentistry. We know that because we fact-checked this matter, after reading the relevant passages in Coe's implausible, Avenatti-like text.
For the record, none of the male historians Coe slimes by name has ever perpetuated the false belief that Washington had wooden teeth. Nor did Coe debunk this tall tale at all, unless you're reading the Times.
Needless to say, Egan wasn't done at at that point. As she continued, she offered a second groaner:
EGAN (continuing directly): Coe says the most persistent myth she helps debunk is the one whereby Washington’s mother, Mary, was “thwarting him from the day he was born until the day she died.” Examples other historians have used to support this claim “aren’t true—either because they haven’t had much interest in motherhood or they haven’t cared enough to look into these terrible things Mary allegedly did.” For instance: Coe learned that Mary Washington never sent a letter to the Virginia Assembly asking for financial help during the war. In fact, Washington himself later admitted that the person he had trusted with his mother’s care had fallen down on the job. Coe says, “I thought the exclusion of that part of the story was vexing. I’m not here to venerate or degrade Washington. I’m here to look at him as objectively as I can and present a balanced view. Sometimes that means looking at his life and realizing he could be a negligent son, he could be a doting stepfather, and it’s possible for readers to hold both ideas at once.”"Coe learned that Mary Washington never sent a letter to the Virginia Assembly seeking financial help?" Coe makes no such claim in her ridiculous book, in which she devotes three paragraphs, tops, to this entire topic.
Somehow, Egan seems to have come away from an interview with Coe with the false impression that Coe shoots down some false claim about some letter which never got sent. Apparently, she didn't bother consulting the book to see what Coe actually says, which is pretty much nothing.
Is your nation a pitiful, helpless giant? Is it "the first rich failed state?" Consider:
Redfield is working on matters of life and death; Egan and Coe are simply clowning around with some hot modern dogma. But what does it mean when it doesn't occur to a person like Egan to perform even the simplest fact-checks before publishing a piece in her nation's most famous newspaper?
It means that our journalistic elite imploded a long time ago. Nations with journalistic elites of this type are almost surely on their way to becoming failed states.
There's plainly something "off" about Coe; journalists like Egan can neither see nor suspect this. That said, our press corps has functioned this way for decades. Nations whose elites function this way are pitiful, helpless giants.
We started this site based on that very concern. We couldn't take it any more—in 1998!