MONDAY, NOVEMBER 16, 2020
Jake Tapper meets Norman O. Brown: Shannon Palus is a staff writer at Slate. She's also a good, decent person.
Palus is seven years out of college (McGill, class of 2013). Before that, she prepped at Germantown Friends.
Palus's current piece at Slate is one of the first things we read this morning. As of this morning, it was the featured report on the site's front page.
On the whole, we have no idea what Palus is talking about. Slate's headlines offer this:
That Viral Tweet About Suicide Rates in the Pandemic Is Wrong and DangerousIt was debunked months ago. Here’s why it’s still spreading.
Commander-in-chief Donald J. Trump has been making claims about suicide rates since March. For that reason, we decided to read Palus's piece. Her report starts like this:
PALUS (11/13/20): On Thursday, a social media post from Jake Tapper included an odd call to action, at least for a CNN anchor: “could 2 followers please copy and re-post this tweet?”
The rest of the text contained an alarming, if vague, statement about mental health, along with further specific instructions for sharing:
Suicide figures are up. Could 2 followers please copy and re-post this tweet? We’re trying to demonstrate that someone is always listening.
Call 1-800-273-8255 (USA hotline)
Just two. Any two. Copy, not retweet.
As might be obvious, Tapper didn’t write this himself. It’s also not quite accurate.
So started this report at Slate. As of this morning, it was the featured report on the site's front page.
The piece is the featured report at Slate; it concerns an important topic. That said, we've read the report several times, and we've clicked on several links, and we have no real idea what Palus is talking about.
We don't quite know why Palus says that Tapper "didn't write [the tweet] himself." We can't exactly say what she means when she says that Tapper's (astoundingly vague) factual claim is "not quite accurate."
Along the way, Palus provides material intended to undercut the notion that suicide rates have been rising. Amazingly, this is the material to which we refer:
PALUS: Back in June, a tweet stating that “suicide figures are up 200% since lockdown,” with the same call to action as Tapper’s and the phone number for a hotline in the U.K., went viral. Shayan Sardarizadeh, who covers disinformation for the BBC, fact-checked that figure at the time, finding no evidence that suicides had gone up—national suicide rates for 2020 in the U.K. had not even been released at that point...Still, the tweet is not quite false, depending on what you consider a “suicide figure”: Sardarizadeh noted in a post on BBC News’ live reporting blog that the person who first posted the 200 percent figure cited a TV report discussing calls to a help line.
But stating that “suicide figures are up” without specifying what one means by that isn’t a neutral statement. It’s designed to be alarming. Consider what it would mean to share the actual fact that calls to a suicide hotline are up. Yes, that sounds concerning. But it’s worth noting that “suicide hotlines” serve more than just people at immediate risk of harming themselves; you can also reach out to the number in Tapper’s tweet, for example, if you are concerned about a loved one “or would like emotional support,” according to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s website. And increased calls to hotlines—no matter the reason—could be an indication that they are doing exactly what they are designed to do: help people who need it.
The reasoning there strikes us as bizarre. We say that for these reasons:
For starters, the initial tweet in June referred to just one statistic concerning one particular help line. Even if that statistic was accurate, it would qualify as "anecdotal" absent other data.
It's hard to know what, if anything, we should conclude based on one statistic involving one help line. But if calls to one particular suicide help line really did go up 200%—that is, if calls to that help line tripled—then on its face, that fact would rather sensibly qualify as "concerning."
Palus makes it sound like that statistic might qualify as upbeat news. It could mean that people are doing the things they should, she correctly (and selectively) says.
Again, a single statistic of that type can actually tell us nothing. That said, Palus's highly motivated reasoning, and her general failure to explain what Tapper did and why he did it, does in fact help show us something about the decline of our nation's intellectual culture and of our larger cultural world.
The web site Slate began its life as a serious journalistic venture, at least to the extent that such ventures were still possible by the time of its founding. The leading authority on the site thumbnails its early history in the manner shown:
[Slate] was created in 1996 by former New Republic editor Michael Kinsley, initially under the ownership of Microsoft as part of MSN. In 2004, it was purchased by The Washington Post Company (later renamed the Graham Holdings Company), and since 2008 has been managed by The Slate Group, an online publishing entity created by Graham Holdings.
Journalistically, Kinsley had distinguished himself as the well-known "brightest man of the 1980s." As of 2004, the site he founded was purchased by the Washington Post, a major part of this nation's upper-end mainstream press establishment.
Slate was seen as a serious venture as of the time of its founding. By this morning, the site was headlining a puzzling analysis piece by a youngish, somewhat ardent writer—an analysis piece which basically didn't make a whole lot of sense.
That said, there's nothing unusual about this state of affairs. Published work which doesn't make sense is now widespread across all upper-end mainstream platforms, from the lordly New York Times on down.
The Times has largely become a ship of fools. Why should Slate's work make sense?
The Palus report doesn't make much sense. Why did Tapper post that tweet? Why would Tapper post such a peculiar tweet? Why would any major journalist post a weird tweet like that?
Palus doesn't explain. Along the way, she seems to say that a tripling of calls to a suicide help line should really be scored as good news.
Slate's featured report doesn't make much sense. But by now, such work is "close enough for mainstream press corps work," and has been for a long time.
Do we modern Americans have the intellectual capacity needed to continue as a functioning nation? Again and again and again and again, the answer seems to be no.
Due in part to the power of branding, this fact can be hard to spot at the top of the mainstream cultural heap. It's painfully evident in emanations which come to us from down below.
Do we have the intellectual capacity to continue as a nation? Starting this week, we'll look at some of the sectors where the answer may seem to be no. For now, we'll even note the way Tapper's followers scrambled to hail his puzzling tweet, with very few people noting how little journalistic content Tapper was offering.
Starting this week, we'll examine the various sectors where our capacity for sensible conduct seems to have come to an end. As we do, we'll think again of Norman O. Brown's warning from the acid-downing, street-fighting 1960s.
Brown, a UC Santa Cruz classicist, suddenly became a major figure during that era. At this site, we've been recalling his rather murky warning since at least 2009:
BROWN (1960): I sometimes think I see that societies originate in the discovery of some secret, some mystery; and end in exhaustion when there is no longer any secret, when the mystery has been divulged, that is to say profaned...And so there comes a time—I believe we are in such a time—when civilization has to be renewed by the discovery of some new mysteries, by the undemocratic but sovereign power of the imagination, by the undemocratic power which makes poets the unacknowledged legislators of all mankind, the power which makes all things new.
The power which makes all things new is magic. What our time needs is mystery: what our time needs is magic. Who would not say that only a miracle can save us?
This warning came from Professor Brown's address to Columbia's Phi Beta Kappa society. His warning was murky, but apt.
In our view, it's abundantly clear that our failing society is currently "ending in exhaustion." To date, no one has discovered the new mystery, the new secret, which would make all things new.
Do we the people have what it takes to run a giant modern nation? As our monologues proceed, we'll look at indications from below, and at those which come to us from the top of our failing world.
Tomorrow: The comical story of Court TV
Still coming: Listening to C-Span callers; parsing our failing tribe's leading professors; reading the work at the New York Times; top clowns of the History Channel...