THURSDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2020
A culture of condemnation: In the past day (give or take), a wave of unflattering snapshots have emerged from the streets of Our Town.
Some of these snapshots have captured our upper-end journalists' lack of basic competence. Other snapshots have seemed to capture the culture of condemnation widely observed in Our Town.
Concerning the competence, we were struck by the way Jake Tapper opened yesterday's 3 P.M. hour on CNN.
Tapper is in fact perfectly competent. That said, his presentation captured the lack of adherence in Our Town to what might be called the culture of accurate statement:
TAPPER (12/30/20): Welcome to The Lead. I'm Jake Tapper. And we begin this hour with our health lead.
The chief adviser for Operation Warp Speed, Dr. Moncef Slaoui, predicting a game-changer in the fight against COVID-19, Slaoui saying that the FDA could authorize a vaccine from Johnson & Johnson in February, and another one from Oxford/AstraZeneca in April.
This comes as the U.K. this morning off already authorized the AstraZeneca vaccine for use in the general public in that country.
Vaccine rollout in the U.S. is continuing to underperform predictions and promises previously made by the Trump administration...
All of this comes as one epidemiologist is warning that things are so bad, it's time to stop talking about surges and waves because we are inside a, quote, "viral tsunami."
Yesterday alone, the U.S. set two more devastating records, more than 3,700 deaths and nearly 125,000 people hospitalized from this virus...
Tapper is perfectly competent. Presumably, he could make accurate statements if he wanted to.
Instead, he offered a standard ambiguous claim about Tuesday's number of Covid deaths. As he did, he drove the fear and excitement along, and he emphasized Storyline.
According to Tapper, the U.S. had set a "devastating record" on Tuesday—"more than 3,700 deaths." This reinforced the claim that "things are so bad, it's time to stop talking about surges and waves" because we're inside a tsunami.
How bad were things as Tapper spoke? Matters like that are hard to measure, especially during an extended holiday season, in which the formal recording of cases and deaths is subject to large distortions.
How bad were things yesterday? According to the New York Times' data, the average number of (recorded) deaths in the previous week stood at 2,252 deaths per day. This represented a substantial drop from the corresponding numbers in previous weeks. Indeed, the 7-day average had risen as high as 2,710 (recorded) deaths per day as of December 22.
We keep including the key word "recorded" for an obvious reason. As Tapper surely knows, the thrillingly high number of deaths he was bruiting—"more than 3,700 deaths" on Tuesday alone—was not a record of the number of deaths which had occurred on that day.
Instead, that number represented the number of deaths which had been formally reported or recorded on that particular day. The number included a backlog of deaths which had occurred on earlier days.
As Tapper excitedly spoke, there was no record of how many people had actually died on December 29. Almost surely, Tapper knew that. But journalists in Our Town feed on excitement and Storyline. They have amazingly little attraction to the culture of accurate statement.
Just a few days before Tapper excitedly spoke, the New York Times had reported a mere 1,125 (recorded) deaths on December 25. On excitement-based networks like CNN, they don't mention such low totals on such days as that.
Instead, they wait for a day when a backlog of deaths gets recorded. They let you think that this swollen number represents a new bone-chilling indication of where the pandemic is going.
Just for the record, people are dead all over the world because our journalists do this. Tapper's game won't matter that much. Other such episodes have mattered a great deal.
How many people have been dying these days? Especially during the holiday season, there's zero way to know that!
It's not like this is some sort of mystery. At the Atlantic, the Covid Tracking Project itself has been publishing weekly essays explaining that the holiday season has vastly affected the utility of all these tracking numbers. For example, this is what The Project wrote on December 17:
COVID TRACKING PROJECT (12/17/20): At the national level, the good news this week is that cases haven’t risen that much above last week’s big increases—but at the regional level, the story is more complex. Before Thanksgiving, we predicted that case, test, and death reporting would be compromised by the holiday, first dropping during and immediately after the holiday weekend, and then rising sharply as backlogs resolved. We think tests and cases have now largely recovered from this period of erratic reporting.
Death reporting is a complex—and much lengthier—process that often results in backlogs that are opaque to members of the public, and it’s less clear that the death-reporting backlogs related to the holiday have been completely resolved. With Christmas a little over a week away and New Year’s Day a week after that, we are now heading into a doubly disruptive period in COVID-19 data. The actual patterns present in cases and deaths will eventually become clear when complete reporting by symptom onset and date of death becomes available from federal data sources, but through mid-January at least, we should view the daily and weekly movements in the data with extra caution.
"Through mid-January at least, we should view the daily and weekly movements in the data with extra caution?" Try telling that to Tapper! Death reporting seems to be opaque to people at CNN too!
At any rate, for a similar warning from The Project on December 24, you can just click here. Yesterday, Whit Moser offered a similar assessment in the Atlantic even as Tapper was excitedly banging the drums.
On CNN, they report the death counts when they seem high, ignore them when they seem low. As is true of statistics in general, averages are hard!
Nothing Tapper said yesterday will make any serious difference. But instead of using his time to explain how these numbers actually work, he used his time in the standard way—to create excitement, and a sense of peril, and to drive Storyline.
Surely, Tapper understands how these numbers actually work. That said, there's an amazingly low regard for the culture of accurate statement here in the streets of Our Town.
This trait becomes especially dangerous when it's joined to another of our cultural preferences. We refer to the culture of condescension and condemnation in the realms of gender and race.
We're committed, here in Our Town, to the practice of performative virtue with respect to these (very important) realms. Beyond that, we're very strongly inclined believe everything anyone says, just so long as whatever they said furthers our favorite Storylines.
Along the way, we show little regard for the people who have improved our national and global culture. Instead, we journey back through the ages, but also across the current countryside, seeking people we can condemn for their retrograde ways.
If you read the New York Times, this practice is widely observed on a daily basis. Just last night, we were struck by a snapshot of this practice as we watched several crackpot discussions on Democracy Now.
Then too, on Tuesday night we watched the new "American Masters" PBS program about Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Wilder was born in 1867. It's possible, though not necessarily totally clear, that some of her attitudes about issues of ethnicity and "race" were less advanced than those we perform on a daily basis here in the streets of Our Town.
On Tuesday night, PBS debuted a 90-minute American Masters program about Wilder. The program included the remarkable and beautiful passage from one of the Little House books, These Happy Golden Years, in which Laura Ingalls, then seventeen or eighteen, accepts her future husband's proposal of marriage:
NARRATOR: Laura refused to say the word "obey" in the wedding vows. It would set the tone for their lifelong partnership.
VOICEOVER, READING FROM TEXT: She summoned all her courage and said, "Almanzo, I must ask you something. Do you want me to promise to obey you?"
Soberly, he answered, "Of course not. I know it is in the wedding ceremony, but it is only something that women say. I never knew one that did it, nor any decent man that wanted her to."
"Well, I am not going to say I will obey you," said Laura. "I cannot make a promise that I will not keep, and Almanzo, even if I tried, I do not think I could obey anybody against my better judgment."
"I'd never expect you to," he told her.
We'd describe that a a thrilling example of progressive gender relations. Wilder published that account in 1943, for girls and boys to gain from.
There are also parts of the Little House books which no one would publish today, especially in books designed for children. That said, these parts are few and far between, and we were struck by the priggish condescension as various members of Our Town dropped our favorite nuclear weapons on Wilder's head during the PBS program.
When we looked at the PBS program's web site, we had to shake our heads. The punishing essay by Lizzie Skurnick is very hard to reconcile with the events which actually occur in Little House On The Prairie.
Throughout that book, Pa is favorably disposed to the Osage Indians among whom the family is living. Laura, then maybe 7, is envious of the cultural freedom she sees being bestowed on the Osage children.
In the language now widely employed in Our Town, we're weirdly told, during the PBS program, that little Laura was "fetishizing" the Osage children when she reacted that way—that this is where the myth of the noble savage came from. In all honesty, you can't get dumber than we are on a daily basis.
Donald J. Trump has long been visibly crazy. Increasingly, we in Our Town almost seem able to match him, especially when our self-adoring instincts are joined to our very casual relationship to the culture of accurate statement.
Elementary claims in Skurnick's essay are very hard to reconcile with the actual text of Little House On The Prairie (and at least one other Wilder book). Crazily, though, her essay says this early on:
SKURNICK (12/23/20): It was only as an adult that I learned the series was not a faithful recollection. Rather, it was Wilder’s fragmented memories, coaxed into a narrative by daughter Rose Wilder Lane. This mother-and-daughter team had a vigorous agenda, excising, embroidering, and inventing events entirely. Which meant that the “savages” and the minstrels were not a product of the 1800s. They were the creation of two adult women living in New Deal America.
And what these women created was one of the most successful campaigns in publishing history: a campaign for the myth of white self-sufficiency. Over the course of nine novels, that myth justifies the taking of land, goods, and power. Its bigotry is not isolated, or incidental. It is the driving force of the narrative.
As Skurnick frets and rails, a fictionalized, written-for-children version of an author's childhood becomes "fragmented memories, coaxed into a narrative" by two scheming women.
Most crazily, Skurnick says the "bigotry" of Wilder's books is "the driving force of the narrative." Truly, that's what the essay says!
Unless you've lived for a while in Our Town, it may be hard to understand why PBS would publish such a puzzling essay. Is PBS planning to produce an American Masters program about David Duke next?
Much like people found elsewhere, we simply aren't especially sharp over here in Our Town. We're quick to posture, quick to condemn, often in very dumb ways.
Everyone else can see this about us. We can't see it ourselves.
Wilder was born in 1867. Skurnick came along a great deal later, set up shop in Our Town. In her essay, she performs in a highly familiar way, one we'd call "all too human."
Why was November's election so close, with our team losing a bunch of seats in the House, even after four solid years of Donald Trump's manifest lunacy?
We think you're asking a very good question. More on that puzzle next year!
Still coming: Snapshots of Norris and Shields