Where does mistaken belief come from?

SATURDAY, MAY 8, 2021

Our Town can't catch a break: Simply put, Our Town—our pitiful, failing town—can't seem to catch a break.

Let's be more specific:

Our Town's thought leaders can't help themselves—and we Townies are constantly misled, even misinformed, by the various thoughts they provide.

For one example, consider an (interesting) new analysis piece in the New York Times. It was written by Max Fisher. His identity line says this:

Max Fisher is a New York-based international reporter and columnist. He has reported from five continents on conflict, diplomacy, social change and other topics. He writes The Interpreter, a column exploring the ideas and context behind major world events.

Fisher writes The Interpreter column. That's the New York Times' way of saying that he's one of the newspaper's "smart" ones.

(Offering a bit more background, Fisher is twelve years out of college—William and Mary, class of 2008.)

In his new column, Fisher explores an important question: Where does misinformation come from? More specifically, he's asking this extremely important question:

Why does misinformation seem to play such a large role in our public discourse at this point in time?

Those are very important questions. Just for the record, the headlines which sit atop Fisher's column look exactly like this:

‘Belonging Is Stronger Than Facts’: The Age of Misinformation
Social and psychological forces are combining to make the sharing and believing of misinformation an endemic problem with no easy solution.

That's the problem that Fisher's exploring. Showing extremely good judgment, he turns to Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan for the bulk of his analysis.

To Fisher, Nyhan is a Dartmouth political scientist. To us, he's one of the Spinsanity guys, dating to the earliest days of the political Internet.

Nyhan did a lot of good work back then, in his youth. Since then, he's done a lot of good work in his role as an academic. 

(Nyhan is twenty years out of college—Swarthmore, class of 2000.)

As Fisher examines his topic, he turns to Nyhan first. In the following passage, Fisher, channeling Nyhan, starts to explain why we live in an "Age of Misinformation:"

FISHER (5/7/21): We are in an era of endemic misinformation—and outright disinformation. Plenty of bad actors are helping the trend along. But the real drivers, some experts believe, are social and psychological forces that make people prone to sharing and believing misinformation in the first place. And those forces are on the rise.

“Why are misperceptions about contentious issues in politics and science seemingly so persistent and difficult to correct?” Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist, posed in a new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s not for want of good information, which is ubiquitous. Exposure to good information does not reliably instill accurate beliefs anyway. Rather, Dr. Nyhan writes, a growing body of evidence suggests that the ultimate culprits are “cognitive and memory limitations, directional motivations to defend or support some group identity or existing belief, and messages from other people and political elites.”

Is "good information" really "ubiquitous?" We can't quite agree with that. 

In our experience, bogus claims are everywhere. Fact-checking those endless claims can be extremely hard. 

That said, we agree with almost everything which comes next. Indeed, as we read the following passage by Fisher, we get the impression that Nyhan may be consulting with the same disconsolate anthropological experts from whom we've drawn so much wisdom here on our own sprawling campus

FISHER (continuing directly): Put more simply, people become more prone to misinformation when three things happen. First, and perhaps most important, is when conditions in society make people feel a greater need for what social scientists call ingrouping—a belief that their social identity is a source of strength and superiority, and that other groups can be blamed for their problems.

As much as we like to think of ourselves as rational beings who put truth-seeking above all else, we are social animals wired for survival. In times of perceived conflict or social change, we seek security in groups. And that makes us eager to consume information, true or not, that lets us see the world as a conflict putting our righteous ingroup against a nefarious outgroup.

This need can emerge especially out of a sense of social destabilization. As a result, misinformation is often prevalent among communities that feel destabilized by unwanted change or, in the case of some minorities, powerless in the face of dominant forces.

Framing everything as a grand conflict against scheming enemies can feel enormously reassuring. And that’s why perhaps the greatest culprit of our era of misinformation may be, more than any one particular misinformer, the era-defining rise in social polarization.

“At the mass level, greater partisan divisions in social identity are generating intense hostility toward opposition partisans,” which has “seemingly increased the political system’s vulnerability to partisan misinformation,” Dr. Nyhan wrote in an earlier paper.

Growing hostility between the two halves of America feeds social distrust, which makes people more prone to rumor and falsehood. It also makes people cling much more tightly to their partisan identities. And once our brains switch into “identity-based conflict” mode, we become desperately hungry for information that will affirm that sense of us versus them, and much less concerned about things like truth or accuracy.

We think of ourselves as "rational beings," but we're actually "wired" for social cohesion within a "righteous ingroup?" (Within a so-called tribe?) That sounds a great deal like what major top disconsolate experts have glumly been telling us! 

At times of growing social hostility, our brains switch into an identity-based conflict mode? This leaves us "desperately hungry for information that will affirm [our] sense of us versus them?"

We wouldn't use the word "information" there, since we're actually speaking about something almost completely different. But that sounds a great deal like what top experts have been telling us:

We're wired to adhere to the tribe, and to the tribe's tribal verities? Our brains have been wired for that dating back into prehistory?

We're wired to contrast the good, decent people found in Our Town to scheming people we regard as The Others?

That's exactly what we've been saying, while acknowledging that we've been receiving these insights from major top world-renowned experts! We'll even guess that Nyhan may have gained access to the same high-ranking sources.

At any rate, whatever! Let's see where Fisher's promising essay breaks down, as things tend to do in Our Town:

In theory, Fisher should be on his way to an extremely instructive report. Nyhan's work tends to be quite insightful. What in the world could go wrong?

Fisher should have been on his way to an instructive report. But alas! After reading Fisher's first two paragraphs, our youthful analysts were already giving his Interpreter piece their famous thousand-yard stares.

What had the youngsters so upset? Townies, please! Take a look at the way Fisher started his essay:

FISHER: There’s a decent chance you’ve had at least one of these rumors, all false, relayed to you as fact recently: that President Biden plans to force Americans to eat less meat; that Virginia is eliminating advanced math in schools to advance racial equality; and that border officials are mass-purchasing copies of Vice President Kamala Harris’s book to hand out to refugee children.

All were amplified by partisan actors. But you’re just as likely, if not more so, to have heard it relayed from someone you know. And you may have noticed that these cycles of falsehood-fueled outrage keep recurring.

We are in an era of endemic misinformation—and outright disinformation. Plenty of bad actors are helping the trend along...

Right at the start of his essay, Fisher offered three examples of the mis- and disinformation which currently plague the land. 

And sure enough! In a reflection of tribal necessity, all three examples come from "the right"—from the very bad people in other towns, the bad people found Over There.

None of Fisher's three examples was drawn from the streets of Our Town. Later on, he offers one more specific example. Guess who it involves?

FISHER: In another study, published last month in Nature, a team of psychologists tracked thousands of users interacting with false information. Republican test subjects who were shown a false headline about migrants trying to enter the United States (“Over 500 ‘Migrant Caravaners’ Arrested With Suicide Vests”) mostly identified it as false; only 16 percent called it accurate. But if the experimenters instead asked the subjects to decide whether to share the headline, 51 percent said they would.

These Republican test subjects today! There they went again!

None of Fisher's four examples emerged from the streets of  Our Town. Through the course of his lengthy essay, all four of his specific examples came from the very bad people found in the towns Over There.

Does that make theoretical sense? Consider:

In theory, Nyhan's descriptions of humans as "social animals wired for survival" would seem to apply to humans across the board.   

In theory, the social / psychological dynamics which Nyhan describes would apply to people who live in Our Town, or to people in our own tribe, not just to people we loathe and oppose.

That said, Fisher blew past this obvious point in the examples he offered in his first two paragraphs. Adding to the general absurdity,  one of the three "false rumors" he cites—the claim that Virginia "is eliminating advanced math in schools"—seems to have stemmed from a plausible source.

We base that on this recent column by Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews, a highly reliable non-partisan source. Based on Mathews' column, it sounds like concerns about that possibility may have stemmed from weird behavior and puzzling postings by the Virginia education department.

(Headline: "Virginia allies with, then backs away from, controversial math anti-tracking movement.")

In these ways, Our Town can't catch a break! Our Town's thought leaders can't help themselves when it comes to expressing their thoughts. And the rest of us, the rubes in Our Town, are routinely misled by these leaders.

Fisher could have cited plenty of examples of bogus beliefs being spread in Our Town, even within his own newspaper. It seems to have been beyond his capacity to imagine such a state of affairs. In such ways, a general theory withers and dies on the vine.

We'll guess that Nyhan could explain the process by which Fisher chose his examples:

According to theory, Fisher's brain is wired to spot false belief among opposing groups. His brain isn't wired to spot false belief in Our Town, the place where Fisher and his "affinity group" all live.

The regular people of Our Town are routinely misled in this way. A groaning example of this practice appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.

That example involved an old hobby-horse, "the gender wage / pay gap." Wild embellishment about this topic is an established "oldy but goody" here in Our Town.

We love the way these embellished claims make us feel; our thought leaders routinely provide them. In Friday's example, Petula Dvorak went well beyond the call of duty in this conventional practice. She even included a Mother's Day hook!

We'll try to get to Dvorak's column next week. We'll note the specific disclaimers at her principal data source, disclaimers which explicitly say that its data shouldn't be used in the way Dvorak does. 

For today, we'll only remind you of this:

In the crowded warrens of the New York Times, Fisher is one of the "smart" ones. Nyhan's theory works all the way down, even as Our (floundering) Town can't seem to escape its pull.


Pujols was statistically odd!

FRIDAY, MAY 7, 2021

Statistics don't look like this: We've spent the last chunk of time weeping about Petuka Dvorak's attempt to discuss the gender wage gap in today's Washington Post. With a Mother's Day hook!

Simply put, Our Town is unable to conduct any real discussion. It's been this way for a good long time, and it just keeps getting worse.

We'll discuss that cultural problem tomorrow. For today, let's consider the oddness of a set of statistics which are currently being featured in the world of sports.

Albert Pujols is a presumptive future MLB Hall of Famer. He was released by the Angels this week at age 41.

His lifetime statistics feature two statistical oddities. For starters, consider his first nine seasons in the majors, all spent with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Pujols broke in with the Cardinals in 2001, at the age of 21. Weirdly, these were his batting averages in six of his first nine seasons:

2001: .329
2004: .331
2005: .330
2006: .331
2007: .327
2009: .327

Those are very good averages, especially for a power hitter. What makes them so unusual is their stone-cold invariance. 

By the normal workings of statistics, a baseball player shouldn't have the exact same batting average year after year after year. Our planet isn't like that.

Pujols didn't quite manage to do that, but he came weirdly close.

In two of his first nine years, he exceeded his normal very high standard, hitting .359 in 2003 and .357 in 2008. Even there, he virtually matched his first extremely high batting average the second time around. 

Pujols averaged 41 homers per year during those first nine years. They may have been the best nine years any MLB player ever had at the start of his career.

He played two more years for the Cardinals. By 2011, his batting average had dropped to .299. Then came ten years with the Angels, producing the second statistical oddity in his unusual, great career:

Batting average with the Cardinals (11 years): .328
Batting average with the Angels (10 years): .256

Even accounting for advanced (athletic) age in the past few years, that large decline represents an unusual turn of the wheel. 

Pujols joined the Angels at age 32, an age when most players are still in their prime. He hit only .285 that year, and he never hit higher than .272 in any future season. 

People speak very highly of Pujols as a person. Statistically, he had a plainly great but highly unusual career.

You've heard of people who could hit in their sleep? Albert Pujols could hit .330, and barely a point more or less!


BANALITY AND TOWN: We're tumbling into Loveland!

FRIDAY, MAY 7, 2021

Banality and grace: "We're tumbling into Graceland."

So (almost) says the narrator of Paul Simon's 1986 album, Graceland. He's speaking to his 9-year-old son in the album's title song, the second song on the album.

In the penultimate song on the album, the narrator tells the boy about the time when he first saw the young woman who would become the boy's mother.  In this fictionalized account, the child's future mother was, in effect, "danc[in'] to the music of Clifton Chenier, king of the bayou."

Where did this imagery come from? The leading authority on the album describes the state of Simon's personal life at that time and the state of his career:

In the early 1980s, Simon's relationship with his former musical partner Art Garfunkel had deteriorated, his marriage to actress Carrie Fisher had collapsed, and his previous record, Hearts and Bones (1983), had been a commercial failure. In 1984, after a period of depression, Simon became fascinated by a bootleg cassette of mbaqanga, South African street music...

The album unfolded from there, with ruminations on marital failure and on the onrushing reach of world music. According to this same authority, "Actress and author Carrie Fisher, Simon's ex-wife, said that the song [Graceland] referred in part to their relationship."

Simon saw himself "bouncing into Graceland" (or, more likely, into graceland) in the song of that name. Today, Our Town seems to be tumbling into Loveland, a remarkably banal human "space" first discovered by Karen Garner in April of last year.

Garner was 73 years old at the time. According to a lawsuit filed by her family, she weighed 80 pounds, and she suffered from dementia.

Also, she was unarmed. She was picking purple flowers as she walked home from a Walmart.

Despite these circumstances, Garner was violently arrested by several members of the Loveland, Colorado police. Officer then sat around the station house, chuckling and exchanging fist bumps as they watched bodycam footage of the violent arrest.

Ten feet away, Garner sat in a holding cell, positioned on a wooden bench with nothing to lean back on. Her arms were handcuffed behind, She shifted uncomfortably on this perch, dealing with the discomfort of the dislocated shoulder and fractured arm she'd received in the violent arrest.

Watching this edited fourteen minutes of videotape, we were struck by the astounding banality of the conversation in which those officers engaged. That said, we've also been struck by the banality of what has happened in the past few weeks:

When videotape of this conversation was released, it was almost wholly ignored by the major top professional  "journalists" here in Our Town. For the past ten years, these performers have been pretending to conduct a discussion of violent behavior by law enforcement officers, but this astonishing videotape didn't quite make the cut.

Of course, everyone knows why that videotape didn't make the cut. Amazingly, the banal stars of Our Town's "cable news" only discuss one type of news event at this point in time.

It's hard to believe they could be so banal (and so obedient), but they plainly are. They're willing to tell us certain things. Other things will be withheld.

It's hard to believe that they'd function like this, but they plainly do. This returns to the question of what happened, without Our Town being told, at Manhattan's Grace Church School.

In Tuesday's report, we showed you what Our Town was being told about those events in that day's Washington Post.  

In a front-page report, Meckler and Natanson, and their editors, were willing to tell you some of what had occurred at that school. 

There had been a dispute at Grace Church about the school's approach to issues of race. Meckler and Natanson, and their editors, were willing to tell you this:

MECKLER AND NATANSON (5/4/21): In Manhattan, the private Grace Church School had always seen itself as racially progressive. Then, in the aftermath of [George] Floyd’s murder, it heard from alumni posting on Instagram, saying they felt marginalized as students there. “It was a wake-up call that we were not doing as excellent a job as we thought we were,” said George Davison, the longtime head of school.

The school had already revised its curriculum. Then it hosted workshops on race and created affinity groups where students of different races could discuss their experiences.

At least one teacher, Paul Rossi, objected, both internally and, when he was not satisfied with the response, in public, including in an essay in the New York Post. He said the school requires teachers to treat students differently based on race and rejects dissenting voices.

“My school, like so many others, induces students via shame and sophistry to identify primarily with their race before their individual identities are fully formed,” he wrote. “The morally compromised status of ‘oppressor’ is assigned to one group of students based on their immutable characteristics. In the meantime, dependency, resentment and moral superiority are cultivated in students considered ‘oppressed.’ ”

Davison replied that no one should feel guilty about the circumstances of their birth. But he said students must face the systemic racism that surrounds them.

“Lots of people have, for a generation or two, said, ‘Well, I’m not a racist, so I have done all I need to do,” he said. “We have arrived at a point in our culture where we say you can’t be race-neutral anymore. Either you are against racism and therefore anti-racist or [you're] supporting racism.”

Rossi had complained about those workshops on race. Davison had replied, in heroic fashion. 

Davison had rejected Rossi's critique. If you read the Washington Post—if you live  in Our Town—the story at Grace Church ends right there, in a morally pleasing manner.

If you live in other towns, you've been allowed to know much more. More precisely, you've been allowed to know what happened next. 

Meckler and Natanson, and their editors, seemed to feel that you shouldn't know that. Why spoil a pleasing report, one drawn from Storyline?

What happened next at Grace Church School? We'll hand you a quick overview, then we'll show you where to go to hear lots of audiotape. Also, we'll show you where the New York Times seems to have vouched for the authenticity of that audiotape.

Here's what happened next:

As it turns out, Paul Rossi isn't some hot-headed right-wing kid. He had come to the teaching of math as a second career. As it turns out, he and Davison had conducted some long, mutually respectful adult conversations about those workshops at Grace.

Rossi thinks the school's approach to race is causing a lot of harm. His essay at the New York Post is very much worth reading, although, of course, we can't vouch for the accuracy of the various things he says about events at the school.

We think that essay is well worth reading. Here's the problem:

We don't necessarily have to vouch for the accuracy of Rossi's complaints. As it turns out, Rossi taped at least one lengthy phone conversation with Davison—and Davison is heard, on that audiotape, agreeing with the bulk of what Rossi has said.

Here's the way things broke bad:

After Rossi's essay appeared in the New York Post, Davison denied saying the various things attributed to him by Rossi. 

Apparently, Davison didn't know that his remarks had been captured on tape. In response to Davison's curt denials, Rossi released the audiotape, in which Davison said such things as this:

ALGAR (4/20/21): The head of an elite Manhattan school that booted a teacher for ripping its extremist “antiracism” policies was recorded admitting that it has been “demonizing white people,” according to audio released [today].

“We’re demonizing kids, we’re demonizing white people for being born,’’ George Davison, principal of the private Grace Church School, was allegedly caught telling whistleblowing  teacher Paul Rossi on the tape.

“We are using language that makes them feel ‘less than’—for nothing that they are personally responsible for,’’ the supposedly woke principal acknowledges, according to the audio released by Rossi.

“The fact is, I am agreeing with you that there has been a demonization that we need to get our hands around in a way in which people are doing this [understand],’’ Davison says.

There's more, but you get the idea.

This report was written by Selim Algar, a veteran education reporter at the New York Post. Algar's report is accompanied by lengthy chunks of audiotape in which Rossi and Davison are heard discussing these issues.

No one seems to be denying that the audiotape is real. On Sunday, April 25, Ginia Bellafante discussed this issue in the New York Times, in her weekly Big City column.

As part of a remarkably snarky essay, Bellafante scolded Rossi for having released the audiotape, but she never denied its authenticity. Following an earlier reference to a concerned parent at a different private school, this is the remarkable way she described the episode at Grace Church:

BELLAFANTE (4/25/21): Thanks to Fox News and all the other outlets dedicated to the notion that elite liberal institutions have abandoned any hope of sanity in the name of social revolution, Mr. Gutmann soon became a minor celebrity on the right—which might have been the whole point.

There, he was joined by a math teacher named Paul Rossi, who had composed a letter of his own, seemingly to the nation at large, laying out his objections to the way that his employer, the Grace Church School in Lower Manhattan, was going about the business of changing its culture around race. Mr. Rossi’s note lacked the hysterical tone of Mr. Gutmann’s. It raised valid concerns about the squelching of free thought. But he also took the dubious step of publicizing part of a secretly taped conversation he had with the school’s headmaster, George Davison, in which he goaded his boss, as if he were a prosecutor grilling a witness, into acknowledging that the new programming demonized white students.

Bellafante is stunningly snarky throughout. In a rational world, it would be amazing to think that the New York Times would publish a column like this.

In that early passage, Bellafante says that Rossi somehow "goaded" Davison into saying the things he'd said—into "acknowledging that the new programming demonized white students." According to Bellafante, the math teacher made him do it! 

As she continued, Bellafante voiced exactly zero concern about the idea that the programming at Grace Church might be "demoniz[ing] white students." Nor did she quote a single thing Davison actually said.

The head of school had actually said that his school's exciting new programs were demonizing white students, but Bellafante let that slide. When she returned to the events at Grace Church, she acted like none of this had actually happened, or might be continuing now:

BELLAFANTE: Mr. Rossi’s letter argued that students and teachers at Grace did not feel free to challenge a new language or ideology. When he did, he was reprimanded for “acting like an independent agent of a set of principles or ideas or beliefs,” he wrote. After the letter became public, Mr. Davison, the head of school, put together a committee to bring voices from all sides of the debate together. He asked Mr. Rossi to join, but Mr. Rossi instead chose to leave the school.

In a conversation I had with Mr. Davison last weekend, he was very frank about the imperfect nature of the changes at Grace. “We were in the process of developing programming faster than we ever had before,’’ he told me. “Whenever you build something quickly, you don’t always see all the pieces. The ones who are going to help you build it the most quickly are the true believers,” he said. But the truest believers are not always those in the best position to advance change without fear. “We need to be better at communicating those things. We need to get more opinion.” The truth, he said, was that most people were on board with the new mission. “If we were a school in Oklahoma, we might not have the consensus.”

Bellafante quoted the high-minded things the head of school had thoughtfully said, now that he knew his remarks were being recorded. 

As Bellafante's essay ended, Davison was the high-minded hero again, as he would be at the Washington Post two days later. Bellafante had rushed past his remarkable statements to Rossi. As Meckler and Natanson would do, she was serving Storyline.

In Our Town, you aren't allowed to know about the many things Davison said. In Our Town, the things you're told will almost always conform to Storyline.

Davison will end up upright and good. You won't be told about the things Rossi described in the New York Post, and you won't be told about the things Davison actually said on that remarkable audiotape.

What's actually happening at Grace Church School (or at Dalton or Brearly?) We can't tell you that. We're writing about Our Town's most famous newspapers, not about that one private school.

Concerning our newspapers and our other news orgs, we can tell you this:

This'll tell you about certain shooting deaths. They'll disappear all others.

They'll tell you about certain no-knock raids. No other raids need apply; it all depends on who dies.

They've been pretending for the past ten years to be discussing important aspects of police behavior. But when Karen Garner tumbles into Loveland, they will walk on by.

Here in our rapidly failing town, that astonishing Loveland videotape didn't make the cut. It simply wasn't worth discussing. And now, also this:

The head of school of a big private school made some startling admissions. The Washington Post and the New York Times didn't have to discuss this matter at all—but when they did, they were very careful to avoid telling Our Town what had actually happened.

On his Grammy-wining 1986 album, Paul Simon reviewed a breakdown in his personal life, even as he marveled at the rise of global understanding through the rise of world music. 

He mourned the way he had failed in the personal realm. Elsewhere, people were learning. 

A stunning banality was on display in that police station after an eight-pound woman tumbled into Loveland. Is the banality ruling Our Town now almost equally large?

Also on that album: The voice of the world first reached Simon's ears through that fellow at (the literal) Graceland. 

It had entered the country at New Orleans, then moved up the Mississippi. Down at the mouth of that river, "Cajun girls" still danced to the music of Clifton Chenier, king of the bayou.

Simon invited Linda Ronstadt to describe how the voice of the world had first reached her ears. On the song Under African Skies, this is what she said:

In early memory,
Mission music was ringing 'round my nursery door
I said, "Take this child, Lord, from Tucson, Arizona
Give her the wings to fly through
Harmony, she won't bother you no more."
For Linda Ronstadt, the musical voice of the wider world had crossed the southern border. 

Today, we're only allowed to hear certain strains in our stunningly banal town.


Can we believe the things we're told in Our Town?

THURSDAY, MAY 6, 2021

Locking up Barr again: Can we believe the things we're told by the major news orgs in Our Town?

Today, consider a major case. Consider the case of Bill Barr.

On Tuesday night, Rachel Maddow devoted her first sixteen minutes to this favorite (defunct) punching bag. At this point, Barr no longer matters. But it's still good business, here in Our Town, to dream about locking him up, preferably while mugging and clowning and all-in-all yukking it up.

Maddow may have embellished a time or three as she entertained us with this evergreen product. This morning, a news report in the Washington Post includes this puzzling passage:

HSU (5/6/21): Both judges blasted Barr’s four-page letter to Congress in March 2019 that said the special counsel did not draw a conclusion as to whether Trump obstructed the investigation and that Barr’s own opinion was that the evidence was insufficient to bring such a charge.

In reality, Mueller’s report laid out evidence of obstruction but said the special counsel could not fairly make a charging decision, given department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

Writing in March 2020, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton called Barr’s public statements “misleading” and said he had “grave concerns about the objectivity of the process” that led up to the public release of the Mueller report.

The reporter here is Spencer Hsu. Forget his claim about what those two judges did. 

(The more recent ruling, by Judge Jackson, involves the judge's assessment of a document which hasn't yet been released to the public. It amused us, and yet it didn't amuse us, when Maddow seemed to assume that the judge's assessments had to be accurate. Judges can be biased too, and judges can make errors.)

Can you believe the things you're told? For today, let's consider Hsu's account of Barr's initial four-page letter. Let's compare it to Hsu's account of what the Mueller Report really said.

Hsu is certainly right on one point:

In his four-page letter, Barr did say that Mueller didn't draw a conclusion as to whether Trump obstructed justice. Barr may have done that because that seems to be what the Mueller Report clearly said at several different junctures.

The Mueller Report considered possible obstruction of justice in "Volume II" of the two-part report. At the start of Volume II, the report says this:

MUELLER REPORT (page 2): [I]f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the President's actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred.  Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.

Plainly, that passage says that the Mueller team was not "exonerating" Trump on the question of obstruction. Barr specifically quoted that language in his four-page letter. (You can see Barr's text below).

That said, the passage also says that the Mueller team didn't conclude that Trump committed an act of obstruction. Which part of "this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime" doesn't Our Town understand? 

We've read Barr's four-page letter a good numbers of times over the years. We've never quite been able to see what was supposed to be wrong with it.

By way of contrast, Barr staged a ridiculous press conference when he finally released the redacted Mueller Report roughly three weeks later. That press conference resembled a Trump PR event, but the original letter correctly stated that Mueller didn't state a judgment about whether Trump had committed an act of obstruction.

How about it? Should Barr have said that the Muller Report "did not draw a conclusion as to whether Trump obstructed the investigation?" 

Rather clearly, Hsu seems to imply that something was wrong with Barr's statement to that effect—but as we've shown you, that's what the Mueller Report seemed to say on page 2 of the relevant Volume. Indeed, just a few pages later, it seemed to say it again:

MUELLER REPORT (page 8): Because we determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment, we did not draw ultimate conclusions about the President's conduct. The evidence we obtained about the President's actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment. At the same time, if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.

As you can see, that's the same thing they said six pages earlier. At the very end of Volume II, they decided to say it again:

MUELLER REPORT (page 182): Because we determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment, we did not draw ultimate conclusions about the President's conduct. The evidence we obtained about the President's actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment. At the same time, if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.

As you can see, that was a verbatim restatement of the passage from page 8.

We've never really understood what was supposed to be wrong with Barr's original four-page letter. His later press event struck us as a ludicrous PR event, but his letter seems to present a reasonable overview, including the verbatim quote about Trump not being exonerated.

That said, the journalism in Our Town now runs on Storyline. Journalistic statements don't have to be accurate. They simply have to reflect prevailing script and Storyline.

Last night, Don Lemon gave it a try! Two night earlier, he had tried to explain the basic facts about the way this country was founded. Here's what Lemon said last night, almost surely reading text prepared by staff:

LEMON (5/5/21): Remember, Bill Barr released a misleading four-page summary of the Mueller report and hosted a spin session to get out in front of that report.

On obstruction, Barr's initial summary claimed that Mueller's report sets out evidence on both sides of the question of obstruction. But the Mueller Report specifically said it did not exonerate the president, and Mueller testified to Congress that he didn't.

You'll remember, at the time, Mueller called Barr out, writing a letter to him just after the summary. It was released saying it did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of the investigation and its conclusions. Mueller also made clear that if Trump did not commit a crime, we would know. 

 Did we mention that this was CNN? That account made almost no sense at all.

According to the CNN star, Barr released a misleading four-page summary of the Mueller Report. "But the Mueller Report specifically said it did not exonerate the president."

Did the Mueller Report specifically say that? Yes, it specifically did! But then again, so did Barr's "misleading" letter. Here's the relevant text:

BARR LETTER (3/24/19): The report's second part addresses a number of actions by the President—most of which have been the subject of public reporting–that the Special Counsel investigated as potentially raising obstruction-of-justice concerns. After making a “thorough factual investigation” into these matters, the Special Counsel considered whether to evaluate the conduct under Department standards governing prosecution and declination decisions but ultimately determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment. The Special Counsel therefore did not draw a conclusion—one way or the other—as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction. Instead, for each of the relevant actions investigated, the report sets out evidence on both sides of the question and leaves unresolved what the Special Counsel views as “difficult issues” of law and fact concerning whether the President's actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction. The Special Counsel states that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

In his letter, Barr specifically quoted the passage in which the Mueller Report specifically said that it hadn't exonerated Trump. Compare that to Lemon's delivery of product.

Lemon's presentation made no sense, but why would anyone expect different? This is the way the "journalistic" game is now widely played in Our Town. 

The Crazy has plainly come to rule the towns in which The Others live. But banality often rules ours.

When it comes to the reporting and discussion of news, Our Town is in a deep corporate decline. It's been that way for a very long time—and as is true in other towns, Our Town just keeps getting worse.

According to anthropologists: According to major anthropologists, your lizard wants you to  believe every negative claim about Barr. These scholars keep saying that this is the way our human brains are wired.

According to these credentialed experts, sometimes such claims about Barr can be wrong. We find this extremely hard to believe, but that's what these experts keep saying.


BANALITY AND TOWN: The incident wasn't worth talking about!

THURSDAY, MAY 6, 2021

The banality suffusing Our Town: In this morning's Washington Post, this news report describes a lawsuit about a local event—a bungled no-knock raid from September 2019, a raid gone badly wrong.

For the record, no one was killed in that bungled no-knock raid. That said, today's news report mentions another local raid gone wrong—an April 2020 no-knock raid in which Duncan Lemp, age 21, actually was shot and killed.

Amazingly, the lengthy Washington Post report doesn't mention the bungled Louisville no-knock raid in which Breonna Taylor, age 26, was shot and killed last March. 

The Louisville raid has been widely discussed on the national level. The bungled raids in the Washington area—one raid fatal, one raid not—won't be discussed at all, except in the Post's Metro section.

Here in our rapidly failing town, this is the "journalism" we and our stars have chosen.

We can possibly chalk this up to "the banality of banality." More specifically, we can attribute this state of affairs to the banality of selective reporting.

A giant banality currently exists in Our Town. The Crazy is in control in many towns where The Others live. A typ of banality now plays a very large role in our fatuous village.

This banality regulates the things we read about in our major newspapers. It regulates the things our favorite multimillionaire "cable news" stars will pretend to discuss and lament. 

This brings us to a violent arrest which occurred in Loveland, Colorado in June 2020. More significantly, it brings us to the banality of the way a group of police officers sat around the station house, chuckling about that remarkably violent arrest.

Across this very large nation, quite a few violent arrests occur in the course of a day. 

In many arrests, the violence is necessary. What made the arrest in Loveland remarkably violent?

For that, we turn to another news report in the Washington Post. We turn to this news report by Andrea Salcedo, which appeared last Tuesday, online only, as part of the "Morning Mix."

Anthropologically, Salcedo's report is highly instructive. The headline offers this:

After violently arresting woman, 73, with dementia, police laughed about it, video shows: ‘We crushed it'

That headline only begins to suggest the dimensions of this situation. Salcedo's astounding report starts like this:

SALCEDO (4/27/21): Last June, Karen Garner sat handcuffed to a bench inside a booking cell weeping and in pain.

No one had come to treat her fractured arm and dislocated shoulder hours after Loveland, Colo., police violently arrested the 73-year-old with dementia, her family said.

Meanwhile, about 10 feet away, three officers sat hunched around a computer as they re-watched body-camera footage of Garner’s arrest, a new video released by the attorney representing Garner’s family shows.

“Ready for the pop? Hear the pop?” the officer who initially handcuffed Garner can be heard saying, referencing the moment he injured her shoulder.

The nearly one-hour booking cell video released Monday shows two Loveland Police Department officers who participated in Garner’s arrest fist-bumping each other while discussing the incident. At one point, they are joined by another officer as they mock and praise the arrest, which they claimed “went great,” while referring to Garner as “ancient,” “senile” and “flexible.” 

“We crushed it,” one of the officers says.

At this point, we've only begun to understand why this particular violent arrest was remarkably violent. Later, Salcedo presents additional facts:

SALCEDO: Police aggressively arrested the 80-pound woman as she was plucking purple wildflowers and strolling back home on June 26. They had been called after she left a Walmart without paying for items worth $13.88, according to her family’s lawsuit. Walmart said employees called the police after Garner allegedly pulled off an employee’s mask during the incident.

Body-camera footage shows [Officer Austin] Hopp grabbing Garner by her arms and wrenching them backward to handcuff her as she repeatedly cried that she was “going home.” At one point, Garner fell to the ground as officers struggled with her before putting her in a cruiser. Prosecutors later dropped all charges against Garner.

In the lawsuit, Garner’s family argues that due to dementia and sensory aphasia, a condition that leaves her unable to understand speech or to communicate easily, she was unable to understand the police officers’ commands. 

The news report doesn't address a fairly obvious question. If Garner was intellectually challenged in the manner described, it isn't clear why she would have been allowed to be out and about on her own.

That said, bodycam video of the arrest suggests that Garner's disability was fairly obvious at the point of her arrest. This leaves us with the basic outline of this remarkably violent arrest, in which a 73-year-old woman who weighed 80 pounds suffered a dislocated shoulder and a fractured arm in the course of a violent arrest over a charge that she (briefly) walked away from a Walmart with goods worth $14.

At this point, we've only begun to describe what made this incident so startling. For that, we must turn to the videotape of the conversation the officers had in the station house.

The Post report links to this edited, 14-minute videotape which intersperses that astonishing conversation with footage of Garner as she sits in a holding cell, having received no treatment for her serious injuries. 

He arms are handcuffed behind her. She shifts uncomfortably on a flat bench as she tries to compensate for her physical pain. Ten feet away, officers are chuckling and fist-bumping.

It's important to understand a fact which many commenters don't. The officers who conducted that  conversation are themselves and nobody else. In particular, they aren't "the police" in some unexplained global sense.

That said, Our Town has been pretending, for roughly ten years, to be involved in a long discussion about police behavior and police attitudes. The videotape of that conversation takes us to a place where no other tape has gone.

Last June, in that very same month, the videotape of George Floyd's death seemed to offer a window into the soul of one Minneapolis police officer, with two first-week cops thrown in. No one died in the course of this second violent arrest, but the subsequent conversation in that station house offers a window into the soul of one aspect of human behavior writ large.

On that videotape, several officers sit around laughing about the arrest as Garner writhes in her holding cell. Surprisingly, though, we would have to say this:

As we watch the officers conduct their astounding conversation, they don't strike us as standard-issue Hollywood sociopaths. As we watch them, we're truck by their overpowering banality—by the atttibute Hannah Arrendt described as "the banality of evil."

Others may see the tape differently. For ourselves, we've never seen such instructive videotape—instructive concerning the wide range of human comprehension and behavior. 

How instructive is that videotape? Consider:

Last Thursday, Slate's Elliott Hannon became one of the very journalists here in Our Town to acknowledge that videotape. 

Hannon posted this very brief report at Slate. Among an array of unintelligent comments which generalized wildly about "the police," one commenter offered this:

COMMENT TO SLATE: In its own way this is worse than the Floyd video. The woman was so clearly not a danger to anyone, and the use of force was so clearly unnecessary, and then the video of them laughing about it—the contempt for the public, the causal sadism, the total and complete lack of empathy.  All the same things were there in the Floyd video, but the Floyd video you could chalk up to racism, and the fact that he was a big, strong guy: it's slightly more explicable. This is just naked awfulness by awful people.

Did they go into the police because they were awful bullying sadists, or did police training/culture make them into awful bullying sadists? Hard to know...

We're inclined to disagree with the reference to "sadism." In the main, that isn't what we thought we saw on that videotape. 

We'd also be slow to attribute Derek Chauvin's bizarre-seeming behavior to racism. In the Loveland arrest, we see several "white" police officers behaving in a remarkably violent way toward a woman who is also "white." This shows that inexplicable, violent behavior can cut across "racial" lines.

We do agree with the commenter when the commenter says that, "in its own way," the Loveland tape is (almost) "worse than the Floyd tape."  We agree with the commenter's reasoning:

Derek Chauvin's behavior on that Minneapolis tape seems very hard to comprehend. That said:

"In its own way," the behavior in Loveland is even more "inexplicable," given the fact that the victim of the violent arrest was 73 years old and weighed just 80 pounds. In our view, the commenters was suitably puzzled by that puzzling pair of facts.

However you assess such matters, we would offer this:

Even if we in Our Town weren't pretending to be involved in a discussion of police behavior, that videotape from Loveland would have been newsworthy—wholly startling.

The conversation in that station house is unlike anything we've ever seen. To our ear, it spills with the fatuous state of mind Arrendt once called "the banality of evil."  In a rational world, that tape would be an anthropological sensation at any point in time.

Tht would be in a rational world. In our world, and in Our Town, that tape has been wholly ignored. The stars who entertain us here in Our Town haven't said one word about it.

The reason for that is obvious. No one was killed in that violent arrest, and the victim in question was "white."

To our ear, a banality suffuses the conversation in that station house. To our ear, a sepatare banality now suffuses reporting here in Our Town.

We discuss no-knock raids if the victim is "black." We discuss fatal shootings if the decedent is "black," and if the decedent was shot and killed by "the police."

The no-knock raids in this morning's Washington Post haven't made in out of the Metro section because of the existence of that potent news filter. So too with the fatal shooting of Bijan Ghaisar, a local event the Post has discussed for the past three or four years.

So too with the fatal shooting of Peyton Ham, age 16. In yet another local event, he was shot and killed by a state trooper as he lay on the ground, already shot, just two weeks ago. This shooting death never made it out of Metro because the decedent was "white."

A banality filled the air as those officers discussed that violent arrest. Ten feet away from the discussants, the target of their violent arrest writhed in a holding cell.

To our ear, a separate banality fills the air when we watch Our Town's  "cable news." Loathsome people appear on the screen, though only if you believe in such beings, which we basically don't.

Tomorrow: The banality of Our Town's banality as seen in the (unmentioned) events at the Grace Church School


Should students all take the same math class?

WEDNESDAY, MAY 5, 2021

Let's take a look at the experts: Should students all take the same math class? 

Putting it a different way, should every sixth grader be taught the exact same "sixth grade math," and so on, up through the grades?

That strikes us as a crazy idea, but it seems to be catching on with the experts found in Our Town. Yesterday, Kevin Drum reported on a drift of this general type in California's public schools:

DRUM (5/4/21): [California's latest draft framework for K-12 math] takes on the issue of tracking, which has been the source of math pedagogy wars since before I was born. The new framework comes down firmly on the anti-tracking side up through middle school, based on the idea that recent neurological research shows that (a) anyone can learn math up to high levels,¹ and (b) advanced kids who take the standard Common Core classes do better than those who are tracked into honors classes...

In the footnote to that passage, Drum expresses his doubts about the (vague) claim "that anyone can learn math up to high levels," based on recent research. 

Drum found California's public school establishment drifting toward "one size fits all." On Monday, in the Washington Post, long-time  education writer Jay Mathews described the same tendency in the state of Virginia's establishment. Here's how his essay began:

MATHEWS (5/3/21): Pamela Fox is a mother of four and former lawyer who cares about the schools in Fairfax County, Va. She was appalled by the website of the Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative (VMPI), described by the Virginia Department of Education as its partner “to consider how to modernize and update math instruction” in the state.

Under the VMPI plan, Fox said, “every student would be required to take the same math class through 10th grade of high school. There would be no classes for struggling students needing remedial help or for advanced students seeking accelerated math.”

We share the old school system tie with Mathews. We went to rival high schools at the same time back in the wonder years. 

His temperament is different from ours. That's one of the reasons why we admire his work. 

When Mathews tried to follow up by speaking with the appropriate officials, it sounds like he may have encountered a bit of doublespeak, with some okey-doke thrown in. That isn't entirely unusual when dealing with public school officials.

Should everyone take the same math class? We were struck by this observation, based on Mathews' voluminous experience:

MATHEWS: [I]t is difficult to find untracked math programs that work well—except at some charter schools in low-income neighborhoods that accelerate all math students. The Virginia plan does not appear to endorse that approach. Similar anti-tracking policies for math have produced an uproar in San Francisco Peninsula public school districts.

(Full disclosure: we attended those rival high schools right there on that very peninsula!)

For our money, the oddness in that passage is this—the charter schools to which Mathews refers decided to "accelerate all math students." Even there, school officials decided that everyone should take the same math class. They just thought that one math class should be harder!

Should everyone take the same math class? The idea strikes us as strange. 

In part, we base that on personal experience. In part, we base it on our acquaintance with basic data.

Are some kids "better at math" than others? We'll guess that the answer is yes!  We'll even guess that some kids are a whole lot better. 

At any rate, here are some Grade 4 scores from the last administration of "America's report card," the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Naep):

Grade 4 math, 2019 Naep, public schools nationwide
90th percentile: 279.46
10th percentile: 198.19

Translation: 

On the 2019 Naep, ten percent of the nation's fourth-graders scored 279 or above. Also, ten percent of the nation's fourth-graders scored 198 or below. 

That's twenty percent of the nation's fourth graders. Moving forward, should they all be taking the same math class? Consider a rough rule of thumb:

As part of a very rough rule of thumb, a ten-point gap on the Naep scale is often said to represent roughly one academic year. 

Such rules of thumb tend to start breaking down when applied to such matters as these. But do we really think that all those kids should be taking the same math class? Beyond that, does common sense really suggest any such thing?

The nation's experts seem to be drifting toward "one size fits all" in the question of public school math. This strikes us as a strange idea, but then, let's consider those experts:

We began writing about cheating on standardized tests back in the 1970s (in the Baltimore Sun). For the record, we weren't talking about "teaching to the test." We were talking about flat-out cheating, of the most ridiculous kind.

We had stumbled upon such behavior by pure happenstance. Still, if you simply examined certain test data, it was sometimes blatantly obvious that some data made zero sense.

(For various reasons, the Naep is not susceptible to outright cheating. Or to specific "test prep!")

Decades went by, and our public school experts remained blissfully unaware of this problem. For a  few years along the way, we worked with Dr. John Cannell as he tried to call attention to this problem through his "Lake Wobegon" reports. ("Where the children are all above average.")

Finally, a few newspapers blew the whistle on major cheating scandals in such large school systems as those in Atlanta and D.C.

Sadly, no! It wasn't the New York Times or the Washington Post which finally called attention to this ridiculous ongoing problem. It was such papers as the Atlanta Constitution and USA Today—with Mathews' wife, Linda Mathews, in charge of the project at the latter, widely-mocked newspaper.

In our experience, Our Town's top experts quite frequently aren't. We've never been able to stress that unfortunate fact quite enough. 

We're inclined to be suspicious of the wisdom of experts. For better or worse,  such attitudes are almost  wholly unknown in the well-ordered streets of Our Town.

On the brighter side: You'll never have to hear about public school kids, or the schools they attend, if you watch "cable news."

You'll hear about Matt Gaetz, and Rudy. To the very end of your days, you'll hear about Trump and Barr.


BANALITY AND TOWN: Thomas Friedman gets it right...

WEDNESDAY, MAY 5, 2021

...about one of our two major breakdowns: Has Thomas Friedman gotten it right? Are we "closer to a political civil war...than at any other time in our modern history?"

Friedman makes that statement right at the start of his new column in the New York Times. Below, you see the fuller text. In our view, he's understating:

FRIEDMAN (5/5/21): President Biden’s early success in getting Americans vaccinated, pushing out stimulus checks and generally calming the surface of American life has been a blessing for the country. But it’s also lulled many into thinking that Donald Trump’s Big Lie that the election was stolen, which propelled the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, would surely fade away and everything would return to normal. It hasn’t.

We are not OK. America’s democracy is still in real danger. In fact, we are closer to a political civil war—more than at any other time in our modern history. Today’s seeming political calm is actually resting on a false bottom that we’re at risk of crashing through at any moment.

Friedman says our failing republic is moving toward "a political civil war." He goes on to detail what he means. 

We'd say he's understating. Beyond that, we'd say he's only managed to see one of our two major breakdowns.

Are we moving closer to a political civil war? Focusing on the Republican side, we'd say it's worse than that.

We'd say we've already reached the point of a silent secession. And that's just what's happening Over There, on the Trump/GOP side.

As his column proceeds, Friedman describes the widespread rise of The Crazy among the Republican base as Trump's claims about the last election gain purchase. After describing the nuttiness of those widespread beliefs, Friedman describes a possible future event—a type of event which could imaginably happen:

FRIEDMAN: Imagine if all or many of these ["voter suppression"] measures are passed—and in 2022 and 2024 Republicans manage to retake the House, Senate and White House with, say, only 42 percent of the popular vote, effectively establishing minority rule. Do you know what will happen? Let me tell you what will happen. Disenfranchised Democratic voters will not sit idly by. They may refuse to pay their taxes. Many will take to the streets. Some might become violent, and our whole political system could become paralyzed and start to unravel.

Yet, this is precisely the path that Trump’s G.O.P. is setting us on.

Could the GOP ever take the White House, and both branches of Congress, with something like 42 percent of the vote? At least on the presidential level, the GOP came scarily close to doing so last November, in an election where Donald J. Trump won 46.9 percent of the popular vote.

Candidate Biden managed to win the electoral college by virtue of scarily narrow margins in Arizona and Georgia. Given the oddities built into our electoral systems, things have bene trending this way since Campaign 2000.

In 2000, Candidate Gore won by 550,000 votes—and yet he lost the White House. In 2016, Candidate Clinton won by 2.9 million votes. She lost the White House too.

Four years later, Candidate Biden won by 7 million votes, and he came scarily close to losing. The system is trending in the direction of the "42 percent solution" Friedman now imagines.

If the GOP managed to produce some such outcome, would "disenfranchised Democrats" refuse to accept the outcome in the ways Friedman imagines? 

We can't imagine why such things wouldn't happen. That would constitute a second silent secession, joining the one the GOP base has already engineered.

The current "silent secession" isn't being spoken out loud. That said, will the current GOP base ever accept the results of an election the GOP loses?

Under present arrangements, we see no reason to think that they will. We'd call that a "silent secession"—a type of secession which is already being played out in various ways, not excluding vaccination refusal.

Friedman imagines violence occurring if the GOP wins the world with 42 percent of the vote. We suspect that some such violence is already taking place.

We say that because we see two meltdowns occurring in our society where Friedman sees only one. We see The Crazy ruling the roost Over There—but we also see the banality which has taken hold in Our Town.

The craziness of the GOP base is tied to adherence to a Dear Leader, a classic human instinct. The banality on display in Our Town is tied to a different set of concerns.

We see that banality every day we we peruse the nation's newspapers. We se that banality every night as we watch Our Town's cable stars at work.

We wouldn't describe what we see in Our Town as "the banality of evil." The Third Reich engaged in behavior which can only be described as evil. That isn't the way Over Here.

The banality at play in Our Town is more "the banality of banality." That said, evil ends can flow, and are doing so now, from Our Town's preferred intellectual breakdowns.

(Our human brans are wired for this, top experts persistently say.)

Friedman ends today's column as shown:

FRIEDMAN: [W]ithout a war of ideas inside the [GOP], one that is won by principled Republicans, we run the real risk of a political civil war in America over the next election.

Things are not OK.

Unless more principled Republicans stand up for the truth about our last election, we’re going to see exactly how a democracy dies. 

[Friedman's italics]

Friedman sees only one breakdown. He persists in believing that "political civil war" (and the death of democracy) remains a matter of risk.

At this site, we see two breakdowns—and we're inclined to think the game is already lost. We base this on the surprising things we're repeatedly told by major credentialed top experts.

What kind of intellectual breakdown is already underway in Our Town? In what way is the banality of our conduct lighting the way to our democracy's dusty death?

You're asking excellent questions! Tomorrow, we'll return to the violent arrest which occurred in Loveland, Colorado. 

On Friday, we return to the banality of that front-page report about education at Manhattan's Grace Church School.

Tomorrow: Banality watch! Here in Our Town, our popular stars haven't said a word about what happened in Loveland

Friday: Banality watch! What happened next at that school


Our Own Rhodes Scholar forgets to correct!

TUESDAY, MAY 4, 2021

Our Town is drowning in banal: We're so old that we can remember the DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS.

We refer to the highly successful branding scheme Our Own Rhodes Scholar, Rachel Maddow, ran for several years. 

You may recall the performance. The star would appear beneath a large sign which said this:

DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

She would proceed to correct some utterly trivial mistake. As she did, she'd be bigly apologetic. Her penitence would be obvious. 

These performances went on for years. They would distract us from the fact that Our Own Rhodes Scholar actually didn't correct her genuine howlers.

Her scam concerning  the gender pay gap was a refusal-to-correct for the ages. But this silly game went on for years. In time, acolytes began turning up in comments sections, pushing her bogus claim for her:

Rachel always corrects her mistakes, these gullible marks would say.

Last Friday night, Rachel repeated a report by the Washington Post which later turned out to be false. That same report was equally false when it appeared in the New York Times, and when it was presented by NBC News.

By now, everyone knows the report was false. But because the (false) report put Rudy in a badly  compromised light, Our Town's various cable stars had thoroughly enjoyed it.

It wasn't the fault of Our Own Rhodes Scholar that the report was false. She didn't know the central claim was false when she kept returning to it.

That said, she cited the false report again and again on Friday's program. The statement was false each time.

Last Friday, our multimillionaire cable stars were pleasuring us that way. The next day, we cited their fatuous conduct:

First, they dreamed of locking Rudy up. After that, they dreamed of locking up Gaetz. This is what these banal beings now think of as "the news."

Over the weekend, the three news orgs we named all corrected their false reports. By now, everyone knows that this pleasing claim was wrong:

MADDOW (4/30/21): The Washington Post reported last night that Mr. Giuliani was warned in advance by the FBI that the people he was in contact with and trying to work with this on were connected to Russian intelligence. He was given a defensive briefing by the FBI in 2019 that he was being used or that he was part of a Russian intelligence operation targeting the U.S. election. After getting that defensive briefing, he went ahead with it anyway.

"After getting that defensive briefing, he went ahead with it anyway?" Maddow kept returning to this pleasing claim during the middle third of her program.

By now, everyone knows that no such briefing ever occurred. The Washington Post got it wrong. So did the New York Times, and so did NBC News.

All three orgs have issued corrections—somewhat crabbed and grudging corrections, but corrections all the same. 

But Our Own Rhodes Scholar did no such thing last night.  Throughout the course of her show, Giuliani wasn't mentioned. That DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS sign was never seen at all. 

Don't get us wrong! Everyone pushed that false claim Friday night, on MSNBC and CNN. The crippled souls who perform the shows on these "cable news" channels keep selling imprisonment of The Others as the soul of Our Town's cable news. 

This is the porridge they've chosen to sell. They speak about little else.

Did anyone state a correction last night? We haven't yet run a full check. We're still trying to imagine how to present the transcript of Don Lemon's opening segment, in which Lemon made the dumbest presentation ever seen on cable news, calling names as he went.

These people aren't especially smart. They aren't always obsessively honest.

These people are amazingly rich. They don't want you to know about that, and they pretty much don't do corrections.

Our Town is sunk in the banal. Banality runs through Our Town's news orgs. 

It's hard to get away from the banal. While noting the craziness found Over There, does the banal define Our Town's soul?


BANALITY AND TOWN: The banality of today's Washington Post!

TUESDAY, MAY 4, 2021

Top journalists sift what you hear: In June of last year, several police officers in Loveland, Colorado executed a violent arrest of a 73-year-old, 80-pound woman who was suffering from dementia.

They arrested her "as she was plucking purple wildflowers and strolling back home" from Walmart. 

We're quoting from this recent news report. That report included a link to this edited fourteen minutes of videotape recording some of what happened next.

Bodycam tape of the violent arrest is instructive enough. Far more instructive is the videotape, which surfaced a few weeks ago, of several officers sitting around laughing about the violent arrest.

As they sat around laughing about the arrest, the woman in question was sitting in a holding cell, for several hours, with her arms still handcuffed begin her. Videotape from that holding sell shows her shifting uncomfortably, with no surface to lean back on, attempting to compensate for the pain of the fractured arm and dislocated shoulder the violent arrest had caused.

While this tiny woman shifted in pain, the officers chuckled and exchanged fist bumps about the violent arrest. Anthropologically, we regard this videotape as extremely instructive.

The videotape of the officers called to mind a famous phrase from Hannah Arendt—"the banality of evil." 

Most simply put, these officers didn't strike us as some type of standard-issue sociopaths. Instead, they seemed to be too dumb to understand the nature of the very strange event they were discussing.

They seemed too dumb to comprehend the problem with their own behavior. Having said that, we will also say this:

This dumbness seems to be everywhere in the modern life of Our Town. According to the major anthropologists with whom we consult, this banality may be what our species is wired for—the best our species can do.

To our own eye and ear, we now encounter this banality pretty much wherever we look. 

Last evening, on CNN, Chris Cuomo seemed more like the classic stormtrooper. But for a glimpse of this modern banality, consider a certain front-page report in this morning's Washington Post.

In the front-page report, Meckler and Natanson discuss an array of current disputes about the ways some public and private schools are responding to issues of race. Hard-copy headline included, the front-page report starts like this:

In schools' anti-racism push, right sees a threat

The nation’s reckoning over race has reached thousands of U.S. schools, and so, too, has a conservative backlash.

Schools across the country are working to address systemic racism and inject an anti-racist mind-set into campus life. But where advocates see racial progress, opponents see an effort to shame White teachers and sometimes students for being part of an oppressive system.

In particular, conservatives have seized on the idea that schools are promoting critical race theory, a decades-old academic framework that examines how policies and the law perpetuate systemic racism. It holds in part that racism is woven into the fabric of the nation’s history and life — a product of the system and not just individual bad actors.

In this initial framing, thousands of schools across the country "are working to address systemic racism"—and this effort has produced "a conservative backlash." 

Might thumbs already be on the scales as that framework emerges? That is a matter of judgment. We can certainly think of ways to introduce this topic which wouldn't perhaps and possibly seem to signal winners and losers to the extent that the Post's framework might.

That said, we had to sigh and turn away when we read the Post's account of a recent dispute at the Grace Church School, a high-end private school in Manhattan. In their early capsule reference, the Post reporters said this:

MECKLER AND NATANSON (5/3/21): The fight over what to do about [various racial concerns] is unfolding in public and private schools, in state legislatures and on school boards, in private Facebook groups and statewide curriculum committees.

At a private school in Manhattan, a teacher publicly complained about efforts to encourage White students to consider their privilege and affinity groups based on race. In Moore County, N.C., school board members are rebelling over state curriculum standards, which mandate history lessons incorporate the experiences and perspectives of marginalized communities.

And in Loudoun County, Va., the school system’s pursuit of equity initiatives such as anti-bias training for teachers has led conservative media and lawmakers to accuse the district of forcing students to learn about race too early and to view everything and everyone through a racial lens, sometimes basing conclusions on snatches of information, such as a short video clip of a lesson.

These conservatives today! They sometimes base their conclusions on snatches of information! 

Also, a teacher in a private school "publicly complained about efforts to encourage White students to consider their privilege,"  whatever that new-fangled phrase might signal, suggest or mean.

We assumed the private school was Grace—and sure enough, it was! Later in the front-page report, subscribers were serviced with an account of what had happened there. 

Below, you see the Post's full account of what happened at Grace:

MECKLER AND NATANSON: In Manhattan, the private Grace Church School had always seen itself as racially progressive. Then, in the aftermath of [George] Floyd’s murder, it heard from alumni posting on Instagram, saying they felt marginalized as students there. “It was a wake-up call that we were not doing as excellent a job as we thought we were,” said George Davison, the longtime head of school.

The school had already revised its curriculum. Then it hosted workshops on race and created affinity groups where students of different races could discuss their experiences.

At least one teacher, Paul Rossi, objected, both internally and, when he was not satisfied with the response, in public, including in an essay in the New York Post. He said the school requires teachers to treat students differently based on race and rejects dissenting voices.

“My school, like so many others, induces students via shame and sophistry to identify primarily with their race before their individual identities are fully formed,” he wrote. “The morally compromised status of ‘oppressor’ is assigned to one group of students based on their immutable characteristics. In the meantime, dependency, resentment and moral superiority are cultivated in students considered ‘oppressed.’ ”

Davison replied that no one should feel guilty about the circumstances of their birth. But he said students must face the systemic racism that surrounds them.

“Lots of people have, for a generation or two, said, ‘Well, I’m not a racist, so I have done all I need to do,” he said. “We have arrived at a point in our culture where we say you can’t be race-neutral anymore. Either you are against racism and therefore anti-racist or [you're] supporting racism.”

In fairness, the reporters included a substantial quote from Rossi. That said, they gave the head of school the last word.

(They also failed to report what Rossi said and did next. They failed to tell subscribers where the story went from there!)

In print editions and online, the report includes a pleasant photo of Davison as he "poses for a portrait in front of Grace Church School." It includes a second photo from Grace in which the Post appears to have found a pleasing irony.

In the part of the story the reporters discussed, Rossi said the school has been inducing certain reactions in students by use of "shame and sophistry." Davison said no one should feel guilty about their so-called "race," but he also said that students "must face the systemic racism that surrounds them."

Students should face the systemic racism that surrounds them? We feel the same way about the systemic banality which now surrounds us here in the streets of Our Town. 

When Arrendt wrote about Adolf Eichmann, she referred to "the banality of evil." This formulation accepts the obvious idea that Eichmann's actions were evil. But his evil actions were permitted by his banality, Arrendt argued.

As we read this morning's Post report, a different phrase came to mind. We thought of "the banality of banality"—of the persistent moral and intellectual fail which now rules the streets of Our Town.

Cuomo seemed like the classic stormtrooper to us. Today's reporters do not.

That said, can a modern nation run on this fuel? On banality all the way down?

Tomorrow: The banality of banality (what happened next at Grace Church)


We rename the Washington Football Team...

MONDAY, MAY 3, 2021

...and we move Aaron Rodgers along: Should the Washington Football Team remain the Washington Football Team? Or should it get a new name?

The conversation drags on. In this morning's Washington Post, Robert McCartney plumps for Washington Redwolves. 

We happen to have a better idea. We've had this idea all along:

We'd like to see the Football Team renamed the Washington Americans. The iconography could remain the same. As far as we know, nothing was ever cartoonized or derogatory about the team's previous visuals, at least not in the recent past.

"The Washington Americans," linked to those dignified, respectful emblems! We know, we know—it can't be done! But an observer can dream.

(For what it's worth, Yankees and Celtics are ethnic team names—though we know it can't be done.)

While we're at it, we've also solved the problem of where to send Aaron Rodgers. We'd like to see the Buccaneers acquire the young signal-caller to serve as Tom Brady's back-up.

Rodgers could watch and learn for a couple of years, possibly playing a few fourth quarters to give Terrific some rest. At some point in the future, if the star San Matean decides to take  a sabbatical year, the Chico native could imaginably be ready to step in.

The Washington Americans! By far, it's the best name we've heard. 


Seven-year-old shot and (not) killed!

MONDAY, MAY 3, 2021

Friedersdorf fights Storyline: A very unfortunate news report appears in this morning's Washington Post.

In print editions, the news report begins as shown. We include the principal headline:

Girl shot in D.C. was visiting family

Her mother had told 7-year-old Reagan Grimes she couldn’t go to the playground because it was too far from the residence they were visiting in Northeast Washington.

Dashawn Grimes wanted to keep her daughter in eyesight.

So Saturday evening, she let Reagan play on a porch in front of an apartment deep in a courtyard off Jay Street, where she could watch her while grilling hot dogs for dinner.

Reagan, a second-grader visiting from Maryland, rushed inside and excitedly announced, “I made a new best friend.” She then ran back out into the warm Saturday evening, dressed in a pink top and jeans, as gunfire erupted.

Reagan was struck in the chest by a bullet shortly before 7 p.m. and taken to a hospital in critical condition, police said. Grimes said the bullet passed through her daughter’s body, missing major organs.

That's how the news report began. It continues at length from there.

Luckily, this little girl wasn't shot and killed. She's expected to make a full recovery, to the extent that there is such a thing.

Also, she wasn't shot by a police officer. She was apparently struck by gunfire from a passing white car.

For those reasons, this shooting incident isn't going to rate a lot of attention. That's where Conor Friedersdorf's new report comes in.

Friedersdorf doesn't write from Storyline and he doesn't recycle script. He doesn't engage in those behaviors at The Atlantic.

His new report concerns the way the public may be getting misinformed and misled about the shooting deaths of children and teens. Specifically, his pair of headlines say this: 

The Numbers Tell a Different Story About Police Killings of Minors
Exaggerated narratives could yield misguided policy responses—which would endanger many more kids.

Much longer story short: 

Friedersdorf says the public is being misinformed by the way our mainstream news orgs cover fatal shootings by police—especially fatal shootings of minors.

In Friedersdorf's rendering, our news orgs place gigantic stress on these rare events. In the process, they ignore the voluminous other ways children and teens get killed. 

For the record, everyone knows why our news orgs are currently doing this:

They're working from (cartoonized) Storyline. At present, they're especially drawn to Storyline in which white police officers shoot and kill black minors. No other dead minors need apply!

Friedersdorf is perhaps a bit too polite to say such things. But after he describes a few cases in which minors were shot and killed by police officers, here is a but of his nugget:

FRIEDERSDORF (5/2/21): All of these cases are tragedies. All raise the question of what, if anything, adults should have done to prevent them. But most news coverage of these killings lacks vital context to inform good answers. Many Americans are misinformed about the dimensions of this problem––and are prone to accept disturbing but false narratives, such as that police officers in America hunt and kill Black children, or radical remedies, such as defunding or abolishing the police in the name of protecting children. The wrong solutions might well result in the deaths of more children from causes other than police killings.

"Many Americans are misinformed about the dimensions of this problem?" Translating from Friedersdorf's lengthy piece, many people may be getting the impression—due to selective press coverage—that black kids are getting shot and killed by police all the time.

In fact, these shooting deaths are quite rare, Friedersdorf rudely says. Along the way, he offers these data about actual underage deaths:

FRIEDERSDORF: [D]ata show that police shootings are not among the most frequent causes of death for children, even setting aside medical conditions such as cancer. In 2016, the most recent year for which I could find detailed statistics, 16 minors were shot and killed by police. These were among the other causes of death for people under 18:

Gun homicides: 1,865

Gun suicides: 1,102  

Gun accidents: 126 

Sixteen fatal shootings by police. Almost two thousand fatal shootings by others—for example, by the type of person who shot, and luckily didn't kill, that 7-year-old in D.C.

At present, major media here in Our Town love the (cartoonized) Storyline in which young people get shot and killed by police officers. 

(Full disclosure: They only discuss such shooting deaths if the decedent is black. Here's an astonishing but obvious fact—almost no one else need apply.)

It's hard to find the words for such selective reporting. Evil, ugly, stupid, banal? All such terms might apply.

What is especially ugly is the way Our Town's big stars skip past a certain type of shooting—the type in which a 7-year-old who just made a best friend gets shot as a car passes by.

What can police departments do to stop the high volume of such fatal and non-fatal  shootings? Based on the types of discussions they conduct, Our Town's biggest stars don't care.

Here in Our Town, no one seems to care about such silly questions as that. Is it possible that Our Town's biggest stars are sunk in a type of banality? Are they banal all the way down? Is their universe all Storyline?

Also in this morning's Post: The following letter also appears in this morning's Post. It concerns the fatal shooting in 2017 of a young man named Bijan Ghaisar:

LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (5/3/21): Regarding the April 24 Metro article “Police killing moves to federal court”:

The Justice Department is looking into several police departments because of recent shootings of Black people and the departments’ practices. Why are officials not looking into the U.S. Park Police? Why has it taken so long for this case to be resolved? 

Bijan Ghaisar’s car was rear-ended, and he left the scene. He was killed for this. At no point were the officers who shot him in danger. It appears they were just angry because he would not stay put after he was stopped. Why is no one protesting for Ghaisar or adding his name to the long list of people shot by police over traffic infractions?

Why are no news orgs doing such things, even after several years in which the Washington Post has doggedly covered this case?

Everybody understands why! There's zero mystery here.

People do end up badly misinformed when big news orgs behave in such ways. As a courtesy, we'd attribute this behavior in Our Town to the banality of tribal behavior, to Storyline all the way down.


Starting tomorrow: BANALITY AND TOWN!

MONDAY, MAY 3, 2021

Banality, silence and script: Long ago and far away, Hannah Arendt wrote a controversial, high-profile book. According to the leading authority on Arendt's life, the book touched off  something approaching a "civil war" among New York intellectuals.

The book was built around a phrase which has become iconic. As for Arendt herself, that same leading authority describes her as "one of the most important political thinkers of the 20th century."

Her book was published in 1963. Two years earlier, Arendt had gone to Israel as a correspondent for The New Yorker. She'd gone there to witness the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the leading functionaries in the Holocaust.

Eichmann was found guilty on fifteen counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people. He was executed on June 1, 1962.

Arendt's account of the trial appeared in serial fashion in The New Yorker in early 1963. Later that year, the reports appeared as a book—a book which carried this title:

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

That key phrase, "the banality of evil," remains well-known to this day. But what did Arendt mean by the phrase? Here is the leading authority's thumbnail account

Most famously, Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to describe the phenomenon of Eichmann. She, like others, was struck by his very ordinariness and the demeanor he exhibited of a small, slightly balding, bland bureaucrat, in contrast to the horrific crimes he stood accused of. He was, she wrote, "terribly and terrifyingly normal." She examined the question of whether evil is radical or simply a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions. 

As noted, Arendt's account of the Eichmann trial touched off a wave of controversies. A German Jew who had been forced to flee Germany in 1933 and France in 1940, Arendt had even challenged some of the ways the Israeli government had conducted the trial.

At this point, it may not matter whether Arendt's various observations and claims were fully well-founded. It doesn't matter whether Eichmann was a standard sociopath or was, instead, "terrifyingly normal" in certain basic ways.

We only mention Arendt today because her famous phrase lives on—and because a recent news event has brought her famous analysis of Eichmann to mind.

We refer to the videotape from Loveland, Colorado which we mentioned several times last week. For one example, and for links, you can just click here.

The videotape shows several police officers from that city discussing a recent violent arrest they had made. They're watching the bodycam video of the (remarkably) violent arrest as they conduct their discussion.

In some ways, that videotape—the videotape of the officers discussing their earlier conduct—is the most unusual videotape we have ever seen. 

In some ways, it may be the most instructive videotape we've ever seen. For remarkably obvious reasons, that videotape brought that famous phrase—"the banality of evil"—quite directly to mind.

We'll be discussing that videotape this week. We'll be discussing  the apparent banality on display on that tape. 

For the past several years, we've been saying, at this site, that "it's all anthropology now." Here's what we've meant by that:

It makes no sense to continue to dream that our society is capable of serious discussion or serious political action. It's all over now but the shouting! 

The only task that remains is the attempt at explanation—the attempt to explain the reasons why we're caught in this giant fail.

If it's all anthropology now, the Loveland videotape is quite a find. 

A remarkable type of banality is on clear display in that tape. But that brings us to a second question we'll be exploring this week—the question why the major news orgs in Our Town have disappeared that remarkable tape.

Rather plainly, a remarkable type of banality id on display in that tape. This week, we'll be asking a second question:

Is a second type of banality on display in the way the news orgs of Our Town have covered, but also have refused to cover, violent events of this general type? A type of banality is quite clear in that Loveland videotape. But is it possible that some similar type of banality is general here in Our Town?

At this point, it doesn't matter if Arendt was right in her assessment of Eichmann and the Eichmann trial. By way of contrast, the way we cover these violent events very much does matter.

A stunning banality  is on display as those officers sit around talking and laughing about their earlier violent conduct, but we won't be told about that in Our Town:

Is a second banality on display as that tape disappears?

Tomorrow: As seen on that videotape