THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 16, 2023
Even among our own: It's hard to believe, but we're so old that we can remember when the column by Nicholas Kristof—and a second column on the same page—seemed to offer a chance to understand these deeply unfortunate times.
In fact, the columns appeared four days ago, in the New York Times Sunday Review. Their significance has been overtaken by the growing dispute over the College Board's AP course in African American Studies (not in Black History), which has become the culture issue of the moment.
We're older than that now! One thinks of the so-called "Feiler faster thesis," which—according to the leading authority—is now more than twenty years old:
Feiler faster thesis
The Feiler faster thesis (FFT) is a thesis, or supported argument, in modern journalism that suggests that the increasing pace of society is matched by (and perhaps driven by) journalists' ability to report events and the public's desire for more information.
The idea is credited to Bruce Feiler and first defined by Mickey Kaus in a February 24, 2000 Kausfiles blog post and Slate online magazine article, "Faster Politics: 'Momentum' ain't what it used to be." In an article published two weeks later, on March 9, 2000, Kaus gave the theory the name "Feiler faster thesis."
Kaus's second interpretation in a later article is broader and more succinct:
The news cycle is much faster these days, thanks to 24-hour cable, the Web, a metastasized pundit caste constantly searching for new angles, etc.
The thesis even has its own acronym—it's known as the FFT! That distinguishes it from the much older FFV, "the fastest on the line."
So true, Mickey Kaus, so true! The so-called news cycle really is much faster these days, "thanks to 24-hour cable, the Web, a metastasized pundit caste constantly searching for new angles, etc."
("A metastasized pundit caste?" Whoever may have dreamed it up, it's an excellent turn of phrase!)
Quite plainly, the FFT has turned out to be true! Thanks to 24-hour cable—even thanks to the constantly changing, 24-hour Washington Post—there plainly is a constant high-velocity search "for new angles, etc."
Twenty-four hours must be filled! There's a constant need for product.
Alas! Along with that constant search for new angles, we get a constant supply of silly new claims—silly new claims, we're forced to say, which emerge from both major political / cultural tribes, and from subsets within them.
That includes our own self-assured blue tribe, and subsets within that tribe!
At any rate, the claims have been general over cable in the course of the past four days. As those warring claims have emerged, they make it seem like a million years have passed since Nicholas Kristof offered this instructive recollection in last Sunday's column for the New York Times:
KRISTOF (2/12/23): I spent much of the 1980s and 1990s as a New York Times correspondent in East Asia, and children there (including mine) learned to read through phonics and phonetic alphabets: hiragana in Japan, bopomofo in Taiwan, pinyin in China and hangul in South Korea. Then I returned with my family to the United States in 1999, and I found that even reading was political: Republicans endorsed phonics, so I was expected as a good liberal to roll my eyes.
The early critique of phonics in part was rooted in social justice, trying to address inadequate education in inner cities by offering more engaging reading materials. The issue became more political when the 2000 Republican Party platform called for “an early start in phonics,” and when President George W. Bush embraced phonics with a major initiative called Reading First.
For liberals, Bush’s support for phonics made it suspect. That had some basis: The Reading First program was not well implemented, and careful evaluations showed it had little impact. It died.
Forget the rest of Kristof's column, which struck us as largely deluded. Can the story told by those highlighted passages possibly be true?
Can our own blue tribe have been so silly as to behave in the way that's described? Can Kristof's recollection possibly be accurate?
Kristof says that, "as a good liberal," he was told by others within our tribe that he should roll his eyes at phonics instruction! He says this happened at the turn of the century, at the very time when the FFT was barreling down the line.
Why was Kristof told, at that time, that he should roll his eyes at phonics instruction? According to Kristof, liberals were rolling their eyes at phonics because the GOP platform endorsed it!
President Bush had even embraced it! That told us that phonics was bad!
Nicholas Kristof is very bright; he has extremely good values. We were shocked, but not surprised, by his recollection, though we can't say to what extent his recollection is accurate.
It seems to us that Kristof's recollection is extremely valuable. We can feel sure that Nicholas Kristof isn't making this story up. Because the story is surely true to some extent, it teaches a potentially valuable lesson.
The lesson it teaches is very important, though only for such blue tribe members who are willing to "refuse to be a fool." The lesson it teaches is this:
Kristof's story teaches us that our own blue tribe can be amazingly silly too. That we're even capable of throwing American schoolkids under the bus in our ever-faster search for ideological purity.
At times, We may refuse to be like Them in the dumbest manner possible. We adopt our new heartfelt stance because the Others are known to be different and stupid and evil.
According to expert anthropologists, every bone in our human bodies teaches that antique lesson. And if you've been watching blue cable this week, you've seen that principle being enacted on an instant new field of play.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but we liberals are human too! Our experts will sometimes have imperfect judgment. Our professors can sometimes be subsumed by the force of their preferred hobbyhorses, and our multimillionaire cable stars—more and more, and faster and faster—can perhaps be seen positioning themselves, in these latter days, as demagogue adjacent.
This phenomenon is coming on faster and faster, just as Feiler said. Tomorrow, we'll turn to the column—by a second very sharp player—which shared a page with Kristof's column on Sunday last.
Given everything which has happened since then, it seems like a million years have passed since those two columns appeared! So it goes, in large part, when our technologies drive our hard-wired, all too human brains to operate faster and faster.
On this basis, we invite you to take The Feiler Faster Challenge:
Can you conceive of the possibility that our own tribe's professors and experts may have imperfect judgment? Can you imagine the possibility that, in some given matter, they could even (perhaps) be wrong?
We've heard a lot of dumb claims this week, many from within our own tribe. According to an array of top experts, our brains are wired to work this way as we hurry ahead, ardent for some desperate glory, enjoying our latest war.
Please don't expose the children to phonics. George Bush said you should!
Tomorrow: These Extremely Bad Others Today!