ANGER AND OTHER: The Feiler faster thesis prevails!


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.

That said:

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! 


  1. As usual, thanks for documenting this tiny portion of the recent liberal atrocities, dear Bob.

    ...but c'mon, dear, "phonics", really? Who cares about this shit?
    ...what about the Big Guy's Big War, dear?
    ...imagine: poof -- and no more "phonics" ever...

    1. Students are over 4 times more likely to drop out of school if they are unable to read proficiently by the 3rd grade.

    2. Sounds like a plausible (if pointless) pair of correlative factoids. And what of it?

    3. Most criminals have reading problems.

    4. Reading is a tool of WHITE SUPREMACY, dear dembot. Don't be a fascist.

    5. Russia threatens nuclear war.

    6. Russia thrived during the Trump years. It was a successful collusion.

      Now with Biden, not so much, as they are getting their ass handed to them.

      Russia has always been a right wing country/populous (Leninism quickly devolved into state capitalism), has always been a mess.

    7. @12:27PM - yet another projection from the King of Khrushchobas everywhere.

  2. Today's essay by Somerby shows why I believe he is being paid to write this blog. He takes an enormous amount of space to say nothing at all. It is as if he is being paid by the word.

    For example, he uses 368 words to say that the news cycle is now faster due to technology -- I just used 9 words. Then he claims that Kristof is writing bilge, quotes what was said yesterday again, and tells us that he isn't going to tell us what the worst parts of Kristof's column were:

    "Forget the rest of Kristof's column, which struck us as largely deluded."

    Then Somerby claims that liberals opposed phonics because Bush supported it, because liberals oppose whatever conservatives want. But Somerby supplied no evidence at all in support of that claim, which strikes me as a projection of conservative tactics onto liberals by Somerby himself.

    George W. Bush's mother, Barbara Bush, was deeply involved in helping build literacy in Texas, through both schools and libraries. George W. Bush was married to Laura Bush, who was a school teacher herself. It can be presumed that George W. Bush not only heard about education issues from them, but about phonics specifically. But they didn't invent phonics and they were not the only members of the education community to support them. Nor was this the first mention ever of phonics, as mh pointed out yesterday. It is a bipartisan issue, with support from many teachers regardless of political affiliation.

    What is true is that George W. Bush proposed No Child Left Behind legislation that introduced standards and testing requirements, tied to school funding, into school districts nationwide. This was strongly opposed by many teachers because of the classroom time required to implement the testing requirements, and because that school-based testing was later tied to individual teacher evaluation. Teachers in poor schools received low ratings and less pay because they were evaluated based on their students' performance, which they did not have the means to raise significantly due to overwhelming social problems, including lack of school funding in what became a vicious circle. But that opposition had nothing whatsoever to do with phonics.

    Somerby's intent is to show that whatever conservatives want, liberals oppose. But he hasn't made that case using Kristof this week, nor has he provided any other evidence to support his attack on liberals.

    The silliest thing in today's essay is the way that Somerby dismisses everything else that Kristof says, calling it deluded, but then cherrypicks this one "recollection" about phonics because it agrees with his own purposes, telling us not to read the rest of Kristof's column. Why is that part of Kristof's writing valid? Because Somerby agrees with it and can use it against the blue tribe, saying:

    "That we're even capable of throwing American schoolkids under the bus in our ever-faster search for ideological purity."

    Many teachers are Democrats, because the people who believe in helping others tend to skew that way politically. The idea of teachers throwing their own kids "under the bus" for political reasons is offensive. But notice how Somerby has substituted the words "ideological purity" for "support for phonics". This is a step towards Somerby's next claim, which will be to blame leftist wokeness for the support for the African American Studies AP course or the opposition to book banning. But accusations of political motivations in teaching come from the right wing, this is a conservative talking point, a Republican meme, not based in fact and contrary to the values of most teachers, as Somerby (a former teacher) should know from experience.

    1. Phonics is a fake issue, just as CRT was and just as those litter boxes for furry students were. Why is it fake? Because no one opposes teaching phonics and it is already being taught in most schools -- and not because of George W. Bush. This may not be recognizable to conservatives because phonics is part of teaching programs that also include other skills that children need to become proficient readers, which research has shown work better than phonics alone.

      Why does Somerby spend so many words today repeating himself and promoting right wing memes? Maybe Naomi Wolf knows. Like Somerby, she went off the deep end and now spreads disinformation. If we knew why some people buy into right wing garbage, we might have an idea how to deprogram them.

    2. The remainder of Kristof's article talks about ways of implementing phonics in various programs, including the failure of Bush's Reading First program, and the ongoing inclusion of phonics in the very programs that conservatives have criticized.

      Why does Somerby call this review "deluded"? Because it undermines the idea that Bush's promotion of phonics worked, and the idea that others weren't already using phonics.

      As Somerby himself pointed out, the "two-thirds of kids can't read" meme (being spread largely on the right by phonics enthusiasts such as Emily Hanford, recently given a podium by Bari Weiss) is not supported by NAEP scores. Nor is it accurate that schools are not using phonics, as Kristof explains citing specifics. I suspect that Somerby tells readers to avoid reading the rest of Kristof's column because reading it will make clear that this so-called phonics war is itself politically motivated, its revival is part of the right-wing assault on public education, that the problem is non-existent and manufactured by the right to attack left-wing teachers and unions, and that there is no substance to it.

      Consider the possibility that Kristof is not any more deluded in the second half of his column than he is in the first half.

    3. Whoever is paying Somerby is getting a very poor return on investment.

  3. "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."

    Talk about deluded! First, there are no top experts telling anyone that anyone's brains are wired to work any specific way, especially not to produce the political faults Somerby claims to find on the left. (The key giveaway is that top experts are never this vague.) If our brains were wired to produce dumbness, we wouldn't have survived as a species, much less created the complex society that has resulted in progress on many fronts.

    Most people I encounter are not enjoying culture war at all. They are heartily sick of it. Even Republicans are tired of the drama surrounding Trump and his MAGA extremist followers. But Republicans seem to think that their voters won't turn out unless they are frightened about the reading skills of their kids. They may have cause for concern given the lost year during the pandemic and its impact on reading scores (which Somerby has never discussed), but reviving the phonics wars isn't the answer to that problem. The best thing parents can do to help improve reading is to read to (and with) their kids at home, to help increase their fluency via practice, to turn off the video games for a while, model reading habits themselves by picking up a book occasionally, buy more books for their kids, and generally encourage literacy at home.

  4. ** Projection comment of the day **

    "He takes an enormous amount of space to say nothing at all. It is as if he is being paid by the word."

  5. I can find no evidence that liberals opposed phonics, whether because Bush supported it or any other reason. I am willing to examine the evidence if it exists.

    I did find this:

    “Democrats have been among the leading figures in the state [California] pushing for a return to phonics.”

    This was from an article where Bob Dole was quoted as saying this about Bill Clinton: Clinton has become “a “pliant pet” of the nation’s teachers unions--"the very groups who have run our public schools into the ground.””

    So I am skeptical of Kristof’s assertions.

    Phonics were part of what was termed “scientifically based” reading instruction, and were in what was called “Reading First:”

    “Reading First is a federal education program in the United States mandated under the No Child Left Behind Act and administered by the federal Department of Education. The program requires that schools funded by Reading First use "scientifically based" reading instruction.[1]”

    And the NCLB passed with large bipartisan majorities:

    “the [No Child Left Behind] Act garnered bipartisan support in both chambers of the legislature, and it was passed in the United States House of Representatives on December 13, 2001 (voting 381–41),[22] and in the United States Senate on December 18, 2001 (voting 87–10).[12][23] The Act was then signed into law by President Bush on January 8, 2002.[20]”

    (Both from Wikipedia)

    What I found was opposition from teachers and others, who did not like the way the program was implemented (favoring certain large companies who published tests and phonics instruction materials) and how it hamstrung teachers, forcing them to adopt a narrow program of phonics education and taking away their ability to tailor the program to individual students and preventing them from including other approaches, such as “whole language.”

    Somerby owes his readers better.

    1. Mm. Yes I see that you prefer to engage via “partial language”. Mm interesting. Very. So.

  6. Arkansas, naep scores, Grade 4, reading, during Republican Asa Hutchinson’s term (2015-2023)

    white: 224
    Black: 202
    Hispanic: 210

    White: 221
    Black: 188
    Hispanic: 201

    Oof. Especially those numbers for black kids. Are Republicans in Arkansas throwing black kids under the bus?

    Let’s monitor Sarah “the liar” sanders and see if her dedication to “scientific” instruction and opposition to “wokism” can increase those numbers, above and beyond those of the hated “liberal” states, or at least, let’s see if she can find a way to finagle them, or just lie.

  7. I sympathize with at 11:05, but he or she can't really touch the big plop of whatever Bob drops this morning. It really illustrates how Bob, even when he was writing better than
    this, never got anywhere.
    Best I can do:
    Bob thinks Kristoff was once worthwhile and can
    hardly believe that he once did.

    Bob thinks Kristoff has written a bunch of total
    junk, BUT he is willing to believe the part about
    liberals being bad on a point which,
    Kristoff offers no examples of liberals making
    in public.
    Kristoff offers no example of a named liberal
    pressuring him to make in private.
    Kirstoff offers no example of an unnamed liberal
    pressuring him to make in private.
    Kirstoff doesn't really explain why this would be
    important to the overall stature of phonics.
    Kristoff, as a NYT's op ed writer, really ISN"T part
    of the 24 hour news cycle, yet Bob surrounds this
    unsupported faith in a writer who does not support
    his claim in with a thesis about why the twenty four
    news cycle is damaging.

    The more you look at this slop, the less it makes
    any sense. So Bob has done worse than say nothing.

    1. I recall Somerby criticizing many opinion columnists for making just such evidence-free assertions that he now simply accepts from Kristof.

    2. Evidence is for losers.

  8. I disagree that our side can be amazingly silly too. We're not capable of throwing American schoolkids under the bus in our ever-faster search for ideological purity.

  9. Phonics today, phonics tomorrow, phonics phorever!

  10. I can recall the old Somerby tearing Kristof to shreds, and rightly so:

    Kristof is a neoliberal right winger, a wealthy NYC elitist. He recently decided to run for governor in Oregon, where he doesn’t live but visits on occasion due to owning a vineyard there. Oof! Oregonians rejected his ability to even run based on residency rules. Kristof fought back, saying “hey, I’m just like the migrant farm workers here”. Turns out Oregon didn’t appreciate a carpetbagger coming to their state and trying to impose toxic values on them. Kristof kept the $3 million his campaign raised, but now he’s mad and spewing out these nonsense opinion pieces that have captivated Somerby.

    1. Yeah, that Oregon caper showed what Kristof is.

    2. Right wingers support Trump and DeSantis. They favor big cuts in government spending. They oppose powerful unions, I don't think Kristof is a right-winger.

    3. There is no such thing as right wing ideology, they are just people obsessed with dominance.

      Some right wingers say they support Medicare for All, some right wingers support fascism, at times right wingers supported abortion rights and at other times opposed them, sometimes right wingers say the deficit doesn’t matter and other times it does matter; it doesn’t matter what they claim to support, their motivation is to attain and maintain dominance, and they are fine with whatever they can weaponize in that sad and empty endeavor.

      Kristof is a neoliberal, indeed is a right winger. Kristof endorses notions like hierarchy, competition, meritocracy - a right winger through and through.

      To be frank, David, your views and understanding of politics are facile, trivial, and empty, but are completely understandable because they can be effective in maintaining a system of hierarchical dominance.

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