Dare to be Stupid

If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can't it get us out? 
— Will Rogers
In this week's Sift:
  • Dare to be Stupid. What's the responsible thing to do with a story that should never have gotten the public's attention to begin with? Ignore it and it festers. Debunk it you run the risk of entering the debate and becoming part of the problem. This week I follow Weird Al Yankovic's advice and dare to be stupid by covering two stupid stories: How the D.C. blizzard disproves global warming, and why Sarah Palin is a serious presidential candidate. 
  • The Future of Books. As we wait for the iPad to come out and possibly revolutionize the e-book market, a lot of people are talking about the future of books-on-paper.
  • The New Slums. Timothy Egan finds the forerunners of future slums in the over-built ex-urbs of San Francisco. It seems unthinkable that suburbs could become slums. But a lot of inner-city slums were unthinkable once too.
  • Short Notes. My favorite Marine survives to a distinguished retirement. Conservative American Christians suddenly notice the need for universal human rights. Greece has precisely the wrong amount of economic sovereignty. Health insurance rates are headed up already. And more.

Dare to Be Stupid

One of the challenges of journalism is figuring out what to say about a story that, in a perfect world, nobody would pay attention to at all — or maybe they'd pay just a little attention before going on to more important things. (“Where's Obama's birth certificate? Oh, wait, here it is. Never mind.”) You know the ones I mean — stupid stories, ones that give you a bad feeling about the general public and whether you want to be included in their number.

The problem with not covering a stupid story is that it runs along stupidly without you, like a dog dragging its leash down the trail. Every day a few more people hear the story, and if no one debunks it, then the folks who aren't stupid but just don't have a lot of time to check things out — they start to think it's true and maybe even important. (“Oh yeah. I heard that someplace.”) 

If you do cover it, though, you're drawing even more people's attention to it. You're adding to the noise, convincing people that there is an actual “controversy”,  and getting distracted from the stuff that actually deserves thinking and talking about. For example, every prime-time minute spent debunking “death panels” was a minute taken away from people who can't get medical care or who get it and then go bankrupt paying for it

Anyway, this week seemed to have more than its share of stupid stories. Let's roll up the cuffs of our pants and step out into the middle of two.

Snow Disproves Global Warming. This was a big theme on Fox News, where they put a copy of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth outside their D.C. offices and watched it disappear as the snow accumulated. “I'm not sure in which chapter,” host Eric Bolling announced sarcastically, “Mr. Gore dealt with record snowfalls across the whole Eastern seaboard.” The conservative movement's flagship newspaper, Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times, led an editorial with this paragraph:

Record snowfall illustrates the obvious: The global warming fraud is without equal in modern science.

And the Virginia Republican Party thought the point was so persuasive that it based an attack ad on it.

Several sources — Bill McKibben, Time magazine, and so on — tried to respond intelligently, but to me they all sound like a guy giving his wife a perfectly rational explanation of why he's on the phone with his ex-girlfriend. The articles require readers to think, and meanwhile the visceral contradiction between warm and snow is being reinforced. 

For what it's worth, the intelligent discussion of the storm goes like this: Climatologists actually did predict that global warming would lead to more serious snowstorms. For example, last year's report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program says: 

Cold-season storm tracks are shifting northward and the strongest storms are likely to become stronger and more frequent.

The atmosphere holds more moisture as it gets warmer, so precipitation of all sorts is likely to increase. If you live someplace that still gets below freezing occasionally, your odds of a major snowstorm go up rather than down. So warm and snow are paradoxical, not contradictory. (“Honey? What's wrong? Don't throw that.”)

By the way, this is also why Antarctic ice is still increasing. Global warming has two predicted effects on the polar icecaps: increased snowfall and increased melting. In the Arctic, melting is the stronger effect, but the Antarctic is still in the temporary period where increased snowfall is the stronger effect. A UN Environment Program report says:

Even if Antarctica were to warm in the future, its mass balance is expected to become more positive: The rise in temperature would be insufficient to initiate melt but would increase snowfall.

An even more intelligent point of view refuses to get into the snow-and-global-warming discussion at all, because weather and climate occur on such different time scales that it's foolish to mention them in the same sentence. (It's like claiming that I'm on a diet because I'm not eating at this particular moment.) No matter how much the planet warms over the course of our lifetimes, there will still be some cold days. Undoubtedly next summer there will be a heat wave somewhere, and I doubt that Fox News or the Washington Times will present it as evidence that Gore was right after all.

Rachel Maddow tried harder to explain the nonsense in laymen's terms, and even enlisted the help of Bill Nye the Science Guy. But I think the best answer is to laugh at it, as Stephen Colbert did. After showing some of the Fox coverage, Colbert described it as “simple observational research: whatever just happened is the only thing that is happening.” He went on to observe that it was dark outside, and concluded that the Sun had been destroyed.

The world has been plunged into total darkness. Soon all our crops will die, and it's only a matter of time before the mole people emerge from the center of the Earth to enslave us.

Sarah Palin is a Serious Presidential Candidate. Palin has been a non-stop stupid story ever since the 2008 campaign ended. She was newsworthy when she was the vice presidential candidate of a major political party (a party that became significantly less major because of her ticket's landslide loss). She was newsworthy in Alaska until she resigned after half a term as governor. Since then, not so much. She has no decision-making power, and her comments have not added a single quantum of insight to any issue. 

Nevertheless, I could have led with a Palin story almost every week since the election, and even I haven't been able to resist including an occasional short note about her, or her daughter (who is still on her pro-abstinence do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do tour of the country), or her daughter's baby papa, or her first-dude husband. The Palins absolutely should be on TV as a reality show. But news? No, I don't think so.

Palin's latest attempt to be newsworthy was to give the closing address at the Tea Party Convention in Nashville, which was a stupid story in itself. Picture a similar party on the Left, without Fox News to promote it 24/7. Wait, we don't have to picture it — there's a Green Party. Any idea when their next convention is? And while we're at it: What's the name of the current governor of Alaska? You know, the guy who picked up the responsibilities that Sarah couldn't be bothered with. 

I've watched the speech; it's standard Republican boilerplate — unspecific pleas to spend less and repeated invocations of “common sense solutions” that are never spelled out. And it's delivered badly. The audience, which paid big money specifically to see Palin, kept trying to get excited, but she mostly stepped on their enthusiasm. To get a view from the other side of the spectrum, check out Adam Kleinheider's claim that Palin is trying to “hijack” the Tea Party movement and that her speech was “derivative circa 2004 neoconservatism”.

Anyway, this performance convinced the Washington Post's David Broder (supposedly the dean of political columnists) that we should “Take Sarah Palin seriously” and that Palin is “at the top of her game”. Of course, the same David Broder declared in early 2007 that “President Bush is poised for a political comeback.” A football coach would be fired for a call that bad, but there are no standards for pundits, particularly at the Post. Meanwhile, a poll in the same newspaper said Palin's unfavorability rating had hit 55% compared to 37% favorable, a new low. “Even among Republicans, a majority now say Palin lacks the qualifications necessary for the White House.”

In other words, only the pundit class really wants her to run. (And Democrats.)

Palin has a base: disaffected middle-aged and elderly white working-class evangelicals. That's nowhere near a majority, even in a Republican primary, and so far there's been not the slightest indication that she can attract anyone else. Jesse Jackson in 1988 had more upside than Palin does now. In 2008, the more the electorate saw of her, the less they liked her. That's going to hold true in 2012 as well.

No matter how much coverage she gets, she's still not newsworthy.

Steven Colbert demolishes Palin's rationalization of why Rush Limbaugh can use the phrase “f**king retard” but Rahm Emanuel can't.

Palin pledged to plow her $100K speaking fee back into the movement, but hasn't said how. Maybe she'll donate it to her PAC, so that it can buy more copies of her book.

Whenever Palin gets off her prepared script, she's in trouble. In response to a softball question at the Tea Party convention, she said: “It would be wise of us to start seeking some divine intervention again in this country, so that we can be safe and secure and prosperous again.” Is that what her policies depend on? Vote Palin and pray for a miracle?

2008's least newsworthy person, Joe the Plumber, now says John McCain “used” him and “screwed up my life.”

The Future of Books
Maybe it was the announcement of the Apple iPad, which will start shipping in late March, but something has caused another flurry of discussion about the future of books.

The New York Times noticed the decision of Cushing Academy to “give away most of its 20,000 books and transform its library into a digital center” and asked several experts to comment on this question: Do School Libraries Need Books? No one answers with a simple “no”, but the depth of the writers' support for printed books varies, along with their reasoning for that support.

To me, the most interesting point was made by several people. Nicholas Carr put it like this:

The pages of a book shield us from the distractions that bombard us during most of our waking hours. As an informational medium, the book focuses our attention, encouraging the kind of immersion in a story or an argument that promotes deep comprehension and deep learning.

I get that point if we're talking about web browsing on a computer, where a chat window might pop up at any moment and dozens of links are always available. But I've had a Kindle for almost a year, and what it does best is re-create the focused space of a book. 

Liz Gray talks about how inexpensive books are, but that's only true in certain ways. Books are cheap, but libraries are expensive. You could buy a Nook or an iPad loaded with the Great Books collection (nearly all of which are in the public domain and essentially free as e-books) far cheaper than you could buy the paper-and-ink collection from Britannica. Which is more economical depends on a lot of assumptions about how the texts will be used.

I was glad to see all the participants dismiss the idea that paper/e-book is an either/or choice, as if buying an e-book reader would be a complete mistake if it didn't replace all the paper in your life.

In a separate discussion, Henry Farrell and Matt Yglesias make the link between e-books and the problem that so many nonfiction books are padded. Yglesias:

One reason I haven’t wound up using my Kindle as much as I thought I would is that it’s dramatically easier to flip/scan/skim with a paper book and an awful lot of books that are by no means bad books demand a lot of flipping/scanning/skimming. … [I]n my experience it’s reasonably rare for even a pretty good non-fiction book to be an absolute masterpiece of composition that demands to be read from beginning to end. And unfortunately the trend is toward less-and-less in the way of the kind of editing that produces really well-crafted books.

But since an e-book's length is just a number (and doesn't have the symbolic value of a paper-book's physical heft) Farrell hopes we'll see a new market for the short e-book:

Ideally, we will end up in a world where people won’t feel obliged to pad out what are really essays to book length in order to get published and compensated.

I might as well make my prediction about the effect of the iPad. Dedicated readers will still want to have a dedicated e-book device like an improved Kindle or Nook, precisely for the closing-off-the-world effect Nicholas Carr attributes to paper-books. But lots more people will get iPads as generalized entertainment machines, and they will each read a few books on them.

The New Slums

Timothy Egan has an important article on his NYT blog: Slumburbia. He describes some California planned communities that were built during the housing bubble. They're two hours from San Francisco and now it's hard to find people who want to live there. 

Now median home prices have fallen from $500,000 to $150,000 — among the most precipitous drops in the nation — and still the houses sit empty, spooky and see-through, waiting on demography and psychology to catch up. In strip malls where tenants seem to last no longer than the life cycle of a gold fish, the bottom-feeders have moved in. “Coming soon: Cigarette City,” reads one sign here in Lathrop, near a “Cash Advance” outlet. Take a pulse: How can a community possibly be healthy when one in eight houses are in some stage of foreclosure? How can a town attract new people when the crime rate has spiked well above the national average? How can a family dream, or even save, when unemployment hovers around 16 percent?

For half a century, it has been unimaginable that the suburbs could turn into slums. But many of the inner-city slums that we take for granted today (or are re-gentrifying) were once fashionable neighborhoods too.

Egan calls attention to another unexpected fact: The recovering west-coast markets are the ones with strict housing codes: San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and San Diego.

The developers’ favorite role models, the laissez faire free-for-alls — Las Vegas, the Phoenix metro area, South Florida, this valley — are the most troubled, the suburban slums. Come see: this is what happens when money and market, alone, guide the way we live.

Short Notes
If you've been wondering what ever happened to that Marine I wrote about in Supporting My Troop in 2006, I went to his retirement ceremony Friday. Steve goes out as a Chief Warrant Officer 4. (Warrant officer is a rank most people haven't heard of, because there aren't that many of them. It sits between officers and enlisted men. CWO-5 is the highest rank you can get by coming up through the enlisted ranks.) A general officiated and awarded him the Legion of Merit — it and the Medal of Honor are the only American medals that are worn around the neck rather than pinned to a uniform.

He's been back to Iraq and Afghanistan several times since I wrote about him, and from his emails I have picked up such un-actionable intelligence as the fact that Bagram gets cold in January. 

Some retirements are sad, but this one wasn't. Steve seems both proud of his career and happy that it's over. (He would have retired sooner if he hadn't been stop-lossed.) I share some vicarious pride, and I'm happy that no one will be shooting at him now. After he gets used to civilian life, I'm planning to point out how well decorated military veterans have done as Democratic candidates for Congress.

Glenn Greenwald and Digby both comment on this: The same people who think that foreign-born Muslims accused of terrorism should have no rights at all are outraged that white American Christians accused of kidnapping Haitian children may not be treated with full respect.

Whether this is due to hypocrisy (as Glenn says) or lack of empathy (Digby), you either believe in human rights or you don't. You can't expect anybody to take you seriously if you claim that other people have to respect the rights of people like you, but that people-not-like-you can be treated like animals. Digby:

It turns out that having a rule of law commonly respected the world over really comes in handy at a time like this. And every time the US government chisels away at our system of justice in the name of “protecting ourselves”, or some yahoo prattles on about how someone doesn't deserve the same rights as somebody else, that fundamental protection gets weaker and weaker.

Fasteddie9318 on DailyKos compiles statements from a number of such yahoos: Scott Brown, Judd Gregg, Joe Lieberman, Susan Collins, Charles Krauthammer. All of them talk about the administration's “decision” to “grant” or “give” rights to people accused of terrorism. Here's the point (with my added emphasis):

It seems that conservatives see the Bill of Rights as a list of generous gifts from our government to its citizenry, rather than what it is: a list of prohibitions on government action to restrict or deny rights that it recognizes as universal. By that [conservative misconception], there are no inherent human rights, and if rights can be given by a government at will, then they can also be taken away just as easily.

Newt Gingrich can't get his story straight about when we should treat terrorists as criminals.

Europe is discovering the downside of a currency zone that is bigger than any government: Greece can't devalue its currency (the Euro) and it can't count on help from the rest of the EU.

I'm waiting for the moral and fiscal watchdogs on the Right to condemn Blackwater billing the government for a prostitute.

Robert Reich's health insurance company just raised individual premiums 39%.

A new poll says Americans want gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. It's not even close: 57% – 38%. And 82% think the military shouldn't discipline gays who get outed against their will.

Last week's “Why are liberals so condescending?” op-ed in the WaPo was solicited by the editors, not volunteered by the author. That's your liberal media in action.

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  • Foxwood  On February 15, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    The “Stupidest President Ever” award has to go to Obutthole. He's eloquent with his teleprompter, but off script can't do diddly. He makes bad decisions, but when his handlers don't control him, he's even worse.


  • Anonymous  On February 15, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    (I see it didn't take Foxwood long to take the dare 🙂

    On the substance of the latest entry …

    Certainly the Declaration of Independence is clear on the point that everyone has certain inalienable rights, or that men do, at any rate.

    In my opinion the Constitution does two basic things.

    1. Specifies the powers of the three branches of government.

    2. specifies a non-exhaustive list of certain rights that may not be infringed by government in the execution of its powers.

    Denying foreigners the same rights as citizens requires that the powers of government be universal (applicable to all regardless of citizenship) while individual rights, contrary to being universal, are reserved specifically for Citizens of the United States.

  • Doug Muder  On February 16, 2010 at 9:27 am

    I'd be really curious to hear Foxwood explain where his/her opinion comes from. I've heard Hannity raise the “teleprompter” issue, and it's always puzzled me.

    During the NH primary campaign I was in the room when Obama answered questions off the cuff, and it's obvious to me that he's very smart. The recent Q&A with the House Republicans, where he fielded their questions without referring to aides or notes, showed a level of mastery that would just be unimaginable from Bush the Second or Reagan. Clinton might have been able to do the same, and maybe Bush the First, or Nixon. But Obama might think on his feet better than any president in our lifetimes.

    So attacking Obama as “stupid” just seems kind of wacky to me, especially coming right after George W. Bush. (Bush II probably wasn't stupid either, actually, but he had no interest in public policy so he often looked stupid.)

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