My new Think Again column is called “The FCC’s ‘Local’ Focus; Too Little, Too Late?” It’s about the shortcomings of the big new staff report the agency issued, and it’s here.

My new Nation column is called “The Ingrates of Wall Street.” It’s here.

I must say, I suppose to my shame, that I wrote three Anthony Weiner pieces this week. The newest one came out Thursday afternoon, here. The other two are here and here.

And here is Danny Goldberg’s memoir of his late friend, Gil Scott-Heron.

Four Reasons I Suck:

1) My “entire career has taken place within the top 1% intellectual aristocracy. As a result, [my] solutions for anything are tops-down, institutional solutions.” Also, I claim my “education has given me ‘historical context for understanding what is going on,’” yet my “arguments are absent an understanding of history.” 

2) I am an “Agent of Falsehood.” 

3) I think “You’re an idiot.” Let me be clear. I do think this Matthew Vadum fellow is an idiot, though the above is all I know about him, so for all I know, he could be a hoax. As for “you,” I don’t know you well enough to say, but perhaps this Mr. Vadum does, if in fact he does exist.

4) I am the problem, not the solution, to the problems I diagnose. (Actually, Josh Rothman wrote this nice, not-entirely-uncritical piece about my Academe article, The Professors, The Press, The Think Tanks—And Their Problems. But Will Wilkinson, late of the Cato Institute, you may recall, wrote a nasty piece about it. I replied at considerable length last week here, but apparently, this Wilkison fellow found my responses unanswerable (and I can’t say I entirely blame him).

Alter-reviews:

Garland Jeffreys is pretty close to the top of my list of most talented/least famous musical artists alive. His first album in more than thirteen years, “The King of In Between,” is cause for celebration. A wonderfully mongrel mix of rock, salsa, reggae and soul, Jeffreys is an incredibly energetic performer both of covers—his “No Woman, No Cry” approaches the original—and has written some of the greatest songs of all time. His album “Ghost Writer” is probably one of the ten best albums of the seventies and his next few albums are all pretty decent as well. His version of “96 Tears” is one of the most fun songs I’ve ever heard, and his own songs, “Wild in the Streets” and “R.O.C.K.” are classics—well at least in my house they are.

Much more popular in Europe than in the US, Jeffreys’ new record reflects his musical chops, intelligence and syncretism. In many ways, it’s a reflection of much of what’s great about this city, with “Coney Island Winter” as its centerpiece. Jeffreys is 67 and much of this album is about getting old; but he’s got a fifteen-year-old daughter and a rock n roll band to keep him young while he does. My guess is that you’ll want this album around to help keep you young while you get old too. I know I do. More here

Wednesday night I caught Eilen Jewell at Joe’s Pub and felt really lucky I did. I went on a whim, but was sold from just a few minutes in. First off, there was this crack band with a guy named Jerry Miller on Link Wray-like guitar. But most of all there was Jewell’s voice, supple and sexy as she combined blues, rockabilly and jazz, with a pretty fair sense of humor to boot. She was rather energetically pushing her new CD called “Queen Of The Minor Key.” I haven’t had the chance to spend much time with it but I am rather fond of her Loretta Lynn tribute, “Butcher Holler.”

I’ve also been spending time with this new CD “Heartless World” by Stewart Francke, who writes serious, sensitive songs about Afghanistan and the like. What attracted me, you will not be surprised to hear, is the appearance of Bruce Springsteen. In the liner notes, Francke writes, "it was always [Bruce’s] voice I heard in the call & response of the chorus but I figured it would remain just a dream. So I asked, he said yeah, and sang it as he sings everything — with great passion and emotional clarity. A dream come true." And hey, you can download the song for free at Backstreets.com.

In re-release news, I was thrilled to find a two CD “Red Bird Story” from Charly records in England. Founded by Lieber and Stoller—they did not understand payola or much else about the business—and so the company only existed for three years. But this collection has sixty songs alone, many of which were written by the pair and performed by the Dixie Cups, Shangri-Las, Ellie Greenwich, Barry Mann. Really nice packaging and excellent liner notes too. More here. Charly has also released a similarly elaborate 2 CD colletion of the Shangi-Las. Personally, I think that is an awful lot of Shangri-Las, but perhaps you don’t. Read all about it here.

Almost finally, if you’re missing any of the classic Paul Simon albums, well now’s the time. Sony Legacy is releasing them with cleaned up sound and few additional cuts and the like. The one I needed a new version of was “Live Rhymin’” which is a wonderful thing to have, if you don’t. They’re all pretty great and a little depressing. Reggae folk will be excited also about the new “Legacy” versions of Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It,” and “Equal Rights.” The latter one is the great one.

Now here’s Reed:

Reason Me This

The ability to reason has certain, undisputed evolutionary advantages, not the least of which involves figuring out how to get that last pickle out of the jar. But according to two French social scientists, what has propelled reason’s advance over the centuries is not the potential for deep, philosophical self-examination as was previously thought. Instead, its impetus may have come from something much more practical and mundane (and near and dear to the hearts of Altercators)—the ability to convince that Fox News-addicted, conservative uncle of yours, when seated next to him at Thanksgiving dinner, that Obama is not, in fact, a foreign-born, closet socialist bent on undermining the Constitution at every turn.

Or, at least that’s what the pair says in this very interesting write-up about their “argumentative theory of reasoning” in yesterday’s Times:

Now some researchers are suggesting that reason evolved for a completely different purpose: to win arguments…According to this view, bias, lack of logic and other supposed flaws that pollute the stream of reason are instead social adaptations that enable one group to persuade (and defeat) another. Certitude works, however sharply it may depart from the truth.

Certainement, non? Indeed, whatever this theory’s failings may be as social science, it’s conclusions certainly ring true to those of us who watch with abject disappointment as our political leaders and national media stand idly by while our country remains mired in an ongoing economic crisis. This theory, at least, offers up fresh insight into explaining the grinding legislative dysfunction and overly timid journalism that plagues us.

But wait, there’s good news! Over time, the theory goes, as large groups of people are exposed to many more differing viewpoints, they will achieve a greater collective sophistication in ferreting out bias and misinformation. Eventually, the best ideas and soundest arguments will rise to the top. If this happy ending sounds too good to be true, however, well, it is. That’s the bad news. Indeed, much like 220-volt household appliances and the movies of Jerry Lewis, the French researchers concede that their theory, “doesn’t seem to work in the U.S.”

Why is that exactly? What makes us, as a nation, so quick to swallow weak or patently false arguments and willfully (and sometimes enthusiastically) gum up the gears of our political process? Is our affinity for reliving these same old mistakes time and again just an unfortunate side effect of so-called American Exceptionalism?

The Times article certainly doesn’t solve this reasoning riddle, concluding as it does with the French theorists essentially throwing up their arms at us and vaguely blaming “America’s high-decibel adversarial system.” But this seems to be a bit half-hearted. After all, don’t elected officials and news pundits in the U.K., France, Italy, and almost every other Western country routinely “seek to score political advantage rather than arrive at consensus?” Sure, our political process suffers from some uniquely American structural problems—filibuster abuse and the hodge-podge redistricting process, come readily to mind—but something else, something larger, must be at work.

Could it be that the argumentative reasoning theory runs aground on American shores because its a priori givens aren’t accepted here as they are abroad? For example, the notion that everyone–including journalists—carries around their own set of personal biases may be readily acknowledged in media capitals like London, Paris, and Rome, but in the objectivity-obsessed newsrooms of Washington and New York such thoughts amount to journalistic heresy. The media-as-umpire analogy remains a shibboleth of our mainstream media, and the naïve myth that a news story or broadcast can “play it exactly down the middle” still endures.

This rigid pose of institutional neutrality saddles our press with unrealistic, if not impossible, expectations and makes calling out flawed reasoning more, rather than less, difficult. Likewise, it does a disservice to honest journalists as it effectively forces them to report with the equivalent of one arm tied behind their backs. As a result, it leaves the profession, as a whole, increasingly ill-equipped to keep pace with unprincipled political leaders and well-funded interest groups who have no similar qualms about routinely exploiting bias, straw-man arguments, and irrationality to advance an agenda, spin a news story, or pass (or repeal) a bill.

Still, the press has developed some coping mechanisms to counter the daily deluge of bias and flawed reasoning. Recently, one of the most popular of these mechanisms is the creation of separate “fact-checker” columns and standalone websites. While, at times, these platforms can play a valuable role in separating out the rhetorical chaff that clogs much of our political discourse—the St. Petersburg Times’ PolitiFact won the national reporting Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 2008 presidential election—they also indicate how tough it will be to achieve that collective sophistication of thought and reasoning.

First off, the very existence of these fact-checkers should cause a news consumer to wonder what value they’re getting out of reading, watching or listening to Washington’s daily beat reporters. By so publicly compartmentalizing the “fact-check” function, these news entities implicitly acknowledge that most of the press corps just doesn’t have the time (or perhaps the inclination or knowledge) to do more than give a cursory explanation of what happened. But now more than ever, what we need is for our media to analyze why and how something happened and the reasoning behind it.

Second, though these fact-checking entities make a show of assertively challenging flawed reasoning, this boldness can be deceiving. Some of it amounts to little more than clever marketing—PolitiFact reserves its “Pants on Fire” rating for the biggest supposed lies while the Post’s Glenn Kessler maxes out his analysis of unsubstantiated claims at “Four Pinocchios.” Indeed, these fact-check sites remain firmly entrenched in the ethos of objectivity. And while hewing to this conventional wisdom no doubt has little impact on their judgments in the most egregious cases, larger, more complicated issues make these platforms susceptible to the same reflexive, he-said, she-said “view from nowhere” that colors much of the rest of the national media.

Case in point, the recent political debate characterizing Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to “reform” Medicare. Democrats, recognizing the popularity and effectiveness of Medicare, have variously said Ryan intends to “kill”, “end,” or “end as we know it” the currently public, single-payer health care plan by turning it into a privately administered, voucher-based program. Ryan and the Republicans dispute this claim by saying that the plan won’t affect anyone currently older than 55 (but it will) and noting that the vouchers would be funded by a government entity still called Medicare. The latter is a classic bit of inductive logic, the absurdity of which Atrios summed up by saying “when we replace the Marines with a pizza, we’ll call the pizza the Marines.” Nevertheless, all three of the main fact-check sites flinched in the face of this shoddy reasoning and denounced the Democratic claims as overkill, misleading, or downright false. (The specific details behind why their analyses are inherently flawed, I’ll leave to others.)

But the larger point here is that, in the long run, achieving a more honest political discourse in our country probably won’t be determined by the number of journalists or fact-checkers we have, or how many claims they examine. Instead, what might ultimately make the difference would be removing the limits of hidebound objectivity and intellectual timidity that we’ve imposed upon ourselves. Lighting the candle of subjective reasoning may create a whole new world of shadows, yes, but it’s a far better fate than continuing to safely curse the darkness.

The Mail:
Frank Lynch
Hometown: 
Really Not Worth Archiving
As the dust settles tonight on the Anthony Weiner brouhaha, I’m sure we’ll be subjected, again, to comparisons to David Vitter. At first I thought the contrast in their treatment was revelatory, but on further reflection I think a better poster child for senatorial misbehavior is Jon Kyl. Kyl, you’ll recall, stood up during debates to defund Planned Parenthood and claimed that 90% of what they do is abortions. A thousand bloggers pointed out that the true figure is closer to 3%; Kyl had essentially lied about an important statistic during debate, and his office weakly issued a release saying that Kyl’s statistic "was not meant to be a factual statement." Meaning that Kyl is comfortable with making "nonfactual" statements during debates if they are persuasive.

And yet, even his office’s fig leaf was not adequate justification: Kyl had his statistic expunged from the Congressional Record, as is his privilege.

Keep in mind, this was on the Senate floor, during a significant debate while government shutdown negotiations were in progress.

Vitter’s crime, while a crime, is small potatoes.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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