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Don't Think Twice | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Don't Think Twice

My new "Think Again" column is called "Think Again: The Conservative War on Knowledge," and you can read it here.

My Nation column is called “All the Media Money Can Buy” and it’s here

My contribution to The Nation's “OpinionNation: A Forum on Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS)” can be found here.

This New York Times review of The Cause has some criticisms I can understand but overall it not only fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the project I intended, it attributes to me a view of politics that is exactly the opposite of my own. Naturally, I’m rather disappointed, but I see no conspiracies afoot. In any case, I’ll have a letter in the June 3 issue of the Book Review explaining and will expand a little bit here once that’s printed. In the meantime, I’m rather liking the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle and The American Prospect more than ever. 

I did a debate on the 2012 election with Hugh Hewitt at Pomona College. It was not the most edifying night of my life and I’m told the audio is not so hot, but here it is anyway. 

Alter-reviews:

Paul McCartney RAM Deluxe Edition: 

First, the music. I would say “it’s not bad” but some of it really is. Tossed off, unworthy of release. Not as annoying or cloying of some of the work that came after it—nothing in all music history could compete with “My Love,” though “Silly Love Songs” is close.  Some of it is awfully good, though, and the songs that aren’t, aren’t so bad that you need to fast forward them or risk a headache or anything. “Too Many People,” the anti-John song is pretty great. “Smile Away,” and “Monkberry Moon Delight” are really fun today.  The remastering is fine too. Overall, it’s minor but not awful McCartney and certainly worth having.  If you get this fancy edition, you are, of course, getting a lot more than the album. For instance: there’s also the bonus CD with some songs that it was a pretty good idea to leave off the album. There’s a mono version of the CD and a big band “Thrillington CD” that McCartney did of the album and never (previously own up to).  There’s the DVD and, a beautiful 112-page book of photos Linda took at the time—which justifies a great deal of the price above--along with facsimiles of Paul’s lyric sheets and some other stuff.  It’s a very generous package in a lovely big box. It will thrill any obsessive fan and bring back memories of 1971, for better or worse. You can read all about it here.

I’ve also been spending a lot of time with a newly unearthed live Bill Evans CD recorded at the much-missed Art D'Lugoff's Top of the Gate, (which is what it’s called) recorded on October 23, 1968. It includes two complete, never before released shows with Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morell on drums. Nice package too, with a twenty-eight-page booklet with essays by Nat Hentoff, Gary Burton, Eddie Gomez, Marty Morell, George Klabin and Art D'Lugoff's son Raphael D'Lugoff, and a bunch of photos.

I’ve also been listening to new CDs by Kevin Gordon (“Gloryland,” it’s terrific), Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Jack White, the Decembrists, and Loudon Wainwright. I took my mom to Loudon and family last weekend at Town Hall with Suzzy and Lucy Roche, Martha and Sloane and Rufus Wainwright, and some other people. It was a wonderful show, devoted largely to death and decay and the impossibilities of family, based pretty intently on Loudon’s really fun and smart and moving new album “Older than My Old Man Now.” It was the second time in a single week I had seen Suzzy and Lucy; they played a mother’s day show at City Winery Sunday night with Patti Smith and her (quiet, shy) daughter at the piano. That was fun too. Anyway, listen to Loudon sing about his old man, his fear of death, his regrets and his remembrance of sex on the new CD, or read all about it here, or read Old Rick Hertzberg who was sitting behind me and Mom at the show and worked a lot harder on his post than I did on mine, alas…

Now here’s Reed:

Our Dummied-up Discourse
by Reed Richardson
On June 14, 1911, newly elected Wisconsin Congressman Victor Berger spoke for the first time on the House floor. As the first Socialist ever elected to Congress, Berger quickly demonstrated that his approach to his new job would be more about working for the people and less about delivering stem-winding speeches. So, rather than merely offer up empty platitudes to his colleagues or marvel at his grandiose surroundings, Berger’s initial, hour-long address—on, what else, wool tariffs!—quickly showed him to be something of an early twentieth century policy wonk, albeit one with a deft wit:

“If you will bear with me in patience for an hour…I am told that oratory counts for little or nothing in this House—that you want facts…I am very glad of that, because I hope to convince you within 5 minutes that I am not an orator, and within 10 minutes that I have some facts.”

More than a century later, Berger’s rather dour appraisal of the level of Congressional oration continues to ring true. In fact, according to this latest study by the Sunlight Foundation, it has recently sunk to new rhetorical lows. According to the study’s findings, speeches in Congress have dropped a full grade level—from 11.5 to 10.6—in the past seven years. 

At the forefront of this downward verbal charge the study finds a group of first-term, conservative House Republicans, many of whom barely attain an eighth-grade level when speaking on the House floor. The world’s ‘greatest deliberative body,’ meanwhile, doesn’t really live up to its moniker, as only two of the ten highest rated speakers come from the Senate. And while moderate to extremely liberal Democrats all cluster around an 11.5-grade level average, Republicans display a distinctly pronounced rhetorical tilt based on ideology. As a result, GOP moderates tend to have the highest speech levels in Congress (around freshmen college-level) while extreme right-wing Republicans now consistently score the lowest.

So finally some scientific proof—Tea Party types really are know nothings, right? Certainly, that would be a tempting conclusion to draw, but the reasoning behind it is specious, at best. That’s because the analytical tool used by the Sunlight Foundation—the Flesch-Kincaid formula—is merely designed to assess readability, not intellectual probity. Thanks to its heavy emphasis on textual cues like sentence word count and average syllables per word, it can underestimate the intelligence of simply structured syntax, which the spoken word naturally generates. President Obama himself has been criticized (by the usual suspects) for employing similarly plain, straightforward language in all of his State of the Union addresses. As a result, even the study’s authors acknowledge that to say we’re witnessing a ‘dumbing down’ of Congress based on this one metric is not really justified. (Nevertheless, not everyone in the media could resist such a juicy headline, although—surprise, surprise—placing direct blame on the one political party most responsible for the supposed decline remains a bridge too far.)

Instead, the study proposes another possible cause for the change—a shift in Congress’s presumed audience. In an era of C-SPAN and, more importantly, YouTube, some members of Congress could be increasingly viewing floor speeches as proxy stump speeches for public consumption rather than occasions to persuade fellow colleagues. Politicians speaking directly to their constituents, however, tend to rely upon emotional rather than logical arguments and riff extemporaneously on easy-to-grasp, well-worn talking points. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the unmistakable trend in recent Congressional oratory, and in particular that of extreme right-wing Republicans, has gravitated toward that of the average American, who reads at an eighth or ninth-grade level.

Of course, an easy, populist rejoinder these fringe conservatives can offer up in their defense is that their plain-spokenness just demonstrates their anti-elitist bona fides. Indeed, many of them point to Obamacare’s 2,700-page length and textual complexity as Exhibit A of the flawed, government overreach they were sent to Washington to fix. (Yet, one wonders how these same conservatives square the circle with the fact that all of our nation’s founding documents would classify as unquestionably elitist based on their college- and graduate school-level Flesch-Kincaid scores.) Plus, most major newspapers in the ‘liberal media’ currently write at an anywhere from an eleventh to fourteenth-grade level, and goodness knows no self-respecting conservative would want to emulate anything that they do.

This last point is worth expanding upon and highlighting, though. Right now, a large majority of Congress still formally converses using the same range of language complexity as the establishment print media that covers them. The only real outlier group, which is responsible for dragging down the average of the whole body, is this coterie of mostly new, mostly ultra right-wing Republicans, who just so happen to represent the driving force of the GOP right now. True, this band of conservatives doesn’t actually speak a different language than the press or the rest of their Congressional colleagues, but the growing linguistic disconnect between these groups is symbolic of a much larger gap in worldview, one that can’t help but affect their day-to-day interactions.

Hence, when Democrats offer up countless legislative compromises that amount to giving up a lot to get a pittance in return, these right-wing Republican ensure those appeals are roundly rejected. Likewise, when freshman Tea Party Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold, who ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the Sunlight study, talks seriously of being willing to shoot the “hostage” (i.e. wreck the economy) in last summer’s debt ceiling fight in order to advance his conservative dogma, he doesn’t get treated as a reckless firebrand by the press. Instead, he and his reactionary pals are characterized as merely engaging in the same kind of political posturing as the president and Democrats, who warned of the grave damage such a move could cause.

That’s why to focus simply on a change in language level in Congress is to miss the forest for the trees. On issue after issue, whether it’s contraception, climate change, health care, financial reform, economic and tax policy, Medicare or Social Security, it’s clear the current Republican Party has become beholden to a rump minority in the House dedicated to advancing the interests of a few rich and powerful institutions at all costs. And time and again, the press has failed to notice that this rock-ribbed incarnation of the GOP not only speaks differently, it thinks differently as well. (Its benefactors, however, are all too familiar.) 

As for those ‘facts’ that Representative Victor Berger spoke of 100 years ago, they’ve now joined eloquent oratory as being an endangered species among the current House majority and more than just our ears are suffering for it. In other words, the dumbing down of the right’s speech isn’t what should concern us most about our political discourse. Instead, it’s the dummying up of their populist rhetoric to mask their extreme conservative agenda.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail (dot) com.

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