My new Think Again column is called, “David Mamet, My Hero” but he’s not really my hero, here.

In my new Nation column, I explain why I so deeply admire Jake Weisberg for his deeply principled commitment to destroy Medicare and cut taxes on the rich, among other things, here.

In Academe, they write, The slow collapse of the newspaper industry has opened up public discourse to additional infusions of ideologically motivated misinformation. Walter Lippmann wouldn’t be pleased, writes Eric Alterman," here.

In the Daily Beast, they write, “Although Dominique Strauss-Kahn fits the stereotype of rich, leftist, Jewish banker preying on the poor and getting ethnic support from notable friends, there have been few anti-Jewish attacks on him in France, showing that claims of an anti-Semitism epidemic in the country are overblown, writes Eric Alterman,” here

This just in: Editor of Feminist Press Prefers Philip Roth Not Sit On Her Face. No really, here.


Let’s see. I caught Paul Simon’s recent show at the Beacon in support of his new CD “So Beautiful or So What?” The album has been getting better reviews than any Paul Simon album in a long time. I’m having trouble remembering the songs though. The lyrics are deep and true. I think my problem is with the rhythm of the tunes, which has not yet quite cohered for me, after about seven or eight listens. The concert was blissful, though. Paul put together a crack eight piece band and they play like a smooth, tight unit regardless of the type of music he has them playing at the moment. There were only two Simon & Garfunkel songs: a solo “Sound of Silence” and “The Only Living Boy in New York.” He could have played every night for a week and still left out a masterpiece here or there. Simon is inconsistent and sometimes pissy, but like Woody Allen, his genius and his rootedness help us live our lives more connected, less alone in this great and cruel city. Information about the new record is here.

Speaking of this city, if you live here, go see the new Tony Kushner play, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide…” at the Public Theater that I quote at length in my new Nation column. One of the silliest things Andrew Ferguson says in that David Mamet piece is that Tony is a writer of “agitprop.” Together with Tom Stoppard, Tony is our greatest living playwright, and although this play is way too long, it is challenging intellectually and emotionally on a level that floats above almost anything else you can find in film or theater these days. Flawed as it was, I loved it. Ticket info here. I’ve seen a lot of Broadway plays of late. If you’re thinking of going here is the order I would pick. (I did not see “Book of Mormon” yet.)

1) Arcadia

2) Importance of Being Earnest

3) The Normal Heart

4) Jerusalem

This past couple of weeks was the Israeli Film Festival here in the city. I could not go to as many films as I would have liked because I threw a Bat Mitzvah last weekend (which is also why there was no “Altercation” or “Think Again” or much of anything else this week. The films I did see were not as outstanding as some of the fare of the recent past. I’m sure “The Matchmaker” will get a release. It was shown at Lincoln Center earlier this year as part of the Jewish Film Festival. The film about Amos Oz was a pleasant introduction to his complicated life. Of the others, “Intimate Grammar” was the standout. What struck me about most of the films was how “normal” they were. Apolitical largely and not particularly Israeli except that they happened to take place there. But again, I did not get to as many as I would have liked. I hope to have a review of one or two in the future, as I did send someone.

Last night was the annual gala of the Jazz Foundation of America at the Apollo. Don’t ask me about the show—it was an incredible lineup of Jazz musicians who never got a chance to get going—but the foundation does do terrific and incredibly worthy work, both for old and infirm musicians and for music in the schools. I think you should give them money. Read all about them here.

Other CD recommendations?

There’s really too much music for me to deal with, given that I am supposed to turn in my history of liberalism any moment ASAP, but don’t let the moment pass without paying attention to:

Steve Earle, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (More on that in the future)

Garland Jeffries, The King of In-Between (Ditto)

The Strokes, Angles

The Cars, Move Like This 

Stewart Francke, Heartless World (Bruce is on this)

Flogging Molly “Speed of Darkness” (kinda Gaslight Anthem/Marah like)

And Sony Legacy has just released a two cd Essential Rosanne Cash, but of course it’s all essential! And don’t forget the lovely new Kate and Anna McGarrigle package Tell My Sister, just out on Nonesuch, here.

Now here’s Reed:

It’s The End of the World As We Know It… Or So We’ve Been Told

In case you weren’t already aware, you might not want to make any big plans this Saturday night, what with it supposedly being the beginning of the end of the world and all. The man behind this latest rapture myth, Harold Camping, says the real, full-stop, end-of-the-world date won’t occur until October 21, 2011, however, after five months of apocalyptic torment and tribulations (a period of tortuous upheaval that, to be frank, Mets fans might have trouble differentiating from the current 2011 baseball season). 

Now, if our planet isn’t ripped apart by worldwide earthquakes and tsunamis at 6:00pm this Saturday, don’t be surprised. After all, the propagator of this latest in a centuries-long list of eschatological deadlines had previously blown past one of his own—he first predicted a reign of apocalyptic wrath would begin back on September 6, 1994. (Although, to be fair, Kenneth Starr was appointed Independent Counsel just four weeks earlier, so maybe partial credit is in order here.) What went wrong 17 years ago? A problem with the math, he now says. But despite his track record of having already botched such a momentous prediction before, and setting aside all common sense to the contrary, some people are still willing to go all-in and actually heed what this self-proclaimed biblical “scholar” says.

Hmmm, unwavering confidence from a so-called expert despite a history of outrageously inaccurate predictions (plus a penchant for citing “the math” to support his flawed logic), where else have we seen these same symptoms before? OK, it’s easy to dismiss the relatively small number of people in the thrall of this charlatan Camping as gullible rubes, but a large majority of the American public all too often swallows the exact same diet of ridiculous wrongheadedness and patently fact-free predictions when it’s served up by our media from so-called political experts and pundits. Or, as this blog’s proprietor ably pointed out more than 10 years ago in "Sound and Fury: The Making of the Washington Punditocracy," his comprehensive taxomony of this new media species: “Within the confines of Washington’s punditocracy-driven insider debate, when reality and ideology come into conflict, it is the former, almost uniformly, that gives way.”

And yet such colossal errors of real-world analyses, on such a public scale, and often discharged with such sanctimonious pomposity, rarely, if ever, irreparably damage a pundit’s reputation in the manner common in most other professions. That’s because, unlike most real jobs, pundits inhabit a magical world that is relatively free of any accountability, memory or intellectual honesty. In this arena, hypocrisy carries little or no stigma and a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of boring TV segments. Here, what you say or write isn’t nearly as important as how vociferously you said it or how cleverly you phrased it. Expertise in other walks of life is the result of hard work, research and discussion, but on cable TV news and among the Washington press corps, it’s all too often unequivocally bequeathed to anyone capable enough to get themselves out of a make-up chair and in front of a TV camera or onto an op-ed page.

It’s enough to make you want to ignore all political predictions and disregard experts of any kind altogether. But that would be a mistake, says Canadian journalist Dan Gardner in a recent interview about his book Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions are Next to Worthless and You Can Do Better:

“What I’m not saying is, ‘Ignore experts; experts know nothing.’ Experts do know a lot. But we have to learn to distinguish between those experts who have some reasonable likelihood of being correct and the other sort of experts who are, frankly, blowhards."

So, what are the telltale signs of being, frankly, a blowhard? Gardner elaborates:

“Unfortunately, the worst combination is gross overcertainty combined with attempts to do grand-scale prediction, which is simply impossible."

So, say, if back in 2005 you wrote a fatuous book grandly forecasting the 2008 presidential election as a battle of Condi vs. Hillary, as Dick Morris did. Or, if, in 2006, you boldly predicted on TV that “Barack Obama is not going to beat Hillary Clinton in a single Democratic primary,” like William Kristol did. Or if, in the fall of 2008, you bashed candidate Obama in a Washington Post op-ed entitled “Quit Doling Out That Bad-Economy Line,” just one day before Lehman Brothers went belly up and just two weeks before the worst day in Dow Jones history, like Donald Luskin did, well, you probably fit Gardner’s definition of a blowhard. Sadly, despite these and other howlers, these pundits’ futures as respected prognosticators have remained safe with our esteemed media. I mean, hey, what should the American people expect, you win some and you lose some, right?

In fact, a recent Hamilton College study of predictions by columnists, commentators and politicians found that a success rate equivalent to random chance was about all we should expect from most pundits. For 16 of the 26 pundits surveyed, their predictive accuracy over a 16-month period was no better than a coin flip. (Four were worse and six were better, with New York Times columnist Paul Krugman ranking as the best.) Not exactly earth-shattering results, but the study did draw a couple of notable conclusions from its results. First, having a law degree decreases a pundit’s predictive ability and, second, “liberals are better predictors than conservatives.”

The latter verdict might appear to be vindication for left-wing ideals and the reason why a liberal like MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell can pinpoint the exact day that Donald Trump will eventually swear off running for president, while a right-wing hack like the aforementioned Morris would conversely predict that Trump would run and be proven wrong, yet again. But it’s a little more complicated than that.

The reason liberals might make better predictors than conservatives is not necessarily based on ideology or policy positions. Instead, it’s more likely attributable to a correlation with deeper character traits that inform those beliefs, or what Stanford University research psychologist Philip Tetlock analogizes as the difference between foxes and hedgehogs in his 2005 book “Expert Political Opinion: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?” (as summarized in this Newsweek review of the book):

“In short, what experts think matters far less than how they think, or their cognitive style. At one extreme, hedgehogs seek certainty and closure, dismiss information that undercuts their preconceptions and embrace evidence that reinforces them, in what is called "belief defense and bolstering." At the other extreme, foxes are cognitively flexible, modest and open to self-criticism.”

Of course, it will come as no surprise as to which of these two pundit species is better suited to surviving in today’s split-screen, sound-bite, Tweet-obsessed media environment—hedgehogs rule the day. And in fact, Tetlow, who surveyed a staggering 82,361 predictions made by 284 pundits for his book, found that, after correcting for all other factors, there was one startlingly consistent method for identifying the lousiest pundits. (From his book):

“[O]ne of the more disconcerting results of this project has been the discovery of an inverse relationship between how well experts do on our scientific indicators of good judgment and how attractive these experts are to the media and other consumers of expertise.”

In other words, our media has created a topsy-turvy world where the better someone is at playing the role of political pundit, the worse they’re likely to be at, you know, actual political punditry. The skills that the media now values in its pundits—snappy self-assuredness, insider knowledge, lack of intellectual curiosity, and dogmatic inflexibility—are precisely the opposite of what one would need to routinely make objective, insightful analysis that is helpful to our democracy’s discourse. This contradiction is a primary reason why political op-ed pages and cable TV news talk shows so often appear to be conducting a debate over issues affecting some other distant world, one only inhabited by other pundits and far from the problems of the rest of the country.

It’s why a manufactured crisis like ‘the deficit is going to destroy the country and must be dealt with now’ is akin to proclaiming the world will end this fall and, when latched onto by the punditocracy, can soon crowd out news coverage of a more pressing and very real emergency, like continued high unemployment. Or why conventional wisdom can so quickly congeal around the idea that a certain politician is the GOP’s 2012 presidential “savior” because of his “fiscal discipline,” even though he presided over the squandering of the largest budget deficit in our nation’s history and grossly underestimated the cost of the Iraq War to the tune of $2.5 trillion dollars.

This tendency for erroneous groupthink among pundits does more than just harmlessly fill our airwaves and news pages with empty bluster and faulty reasoning, however. Over time, it forms an impenetrable wall of distorted reality, one that skews the boundaries of what’s considered acceptable in terms of political solutions to our problems. Or as Gardner notes:

“Excessive certainty about what’s going to come is incredibly dangerous. When politicians make decisions about public policy, they have to base it upon some estimation of what is likely to happen. But if they are absolutely certain, that will distort their decisions. Here’s a good way to illustrate: The Bush administration made the decision to invade Iraq. They had to make that decision on the basis of some understanding of the consequences of what would happen if they invaded. The problem with the decision was that it was excessively confident, and [the administration] invaded with a force ill-equipped to deal with circumstances different from what was expected. In any decision-making, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What if I’m wrong? Will my decision still be beneficial if my belief about what’s going to happen is wrong?’ If you can’t answer that question positively, be worried.”

Worried, indeed, we all should be. For, as our experience in the runup to and execution of the Iraq War frighteningly demonstrated, a complacent media dominated by a coterie of over-simplified, dumbed-down, and oft-wrong pundits may not be the beginning of the end of the world, but it sure might be the beginning of the end of our democracy.

The mail:
Andy Tomsson
Summitville, Tennessee

Dr. Alterman,

Do you suppose that Woody Allen was either riffing on or unconsciously inspired by the similar line in To Be or Not To Be (1942)? Quoting from The Internet Movie Database: "During the Nazi occupation of Poland, an acting troupe becomes embroiled in a Polish soldier’s efforts to track down a German spy." Jack Benny’s character, Josef Tura, masquerades as the spy and meets with the Warsaw Gestapo chief.

"Josef Tura: [… speaking about Maria Tura] Her husband is that great, great Polish actor, Josef Tura. You’ve probably heard of him.
Colonel Ehrhardt: Oh, yes. As a matter of fact I saw him on the stage when I was in Warsaw once before the war.
Josef Tura: Really?
Colonel Ehrhardt: What he did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland."

The writing’s credited to Edwin Justus Mayer from an original story by Melchior Lengyel, who also wrote Ninotchka, among other things. IMDB says that the film’s director, Ernst Lubitsch, was an uncredited contributor to the story. No way of knowing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Lubitsch who actually came up with the line. Here’s one of his quotes that I dredged up on the Intertubes:

"In Hollywood we acquire the finest novels in order to smell the leather bindings."

Michael Green
Las Vegas, NV
I write an opinion column, as Dr. A. does, and I have had to run the occasional correction or had it run for me, as Dr. A. has. I find it fascinating that Fred Hiatt is incapable of discerning between fact and fiction if it appears on an opinion page. I find it equally fascinating that the unlettered and unlearned in this society continue to think of the Washington Post as having a liberal editorial page. Once it did, and even when it did it could be beautifully and intelligently inconsistent. Now it is just inconsistent, but in an ugly and unintelligent way.

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

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