A Buffet of Stories

Here is a funny thing about major newspapers. It’s really about all MSM, but it is most apparent in newspapers where it is easy to flip around and quickly peruse numerous stories.

All of the MSM are known for having particular slants, besides the general bias of a mainstream mentality and echo chamber. Yet in any given newspaper there isn’t necessarily a consistency of views, between sections of a newspaper or even between authors in the same section. I’ve read articles that directly contradicted another article from a week before, either offering different evidence or interpretation, as if the writers don’t even read the newspapers they write for.

I found an example in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, from the same section A. I first read on page A11 the article “Why This Recovery Is So Lousy” by Phil Gramm and Michael Solon. They solely and entirely blame Obama with no mention of the previous administration or the Republican wins in 2010:

“In his capacity to implement his program, Mr. Obama stood as a colossus wth the fates on his side, the vast power of government at his disposal and no one—not Congress, the Supreme Court or the Federal Reserve—willing or able to deny his will. No resources were spared.”

(The comments section from the article, of course, makes for a more interesting read.)

Some pages back on A2, there is a less melodramatic article by Greg Ip, “Older Demographic Poses Double Whammy for Economy”. His piece is more narowly focused on a single set of data from a new research paper by Nicole Maestas, Kathleen Mullen, and David Powell. Ip describes the paper’s conclusion and implication:

“rapid retirement deprives companies of critical experience and knowledge, which undermines productivity across the entire economy. Demographics may thus be a critical factor in why the current economic expansion, which began as the first baby boomers qualified for Social Security, is the weakest on record.”

So which is the right explanation? Is it all Obama’s fault, taking the economy down single-handedly? Or should we blame the excessive number of old people selfishly retiring?

I don’t really care about scapegoating Obama or not. He is the president and obviously bears some responsibility. But there are obviously many factors involved, some unique to this period of history such as the long term consequences of a baby boom.

Anyway, the explanations themselves aren’t what interested me. It was just the oddity of two articles so close together with each seemingly oblivious to the view of the other. It amused me.

I sometimes have serious doubts that the purpose of the MSM is to inform the public. They are businesses, closer to the entertainment media than anything else, and so they need to make a profit. It’s the advertising that is the product and the stories are there to sell the product.

As such, each article tells a story, some slightly more substantial and others mere fluff. But it doesn’t matter if those stories present a consistent worldview or explain all of the available data. It’s like a buffet with many options. You take the story that fits your opinions and worldview while leaving the rest.

Meanwhile, the real money is being made by advertisers with proven records of influencing the buying habits of readers, although most readers think they are too savvy to be influenced, if they ever give it any thought. The articles are largely just distraction, not entirely unlike watching a mindless sitcom.

The Establishment Speaks

I noticed three opinion pieces at The Wall Street Journal. They were published over the past couple of weeks.

Trump, Sanders and the American Rebellion
by Peggy Noonan

Trump’s America
by Charles Murray

The Young and the Economically Clueless
by Daniel J. Arbess

They are fairly typical mainstream views. And all of the authors are fully part of the Establishment. These are the voices of the ruling elite. They speak with authority and are taken seriously in the mainstream. Each author attempts to explain those crazy commoners, the great unwashed masses.

These people are worldly, smart, and highly educated. They have worked and hobnobbed among the wealthiest and most powerful. They do understand much about what is going, far from being entirely clueless. They occasionally make valid points and they are capable of describing some of the major problems.

Yet they never venture far from the mainstream views that rationalize away the deeper challenges and justify the status quo. I have to wonder if they understand more than they let on. Are their opinion pieces a form of propaganda? They are telling the stories that those in power want to be told. It’s part of the attempt to control the narrative. But have they repeated their lies so many times that they’ve come to believe them? Or are they genuinely so disconnected from the experience of most people that they simply can’t comprehend?

These are people who have access to all kinds of info. They even can contact insiders. And, of course, they are part of the intelligentsia. They know how the world works, at least on the level of power and wealth. They know how the rulers think and they know how the system is designed. But I get the sense that average people are mostly just demographic numbers to them. Their focus is extremely narrow, lacking any larger context and deeper insight. They know intimately the world they are a part of, even as they know so little of what happens outside of that reality tunnel and echo chamber.

What is odd is that I sense that people like this don’t see themselves as insiders, as part of the Establishment. The way they talk makes them seem like neutral observers and disinterested analysts. Yet their lifestyles and careers are part of the problems they describe. They are expressing concern that the boat is taking on water, which is why the last thing they want to do is to rock the boat.

Heated Argument on Climate Change

“I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.”
~ William Lloyd Garrison

I ended up getting in a heated argument with my dad. It wasn’t intentional. If anything, I was trying to avoid it. But I just couldn’t take it anymore.

The discussion began with violence in the media, but somehow made its way to the even more contentious issue of climate change. The latter issue really gets my blood boiling, partly because of how dismissive people like my dad can be. He is an older middle class white male American. He has never experienced most of the externalized costs from environmental problems and likely never will. He’ll probably be dead by the time the shit hits the fan (and he realizes this, as he has increasingly talked about his own mortality now that he is in his 70s).

Part of my dad’s attitude is that he has spent his entire life in positions of authority (army officer, factory manager, private consultant, professor, president of the local Kiwanis group, Church deacon, and on and on). He isn’t used to people challenging him, especially about intellectual topics. Even when he doesn’t know something, he knows how to sound intelligent, confident and generally authoritative. I’m sure I’m one of the few people in his older age who have been willing to challenge him and put his feet to the fire.

He complained that I was treating him with disrespect, and that is what bothers him. It seems to me that he’d rather be un-/misinformed and treated with respect than to risk dealing with uncomfortable truths. The problem is I refuse to respect his ignorance, willful or unintentional, nor to respect his disrespect toward me and toward experts who actually do know what they’re talking about. If he wants respect, then he has to earn it… like everyone else.

* * * *

I don’t know what better response I could have given. I just have my breaking point. No matter what I have ever said, I’ve never been able to get my dad to take any of it seriously. To him, it is some combination of an intellectual exercise and political rhetoric. What it isn’t to him is personally and viscerally real.

He doesn’t understand why it bothers so much we in the younger generations who will spend the rest of our lives dealing with the literal sins of our fathers (and mothers). We have real reasons to be worried about when the bill comes due for the generations of unpaid externalized costs. How can someone like my dad be so heartless toward the well being of his own children and grandchildren? This isn’t just about politics. Lives are at stake. The inevitable suffering isn’t a hypothetical.

I don’t know how to reach him in his state of fearful denial and passive inaction. I know it is overwhelming, as to be almost incomprehensible in its vastness and complexity. We are playing with things we don’t understand. To consider the consequences is no easy task. But that difficulty isn’t a valid excuse.

I feel frustrated. My dad is able to be rational and talk rationally. But this problem ultimately can’t be touched upon with rationality alone. My dad uses rationality as a way to distance himself. Rationality as rationalization. He always has a reason to dismiss the data and those who point to it. The world is full of reasons, too many of them being superficial and self-serving. Oddly but all too typical, my dad uses reason to dismiss reason, which is to say he uses rhetoric as a defense against deeper thinking (and feeling). The climate science is ‘fishy’, he says—no further explanation required in his mind.

I’m not sure if or how I could act differently to (maybe) elicit a different response. It’s obvious that he gets defensive and is polarized. His facade of intellectuality is where he retreats to. So, that is where I meet him, but in reality his demand for respectful reasonableness is just a front he puts on. As long as we are moderate in our emotions and remain politically correct in our language, there is no danger of straying from the status quo and so no danger of becoming too uncomfortable.

The genuine truth and authentic heart of the matter is what is being avoided. Not just facts but what acknowledging those facts would mean. The suffering in the world is immeasurable, even as we can measure the expression of that suffering in concrete problems (rates of poverty, toxicity, mortality, etc). It’s too easy to feel helpless.

Basically, that is what I hear from my dad: What is the point? Let’s just focus on the positive (or at least avoid focusing on the negative) because, in the end, we’re probably doomed.

His worldview is typically Christian, in the mainstream sense. We are all Sinners with a fatal flaw built into our nature, Original Sin. My dad wouldn’t overtly talk in those terms, but that is the sense I get from him. These major problems are caused by human failure and any attempt to deal with them will just lead to ever more and greater failure. The best we can do is to hold our heads down and hope for the best. The suffering of so many people in the world is inevitable, and we who suffer the least should simply count our blessings, but beyond a few token actions of charity there is nothing we can do about the suffering of others, much less the larger systemic problems behind it all.

It is an attitude of defeat, of fatalism and cynicism.

* * * *

On my end, I want to communicate well. But I realize how often I fail at this aspiration. Irritation, exasperation, and outrage easily get the better of me. I’m even known for sometimes being an ornery asshole when you catch me in the right mood.

How could I communicate better? What wording or framing would be able to soften my dad’s defenses and allow real communication to happen?

One thought I had was putting it into the context of one of his own interests, World War II. As I’ve never been a climatologist, my father never fought in WWII. But similarly we both have an interest and have spent many years thinking about these topics, although not as serious scholarly study. It’s just two subjects we each have been focused on throughout our lives. So, what if the situation was turned around and my father was trying to argue something about WWII?

It’s as if I stated strong opinions about WWII bombers and tanks, after having read a few anti-war pieces in the New York Times. And then I dismissed his more informed opinion on the matter. When he pointed to scholarly data and professional opinion, I said that I wasn’t interested in researching it further. Instead, I said it smelled fishy and argued that the historians who supported his view were biased because they profit from getting grants to do research, selling books, and getting gigs on documentaries—not to mention promoting the military-industrial complex, as if their studying about war proves that they want more war to further their careers, whether or not such motivations are conscious.

If I did all of that, it would be highly disrespectful and, from his perspective, simply frustrating. He holds others to a higher standard than he holds to himself and those he agrees with. But he can’t see it that way. It is hard for him to imagine himself in the opposite position.

That goes for me as well. It’s hard for me to fully sympathize with my dad, to take on his worldview. I don’t want to merely be righteous. In the end, I know my dad means well and he actually is intellectually honest, even if he has a hard time coming to terms with this issue.

Still, none of that changes the issue at hand. Climate change is what it is, no matter what we think or feel about it.

* * * *

My dad showed me an article. It is a piece from the Wall Street Journal by Matt Ridley and Benny Peiser: Your Complete Guide to the Climate Debate. I wasn’t in the mood to look at it, as I’ve simply grown tired of the pointlessness of it all. And I told him so.

I realize he doesn’t like the term ‘denialist’. But there is good reason why some place that label upon those like Matt Ridley. He has repeatedly shown he isn’t interested in honest debate. His critics have refuted much of his evidence over the years. Yet he never acknowledges any of this science and goes on repeating the same refuted misinformation.

Ridley is denying strongly supported scientific evidence. What should someone like this be called? After a while, the more well informed begin to question the motives of this kind of political activist (actually a politician in this case and also a former chairman of a bailed out and nationalized bank) aligned with big money special interests:

Matt Ridley – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

“Ridley is a forthright proponent of fracking. However he has been found to have breached the Parliamentary Code of Conduct by the House of Lords Commissioner for Standards for failing to disclose in debates on the subject personal interests worth at least £50,000 in Weir Group, which has been described as, ‘the world’s largest provider of special equipment used in the process’ of fracking.”

He inherited his position at the bank from his father. And his investments in coal mining are from his family’s estates. To put it simply, he was born into wealth and power. And has since spent his life in the corporatist revolving door between big biz and big gov. On top of that, despite pretending to be an authority to be taken seriously, he has absolutely no expertise about climatology.

He represents so much of what is wrong with the world. And that just depresses me.

* * * *

The following are a mix of articles. Many of them are about Matt Ridley. But if you go further down, there are some about other issues: conservatism, libertarianism, national security, and survey data.

Obama and Our Post-Modern Race Problem

Obama and Our Post-Modern Race Problem
By Shelby Steele

The article begins with this premise:

America still has a race problem, though not the one that conventional wisdom would suggest: the racism of whites toward blacks. Old fashioned white racism has lost its legitimacy in the world and become an almost universal disgrace.

The problem is that the premise isn’t true.  Either the author is being dishonest for political reasons or he simply is uninformed.  It doesn’t really matter which.  Polls, statistics and psychological research prove beyond the slightest doubt that racism still exists and still influences people.  Yes, racism is less overt, but that isn’t what the author stated.

The rest of the article takes this race denial position and runs with it.  For the most part, the article is just ideological preaching to the choir… which is fine for whatever it’s worth.  My gripe is that it lacks substance or insight.  Combined with the beginning false premise, the author can accomplish nothing other than spinning a pretty web of rhetoric.  He even trots out good ol’ Reagan as if that will scare away all the boogeymen.

I don’t care if an ideological hack wants to write propaganda for the GOP.  More power to him.  But on the level of intellectual respectability this article is both sad and disappointing.  This is the best to be offered by the “senior research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution”.  Really?

It irritates me.  The author hasn’t added any new insight, hasn’t made any reasonable arguments.  The worst part is just the false premise.  Shouldn’t someone who is apparently a respectable scholar actually do some research on a subject before making absolute statements?  It’s easy to dismiss racism, but back up your assertions.

I don’t mind Obama being criticized.  I love good criticism, but the only insightful criticism of Obama that I’ve seen actually has come from liberals (Cenk Uygur, Bill Maher, etc).  Conservatives have just been playing the role of obstructionists and so they feel obligated to simply repeat the party line.  The author of this article hasn’t said anything that a hundred other conservatives have said.  Yes, I understand.  Republicans don’t like Obama.  Okay, now forget the political talking points and please some conservative come forward with some original thoughts.  Quit trying to look good for future elections and just for one moment say something honest, something authentic.

Where are the intelligent conservatives?