I do, I like Green Eggs and Ham!!!

You’d think a purported master-debater like Ted Cruz would know that the protagonist of “Green Eggs and Ham” learns to freakin’ LOVE green eggs and ham – once he actually tries them.

You’d think NPR’s news department would be smart enough to point out this amusing fact.

The whole damned point of that book is to get children (Republicans?) to try new things.  Sound familiar?

Who knows, maybe Cruz will come to like Obamacare!  If he’s like other Republicans who individually change their minds when it suits them it will happen the moment someone in his family needs an expensive life-saving procedure that they can’t afford.

Where’s the Pork?

NPR reporter Julia Simon had a story today that exemplifies the best and worst of public media.

She starts with an incredibly good question: all educated Americans know that the US gives mega money to Egypt annually, but what does that money actually buy?

In a  very easy to understand narrative Simon takes us on a guided tour of what happens with this money.  SPOILER ALERT!  It never leaves the USA.  It actually purchases a bunch of bloated, American-made cold-war weapons systems of which Egypt already has plenty.  Best quote:

There’s no conceivable scenario in which they’d need all those tanks short of an alien invasion.

- Shana Marshall, Insert Relevant Institution Here

Simon then follows with specific examples of companies who lobby Washington to keep these purchases going.

So far so awesome.  But then the story just ends.  There is the requisite comment that this is just how things are and the inertia of existing programs is difficult to change etc.  We’ll just have to leave it there.

Conventional wisdom achieved: the military industrial complex is what it is, sigh.

But there’s a giant Nile crocodile in the room that is utterly absent from this story of a corrupt developing country spending proxy billions of American taxpayer money on unnecessary American made weapons, isn’t there?

Anybody?

Bueller?

Oh wait!  Corruption!

The subtext of the story for those actually paying attention is that someone, somewhere, is getting a lot of kickback for these deals.  Probably a lot of someones.  In fact a lack of corruption in this set-up would be so astonishing as to deserve its own mention.

But I guess that sort of exploration is for the kind of investigative reporting that either doesn’t exist much anymore or is too focussed on Anthony’s Wiener.

Random notes on a Friday

Days of our Lives

Speaking of “on a Friday”, what is it with local and national NPR hosts telling us, every few minutes, what day of the week it is?  Is it because a lot of the listening audience resides in “memory care” apartments?

This happens enough that, sort of like the “give us a sense” style of interviewing, I am convinced it is some kind of “best practice” enforced by policy and not just a fad.

I’m no Pope Gregory XIII, but I am usually pretty on top of what day I’m having a case of or humping over or thanking God that it is.  I’d like to humbly suggest that you guys go all the way and tell us the date.  Try “it’s Fridy the 18th” instead of the truly useless “on a Friday, it’s Morning Edition” or “good Friday morning to you.”

Either that or add even more tautological information so we can all meditate on what it means to be told things we already think by the journalists we choose to listen to.  “Here on Earth, just like yesterday,  it’s Morning Edition.”  “Reality is comprehensible by applying reason to the information detected with the human sensorium, and it’s All Things Considered.”

Speaking of days, does anyone inside NPR or out actually know what the hell “Weekends at All Things Considered ” means?  I can’t parse it.  What was wrong with Weekend Edition Saturday/Sunday?  I smell a committee.

Death

Just a brief item to note that the guys and ghouls at “Story Corpse” have again incremented their body count and the world’s collective misery.  Today’s heart-soup immersion blender’s victim was canine, which at least shakes it up a little.

I think the producers over there dream of a day when every death of every beloved person, animal, or object with great sentimental value can make the whole world cry.  These stories are, as we are constantly reminded, archived in the library of congress, so they can make the space aliens who’ll be sifting through the wreckage of our civilization in a few years cry too.

StoryCorps Producer David Isay (visual approximation)

I can find one positive note: at least the pun-loving Keeper landed a job after the regrettable cancellation of Tales From the Crypt.

Lies

There was a pretty good piece by David Folkenflik today dissecting the press coverage of Notre Dame’s girlfriend-gate.  At one point he spoke of the problem of how much the reporters wanted the story to be true (like the one about Saddam’s WMDs I suppose).

Let’s think about that statement.  The reporters wanted a young, football-star-beloved woman to have died of cancer long before her time?  That really helps me understand Story Gore’s morbid editorial bias.

I’ve noticed that journalists tellingly universally loathe the preachy, shallow character-filled Sorkin series “The Newsroom”.  I love it.  It’s almost like “Airbag Moments” the tv show.  It takes the media to the woodshed weekly by doing what Folkenflik does, only in narrative form.  It Monday-morning (“On a Monday…”) quarterbacks the news.  It’s one big thought experiment about, knowing what we know now, how should the press have handled big events in recent history.  Who else is even having this conversation in this way?  The Daily Show  last week even expressed a devout wish that the show depicted a journalistic drive that actually existed.  In reality there isn’t enough money in profit-driven journalism for the logistics of investigative reporting about things less interesting but more important than gridiron paramour three-hankies.

The more vital question for reporters, I suppose, is whether or not the platonic ideal of reportage Sorkin tries to model would have made any real difference.  What if the answer to that is no?

As punishment, anyone who reported about the Notre Dame story has to watch a “Love Story” / “Brian’s Song” double feature tonight.  I’m assuming the Story Corps folks were already planning to because, you know, it’s Friday!

Taxes

Speaking of unpleasant stories the media wants badly to be true, NPR loves the “Military Veterans Aren’t Getting The Support They Deserve and it’s the VA’s Fault” headline.  I can’t recall a single positive NPR story about the Veterans Administration.  I happen to know that the VA, especially the health care delivery side known as the VHA, not only delivers a lot of great care, but also delivers it in ways that are years and sometimes decades ahead of the private sector.  Computerized patient record keeping is a powerful example of this.  Given how many stories NPR does about the tragicomic struggles of the private sector with this technology you’d think they’d cover how the public sector already nailed it.

Something else the press usually misses is that a large number of VA employees are themselves, by mandate, for better and for worse, Veterans.  This is especially true in the VBA, the branch that determines what benefits Veterans receive, and the recipient of the most frequent and bitter excoriations.  By policy the VA hires some of these Veterans preferentially over non-Veterans who might be more qualified.  (Not every Veteran is an angel straight from heaven, and that should not be a controversial sentiment.) So please be aware that when you criticize the VA you are criticizing a whole bunch of Veterans many of whom are working hard and some of whom are hardly working.

We can all agree that many Veterans do need and deserve more services than they are getting, but journalists need to stop acting like the reason is some faceless implacable bureaucracy.  Like most things, it comes down to money and logistics (sound familiar?), not a lack of desire on the part of the VA to serve the Veterans.

On a local note: please keep in mind, NHPR, there are good economic reasons why there’s no full VA hospital in your state.  Politicians and scoundrels love to talk about how much they care about Veterans, but forcing the VA to waste money on a facility that won’t have enough patients to stay in business or provide a full range of services does not serve the only constituencies that matter, Veterans and taxpayers.  Between the Boston area, Maine, and Vermont, northern New England is as well served as makes economic sense.  If you’re concerned about drive times, talk to Veterans who live in far flung towns in hypertrophied western states.  This whole “New Hampshire needs a VA” thing is just political grandstanding and cap-feather acquisition.  So in spite of your knee-jerk sentimentality and desire for the big bad VA narrative, please add some more balance to your coverage of this.

On a personal note, it’s good to be back.

See Ya, Iowa, Wouldn’t Wanna Be Ya

Commence the sound of crickets from the total lack of press coverage Iowa will now enjoy for the next 3.5 years.

Thanks for nothing.

Meanwhile NPR treats Santorum’s Iowa success as a surprise, as if Mike Huckabee never happened.  We know how this story ends, folks, nothing to see here.

Aaaaaaand they’re off!!

Some at NPR are getting a little sensitive about folks like me decrying their horse-race coverage.  Diane Rehm jumped down the throat of a caller who legitimately brought up this problem on her show the other day.  (Note to Diane: it’s not always about you.  The caller made clear he was talking about “the media”, not your show.  Also, I’m guessing we’ll be hearing some starter trumpets on your episode dedicated to Iowa results today.)  In tweets, correspondents like Don Gonyea get all defensive when you wonder aloud why he spent so much energy covering the brief “surge” of the made-for-fail Bachmann campaign.  He couldn’t help it!  He was a prisoner of poll results!

So they seem to understand on some primitive level that listeners and media analysts alike don’t appreciate the breathless “horse race” coverage, but they just can’t seem to stop themselves.

The Iowa caucus is the most embarrassing example.  “It’s A Photo Finish For Romney, Santorum” the headline at NPR.org shouts.

I am tempted to do a meta horse-race by recapping minute-by-minute the competing minute-by-minute reports filed from Santorum and Romney headquarters by Ari Shapiro and Don Gonyea, but who has the time?  (I will mention one of them actually used the phrase “neck and neck and neck”.  Nope, no horse race here.)

The bottom line is that Iowa doesn’t matter.  Iowa never matters.  It’s a stupid distraction, but it’s covered like the World Series, which also doesn’t matter.

Nobody but Rick Santorum believes he will be the nominee.  If the caucus had been held during any of the other also-ran surges one of the other no-chancers would have come in second.

The only good thing about all this fail?  At least we got to hear multiple references to “surging santorum”.  Thank you again, Dan Savage.

Gotta Have A Gimmick

Black Friday has come and gone, but the sales of dime-store epiphanies remain brisk, ever brisk!

As every burlesque performer knows, to sell yourself, or at least something you’ve created, you just gotta have a gimmick.  It’s the way you stand out from the crowd, the way to rapidly multiply among those precious viral growth medium slots in the public radio demograshpere like some kind of upper-middlebrow version of the disease in Contagion.  You know the carriers:  Diane Rehm, Bob Edwards, Morning Edition, and the Holy Grails: Colbert or Stewart.

We’ve seen gimmickless books fade away without that kind of invaluable free publicity:

Cokie Roberts and her unfinished Wellesley-theses-turned-book-club-also-rans about famous women in history.  Susan Stamberg autobiographies.  Scott Simon family tear jerkers.  They all lacked that oomph, that one-liner pitch cum subtitle that will set those Christmas encrypted credit card numbers sailing along the Amazon.com Digital River when someone needs a gift for the retired former philosophy major or the not yet employed twenty-something soul searcher or Wall Street occupier.

But some public radio correspondents know how the game is played.  They become proxies for our curiosity.  They inhabit, or at least pretend to inhabit, some intellectually titillating aspect of the spirit of their audience for long enough to satisfy the dilettante urge for just enough exploration…not so deeply as to be boring or uncomfortable, mind you…just enough to limn the edges of a possible cure for the common mid life crisis.

Take for example Neal “Not the Barbarian” Conan.  I don’t doubt that he was actually curious about devoting a year of his life to being an announcer for NPR’s official sacred pastime, the sport of baseball, especially as a break from arduous years as a foreign correspondent, but I have to imagine his gimmicky book plan was what allowed him to go through with it.  And so he did, thus baseball fans out here on Planet NPR didn’t have to.

Conan’s quest (“Conan’s Quest”, amazingly, is not yet a video game title or second gimmicky book) is similar to Gimmick King AJ Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically.  In case you don’t know, AJ Jacobs is the guy who manufactured a different gimmick-based holiday-gift-ready codex about reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica  (so we don’t have to.)  From that “experience” he managed to land at least eleven (!) promotional spots on Weekend Edition.  That might be a record, as it even beats the number of spots given to gimmick-queen Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s silly book about neuro-imaging the soul. (I did not make that up.)

Like Neal Conan, Jacobs also claims to have spent one year doing something supposedly holy, living according to the rules of the Old Testament (so we don’t have to): “Raised in a secular family but increasingly interested in the relevance of faith in our modern world, A.J. Jacobs decides to dive in headfirst and attempt to obey the Bible as literally as possible for one full year.”  Why would you try to live according to Old Testament rules followed by no modern person if you were truly interested in “the relevance of faith in our modern world?”  You wouldn’t.  It’s a gimmick, and a pretty clever one.  Gimmicks sell books.  And while some of the promotional copy surrounding the book holds out the promise of epiphanies to be found within by “readers both secular and religious”, the book’s actual approach seems to be light hearted.

As we see from multiple examples, gimmicky books that delve lightly into subjects that public radio listeners find interesting get huge publicity from public radio programs.  That probably seems logical and harmless to you, so let me explain why I think this is a pernicious trend.

Public radio has limited time, especially during their highest rated hours.  As listeners we should expect them to use that time well.  As monetary contributors (not looking at you, Sam Negus) we have a right to demand that they use that time well.  In theory the best radio shows would present the most informed and most articulate voices speaking on topics of interest and import.  Yet this almost never happens.  The practice of presenting gimmicky book authors who happen to be on publicity tours is one of the reasons.  Bookers and producers are either over-worked or lazy, so the temptation in either case to cherry pick from authors currently on book tours shilling their latest non-fiction gimmick-fest is irresistible.

Newspaper editorial page editors use a similar shortcut for filling column inches.  Authors (or their publicist proxies I sometimes suspect) are only too eager to pen editorial-length versions of their gimmick books for placement in newspapers.  I call these “advertorials”.  They can be quite stealthy, but having read many I can usually identify them by the end of the first paragraph.  There are a couple of give-aways.  They are often on topics that must be awkwardly twisted to appear relevant  to the events of the day, and they never fail to end with a byline that just happens to include the name of the advertorial author’s latest book, which just happens to be recently published and in full promotional mode.

To sum it up: smart people (think college professors) with deep knowledge are rarely heard at length on public radio unless they happen to have a new book to sell.  Meanwhile people (smart or otherwise) with shallow knowledge get loads of airtime simply because they have a new book to sell.  This is what happens when notions are productized.  It’s a positive feedback loop, meaning it keeps getting worse.

Which brings me, at long last, to Eric Weiner and his new gimmick-book, Man Seeks God.

At this point I want to mention that until I did some research for this post I had little prior knowledge of and I have no animus towards Mr. Weiner.  I recall his byline but could not name a single specific report filed by him.  As with Scott Simon, I’m certain I’d enjoy a beer summit with him to try to change his mind about a few things, and as with Scott Simon this blog post will have to substitute.  Speaking of “beer summit,” if you think I’m not shoehorning Henry Louis Gates Jr. (i.e. civil rights) into this before the end you must not be a regular reader.

As I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog, the semi-official religion of public radio is what Daniel Dennett termed “Belief in Belief”, described by Christopher Hitchens as “the strange idea that, though faith itself may be ludicrous and incoherent, the mere assertion of it may possess some virtues of its own.”  Or, as I put it, in order to be thought of as a good person it doesn’t matter what clothing you believe the emperor is wearing, as long as you can’t tell that he’s naked. While Weiner does come out (spoiler alert!) as something like an Atheist at the end of his exhibitionistic spirit-quest, Man Seeks God seems vying to be the ecumenical Bible of Belief in Belief.  He’s practically a Belief in Belief street preacher, as you will see.

The premise of Man Seeks God is little more than the title indicates.  Mr. Weiner is, at least for the purpose of selling the book concept, hot to get some religion in his life.  As a result he decides to take a grand tour of the world’s faiths (so we don’t have to) in hopes he can adopt one for himself.  So maybe it’s more like he goes to the sacred animal shelter?  Anyway, if you are a regular public radio listener you already know the rest: all of the religions offer something wonderful.  But they all also present the Goldilocks dilemma: too this or too that, never just right.

While I found the idea of the book redundant with the seemingly infinite public personal (oxymoron?) spirit journey books we’ve had to date, with several hundred thousand unique titles from Jane Fonda alone, it was too innocuous for me to pay much attention to.  When I heard the inevitable log-roll piece on Morning Edition I just sort of tuned it out.

But then came the final straw: Weiner’s advertorial was published in the New York [freaking -ed] Times.

It’s a minor Christmas miracle of awfulness, managing to be simultaneously insipid and bigoted, both trendy and old hat.  Worst of all it was crass and commercial about its subject even as it inhabited the already crass and commercial form of an advertorial.

I did not like it.

I am very much not the only one who didn’t like it, but I am the only public radio blog that did not like it so keep reading.

What’s not to like, aside from the arch but not arch enough writing style?  He gets into trouble as soon as paragraph three where he demonstrates lazy, conventional, and frankly bigoted thinking when he divides his model of current religious discourse between “True Believers” and “Angry Atheists” (capitalization his).  And yes I’m an atheist, and yes, this comment made me angry.  But my point is that I wasn’t angry until he called me a name.  In fact atheists aren’t generally angry until someone like Weiner points at them and yells to anyone who’ll listen “Hey, look how angry that guy is! He’s soooo angry!”  Calling atheists angry is glib dismissal.  The expression “angry atheist” generates mild fear and revulsion.  It turns atheists even more into the infamous “other” through the language of warning.  Growing up in the southern states I frequently heard many phrases that served a similar purpose.  “Militant Blacks” and “Pushy Jews” are two such poisonous pairings which were used to mentally censor whole races and world-views, that could retard the “arc of history”, that could succor repression.

And do I really need to mention that there is more anger in a single homophobic Westboro Baptist Church protest then in all meetings of atheists and freethinkers throughout all time combined – even as gelato mongers near to an atheist convention hall refuse entry to the godless?  (Hmm, denying groups of people access to eateries, where have I heard of that before?)

You might think that in spite of the ugliness of “Angry Atheist” Mr. Weiner was being quite fair because his phrase “True Believer” was also meant as something of an insult, creating a balanced pair of “others,” neither of whom merit attention.  But the phrase “True Believer” has no essential negative character.  People are happy to call themselves “true believers”.  Many religious people are even happy to call themselves fundamentalists, and even to describe themselves proudly as “intolerant.”

This autonomic drawing of false equivalence between atheists and fundamentalists (often employing the phrase “fundamentalist atheist”) adds nothing to the discussion and serves to obfuscate the profound difference between the entire thought processes of the two groups.  The ultimate goal of this language is to seem to place Mr. Weiner, his book, his advertorial, his readers, and his interviewers in a privileged corporate suite looking down on all the silly culture warriors clashing by night.  He does this explicitly by trying to coin a new meme for all the hep cats like him: “Nones” (capitalization his.)

“Nones” are defined as “people who say they have no religious affiliation at all” though, according to a poll (so it must be true), only seven percent of them are claimed to be straight up Angry Atheists.  (At the None conventions the atheists should have separate but equal water fountains.  That’s just science.)

Why Weiner includes the atheists in the “Nones” group I don’t know because he goes on to make a set of weirdly contradictory claims about Nones:

  • “Nones … drift spiritually and dabble in everything from Sufism to Kabbalah”
  • “Nones are running from organized religion, but by no means running from God”
  • “Nones may not believe in God.”
So this whole “Nones” thing is a bit of a muddle.  Like the idea of religion Nones supposedly enjoy it’s something like whatever you want it to be.  Nones don’t care if a religion is “true” as long as it makes their mental trains run on time.  The “Nones” thing is such a Thomas Friedman-like assignment of a catchy name to a superficially constructed model of something going on in this crazy modern world of ours that you can at least see why it was accepted by the New York Times.
Brief aside: atheism rarely posits things like “There is no god.”  Such a statement often means nothing because of the difficulty of defining deities.  Atheism usually takes the form of questions, such as “What do you mean when you say god(s)? Can you explain why anyone should believe he/she/they exist(s)?”  So far, to my knowledge, there’s been no satisfying answer to this sort of question. (see the postscript)
But then the whole advertorial takes an unexpected and yet still entirely Thomas Friedmaniacal twist.
Are you sitting down?  Okay, read on:

The answer, I think, lies in the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that has long defined America, including religious America.

We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious.

Wow.  I did not see that coming.  But now that it’s here…still wow.  We’re beyond Krista Tippett, folks.  In fact this statement may allow us to finally create a complete scale of profundity of statements about religion:
  • The Sublime: “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent.”  – Ludwig Wittgenstein.
  • The Profound: “Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense..”  – Carl Sagan
  • The Pseudo-Profound: “Mmm…I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the word pray rhymes with the word…play…mmm”  – I’m just guessing someone on Speaking of Faith or Krista Tippett On Being has said that.
  • The Dumbest Thing Ever Said About Religion: “We need a Steve Jobs of religion.” – Eric Weiner
We need a Steve Jobs of religion?!?  To the extent that sentiment means anything it’s a very bad idea.  Steve Jobs was long considered a cult leader.  Apple was maybe the earliest company to actually call its marketing people “evangelists.”
Weiner goes on, in the name of buzzwords, to further technocratize religion by calling for “a religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.”  It’s just very creepy and so willfully ignorant of history.  Do I really need to mention that every popular religious reformer in history has been their own “Steve Jobs of religion?”  They’ve all come up with new ways of being religious.  But as fun as it is to explore this, many others have already sharpened this particular point so I’ll move on to the next horror from this piece.
In evangelizing for his church of “Nones” Weiner puts this yucky chestnut out there:
We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.
Terrence said “you believe that easily which you hope for earnestly” but I guess he was wrong.
Where, aside from obvious parental/cultural guilt, does this desire to believe in God come from?  And why not gods since polytheism is usually a lot more fun?  Weiner claims to be an Enlightenment-loving rationalist, but he fails to understand that his statement sounds to the freethinking ear like “I’m not a drug addict but I hope to be one day.”
He seems to have taken the propaganda that you can’t be good without God so deeply to heart that he will be forever torn between his desire for belief (goodness) and his respect for his own powers of cognition which tell him clearly that a religion may do good but is, at its very core, a lie.
Mr. Weiner, if you read this, I would suggest you spend less time browser-window-shopping at the ebay of world religions and more time analyzing the origins of your personal need to believe.

To everyone else, Merry Christmas, and if you are interested in the topic of the varieties of religious experience, try Sweet Heaven When I Die by Jeff Sharlet, the writer who outed the shenanigans at the C Street house.  Then read his other books too.

POSTSCRIPT:

I’d like to quote Louis CK from his quite recent live online reddit.com crowd-sourced interview.

Louis CK: I’m not an athiest. I think god [sic] is there and that he is watching and he made us. I just don’t give a shit.

Reddit person “Brenner14″: This will come as a surprise to many.

Louis CK: well i [sic] don’t “Believe in god” i [sic] have zero idea how everythign [sic] got here. I would personally say that, if i [sic] had to make a list of possibles, god [sic] would be pretty far down. But if I were to make a list of people that know what the fuck they are talking about, I would be REALLY far down. aids [sic].

Really, what else is there to say?  If only Louis CK had listened to Ludwig JJW.

Highlights for Children Follow-Up Lulz

The last line of my previous post, Highlights for Children, was this:

Maybe the first step to fixing all this is for NPR staff to ban their kids (adult or not) from listening.

Scott Simon just tweeted this:

Our 8 yr old wants to watch the news. Reached point where she finds @jaketapper more entertaining than @SpongeBob?

Coincidence?

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