Simon Says: Atheists Suck

Scott Simon is one of the most affable interviewers employed by NPR, but there is a tone he takes with atheists that fathers¬†normally reserve for the first¬†dinner with¬†a daughter’s ostentatiously tattooed¬†jobless older boyfriend. He clearly believes atheism is a threat¬†to society regardless of whether or not God exists.

Saturday’s interview with Richard Dawkins is a¬†shining example. Simon has a history of disrespecting atheist interviewees, but this was the most rude¬†I’ve ever heard him be. He was¬†driven to ask a¬†particular question, one he has asked many times¬†before, and one he apparently believes is a checkmate in the rhetorical battle against atheists. It¬†was¬†delivered in an unusually awkward, almost Trump-like syntax:

I want to – look, I respect atheists and atheism. But I want to pick up a nice argument we used to have every couple of years with Christopher Hitchens, your friend. And that’s – you can respect atheism. I’ve covered a lot of wars, famines and tragedies. And it seems to me, truly, every theater of suffering I’ve ever been to, there is a dauntless nun, priest, clergy or religious person who was working very selflessly and bravely there for the good of human beings. And I don’t run into organized groups of atheists who do this.

Simon was so intent on this question that he mostly disregarded¬†Dawkins’ replies¬†in order to ask it again, and yet a third time. He even clearly implies that atheists are unpleasant know-it-alls:

But I do wonder, am I just not seeing the world correctly to see large numbers of well-motivated atheist(sic) lending their lives to trying to better the world? Or they’re – if I might put it this way, are they more concerned about just being right intellectually?

I think Dawkins acquitted himself¬†well, but I’d like to give my own responses¬†to this strident question, some of which will amplify his.

Simon’s question incorrectly assumes atheism is comparable to religion.

Plato recounts a man who asks Socrates how to find¬†the best teacher of warrior skills¬†for his son. Socrates replies “Is there not a prior question?” In Socrates’ case the prior question was complex and meant to enlighten the listener¬†about the nature of knowledge and what knowledge is worth¬†pursuing.

In Simon’s case there is a simpler prior question: “Why would¬†atheism organize into¬†large-scale atheist-themed charity organizations?”

Like many NPR¬†staffers Simon misapprehends what atheism is, and, more to the point, what it isn’t. It is not anything like religion. It is simply the lack of religion. As Penn Gillette once said, “atheism is a religion like not stamp-collecting is a hobby.”¬†To be slightly more accurate, atheism is a religion¬†like not having any hobby is a hobby. Atheism is a lack of churches, of theology, of clergy. Atheism represents¬†a simplification of one’s worldview to omit¬†irrational beliefs in gods, angels, demons and miracles.

Asking why atheists don’t create massive, atheist-themed global charity organizations¬†to deploy dauntless atheists to every theater of suffering is totally absurd. Churches are organizations of people joined together by¬†a common set of beliefs. It’s hard to imagine a lot of organizations joined together by a common lack of belief. Yes, there are atheist organizations, but mostly because atheists are a reviled minority, including by Mr. Simon. The day atheism becomes common and accepted is the day those organizations mostly disappear.

Secular organizations provide the counter-examples Simon is seeking.

Simon admits that secular organizations and individual atheists do good in the world, but refuses to allow those to substitute for the atheist organizations he apparently thinks should exist.

When people lack religious belief and therefore the desire to act as a member of a church they organize around other more specific¬†goals and causes that they care about, such as providing clean water or medical care to villages in the developing world, including in disaster-ravaged and war-torn areas. The secular organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) is a perfect example of this. MSF is made up of doctors, many of them from Europe. Statistically it¬†is a certainty that many/most¬†of them are atheists. They perform some of the¬†hardest and most needed acts of bravery¬†in theaters of suffering around the world. UNICEF is another large-scale example. One can argue that secular organizations do a better job than religious ones because they don’t waste precious energy and resources on the evangelical goals¬†that both motivate and distract missionaries.

These organizations demonstrate that, in the unlikely event atheism takes hold across the world, Simon need not worry the theaters of suffering will be emptied of well-meaning helpers.

Religions are problematic in ways atheism is not.

Most of what religious organizations do is in places other than theaters of suffering. And much of what religions teach (and require) is not about helping others. Almost half of the Ten Commandments are not about behavior but instead are about worshipping¬†Jehovah. Religion is characterized by everything it requires of its believers, and everything that its organizations enable. This includes the good and the bad. Many wish¬†to define religion as only the positive¬†things done for religious reasons. For example with this statement from the Dawkins interview Simon even implies there’s an argument to be made that religion plays no role in terrorism:

You’ve been outspoken and unbowed in your beliefs that religion plays a role in terrorism.

This idea is absurd, but better minds than mine have thoroughly debunked it elsewhere.

Whether or not you believe religion is a major cause of terrorism, it certainly inspires many horrible outcomes ranging from tragically widespread alienation of gay kids from their fundamentalist religious families, to more spectacular sect-on-sect deadly violence that occurs weekly in places like Pakistan, Iraq, and Egypt.

To make this crystal clear I’ve created a chart showing some of the good and bad things that are demanded by or systematically enabled by religion and atheism:

religion chart 1

Atheism wins handily because it requires nothing Рgood or bad Рof atheists. You might argue that some atheists also molest children, but they are not empowered by the fact that they are atheists. The shocking child abuse widespread within the Catholic Church was enabled, hidden, and ultimately protected by the respect required of congregants for their clergy and the political power of the church in communities.

By contrast, atheism has no doctrine, not even rationality. If you are an atheist for irrational reasons you are still an atheist. Atheists¬†simply do not accept the truth claims about gods made by the religious. If an atheist organization is created and starts a youth group or meets every Sunday for discussions it’s not because atheist doctrine requires or encourages it. There’s even a group called “Atheism Plus” which admits by its very name that all of its principles and activities are additions to the simple base of atheism.

It’s also interesting that the World Happiness Report¬†rates many of the most secular countries at the top. Here’s the summary for 2017:

Norway has jumped from 4th place in 2016 to 1st place this year, followed by Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland in a tightly packed bunch. All of the top four countries rank highly on all the main factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance.

And all without a single dauntless nun or priest! A world without religion is not as scary as Simon so often implies. It might even be quite a bit better.

Atheism is an undeserving target.

Globally atheists are an oppressed minority. In America, majorities in many states say they would never vote for an atheist running for public office. Atheists are killed and tortured in many countries on a regular basis, something that is woefully under-reported by NPR.

Sometimes journalists like Simon get confused into thinking criticizing atheism is “punching up,” as in afflicting the comfortable on behalf of those who piously¬†comfort the afflicted. I believe they feel this way for a few reasons:

  1. Because atheism is the closest humans can get to a true representation of the world it seems more “powerful” than the absurd and conflicting myths taught by religion. Religious truth claims¬†have been in retreat¬†for centuries as science has progressed. (Meanwhile, due to population growth, lack of education, and familial & community indoctrination, there are more religious people than ever.)
  2. Many atheists are well educated privileged caucasians, while religious people tend to be less educated and more underprivileged.
  3. Some atheists have a gratingly supercilious manner. (Many religious people who arrogantly believe they are on a first-name basis with the almighty creator of the universe share this trait, but for some reason they get a pass.)
  4. Religion has a major emotional component and atheism is purely rational. As a result atheists can seem like distant Mr. Spocks to religious people.
  5. In many places atheism is trending up even if the religious still dramatically outnumber free thinkers.

Given the real power of religion I’d much rather hear Simon & NPR punch up at, for example,¬†nefarious and hypocritical self-proclaimed religious groups like “prosperity gospel” churches¬†that are actively fleecing¬†people while wearing¬†the sheep’s clothing¬†of righteousness.

Miracle of Miracles

Jackie Lyden had a story on Weekend Edition this past Sunday about the repair and re-costuming of a beloved icon of the Virgin Mary at a Catholic church in Harlem. This tacky statue is credited with countless miracles by parishioners and the Catholic church itself. And, so anyway, it has a new fancy dress up dress and stuff.

Wait, what?¬†Back up.¬†Who cares about the freaking dress, Jackie? A KITSCHY¬†STATUE HAS BEEN GRANTING WISHES AND PERFORMING MIRACLES ON THE REG FOR DECADES NOW. There’s your headline, obvs. I mean if even one miracle were real it would change everything science knows about the universe. That’s not an exaggeration.

It is well worth asking why supposed miracles are treated so casually by the media. Here are a few theories:

  • The media has “learned helplessness” about trying to prove miracles happened, so they just report that lots of people believe they happened and move on.
  • The media is wary of alienating religious folks, so they get as close as possible to calling the miracles real (by quoting people who believe in them, aka “witnesses”) without actually confirming them.
  • The media is cynical and really doesn’t believe in miracles at all, but they overcompensate for their bias by condescending to¬†the believers with their coverage. “I’m sure it helps you be a better person to believe in such things, though of course I don’t need to” might be the subtext here.

Miracles are spoken of with no suspicion with surprising frequency in conjunction with the canonization of new saints (3 “proven” miracles required), the death of religious leaders who are often credited with having performed miracles during their lifetimes, and, as with Lyden’s¬†latest, some travelogue about holy places or icons.

If such¬†stories¬†are worth air time, how much more are the reported miracles worth the attention of the press? If a¬†statue is routinely healing people and otherwise changing lives in dramatic ways then this really is¬†the biggest story on Earth because miracles really don’t actually happen.

And since the press refuses to investigate claims of miracles, who do they expect to do it? Does James Randi have to do all of them himself?

And, finally, the question must be asked, if we accept the premise that miracles are happening all over the place, why don’t the gods heal amputees?

To Infinity…And Beyond!!! (and beyond that, too!)

The meaning of the word “infinity” is impossible to comprehend. It contains multitudes, literally. In fact, it contains everything and keeps coming for more. It is the the most famished concept in math and¬†cosmology, devouring all sums and spaces, gleeful¬†as it swallows¬†exponents and parsecs¬†alike. It is sinister, for everything that lives will eventually disappear into it without so much as a ripple or blemish on its mirror surface. No human mind can grasp it. The vertiginous vastness of its¬†nature is beyond communication. It’s one of the first ideas children encounter that¬†truly blows their¬†minds. I’m still not over it.

Mathematicians have tried to tame it; infinity¬†is¬†useful and necessary in that abstract realm. They selected¬†a symbol for it, as if it could¬†be captured in a mere¬†rune. But in practice infinity¬†is a Hell’s Angel badass¬†singularity that is fatal¬†to applied¬†logic and reasoning. All you have to do is ask a computer to divide any number by zero, the result of which is axiomatically¬†infinity, and the computer will promptly behave like a a person injected¬†with an LSD-PCP-Bath Salt speedball. The poor computer will immediately generate a deeply felt and wounded¬†message reading simply “Divide by zero error”. The computer is saying “OMG did you just seriously¬†ask me to try to calculate infinity? I just cannot even. I don’t even know where to go from here.”

My point here is that infinity is really, REALLY beyond humungous, akin to an ineffable deity. We can name it, try to talk about it, but never truly know it or grok it. And, like an angry god, its name should not be invoked for cheap effect.

And so a few days ago when I was listening to a Laura Sydell story on All Things Considered, as one does, I was suddenly struck by this comment, made by a worthy named John Seely Brown.

“The ability to imagine is the key challenge, because we have infinitely powerful tools to build whatever we imagine. As a result we’re limited by our imagination.”

Do you see the problem there? If not, read it again. There it is: Infinitely powerful tools.

Yeah, as they say, no. “We have infinitely powerful tools” is something only¬†comic book super-villains should say with a straight face, usually followed by a prolonged, evil cackle and some kind of intimidating¬†knife-switch being closed.

John Seely Brown doesn’t¬†have infinitely powerful tools. No one has¬†infinitely powerful tools. No human¬†will ever have¬†infinitely powerful tools. Theologians even debate whether or not the omnipotence-claiming god of Abraham truly has infinitely powerful tools. Can God throw a curveball so sneaky even Jesus can’t hit it? Is¬†God constrained to¬†moral actions? (The answer to the latter¬†seems like a big old “No!” of course. #theodicy)

But John Seely Brown is thought-leading us to believe he is not constrained by the mere finite, but only by the interdisciplinary artist-in-residence-curable constraint of imagination.

After hearing this howler of a hyperbolic claim I unwittingly began a Twitter conversation in which I was quickly accused by an NPR reporter of being hubristic and having neither a life nor an imagination. No, really. Here it is:

Can you believe this shit?
Figure 1. Laura Sydell rips public radio’s infinitely awesome blogger a new one. Rhetorical summary: “I know you are, but what is John Seely Brown!?”

Ouch, right? Plus¬†I was obviously applying the hubris tag to claims of infinite power, not to Sydell as she seems to have misinterpreted. Of course one might be justified in accusing her of something like hubris-by-proxy…

The proper response was, if anything, “allow John Seely Brown a moment of exaggeration¬†in his exuberance at the cool stuff he‚Äôs doing”, not a spit-take inducing¬†doubling down on ‚Äúinfinitely powerful.‚ÄĚ If¬†Sydell had accused me of being over-literal in my reaction to the word “infinitely” she might have a fair point, but her mama-bear ad hominem broadside¬†is over the top.¬†How am I the hubris-befuddled¬†party here?

Were Airbag Moments¬†a blog about language peeves I would have cause to opine¬†about the overuse and cheapening of the word “infinite” simply on the basis of style, like the overuse and cheapening of the word “literally”, but there are actually much more serious reasons, especially for journalists and industry spokespeople, to eschew¬†tech triumphalism and to treat it with skepticism when it appears. This idea that “the only limit is our imagination” is the obnoxiously perfumed Disney-film epitome of tech triumphalism. The same exaggeration can equally¬†inappropriately describe a pencil, or Play-Doh ™.

Tech triumphalism flourished, as one would expect, in the mid twentieth century, when the development curve of fundamental invention was arguably at its steepest. Magazines like Popular Mechanics boasted unintentionally hilarious (even then) covers featuring flying cars and plans for working robots you could build with free boxes from your neighborhood grocer.

flying car
Figure 2. “Your flying car for 1967, Hiller’s Aerial Sedan” PM¬†said in 1957.

Wired magazine periodically takes up the mantle of Popular Mechanics for contemporary techno-gushing, and has proven to be almost as hilarious in some of its predictions over the years.

Sydell is not the only public radio personality to overestimate just how awesome our present and near future are. Remember when that guy from 99% Invisible said we now have everything from the Star Trek tv show except the teleporter? Good times! When I thoroughly corrected him on the inanity of that claim he also refused to back down. I guess nobody likes corrections. Or reality.

The idea that there is eventually going to be a technological fix for all of our problems is a deadly¬†one. It inculcates lassitude¬†and inattention¬†towards very real, very, very hard to fix dynamics¬†in the world. If Doctor¬†John Seely Brown has an¬†infinity gadget then I guess anthropogenic climate change¬†is nothing to worry about. In fact if it’s even close to true that the only limit to his power is imagination I hope the United Nations will quickly dispatch¬†John Seely Brown to start fixing some things real quick, like the anthropogenic hellscape living nightmare that Fukushima Daiichi has turned into.

There’s actually a benighted¬†school of thought in Economics comically named “Cornucopianism” that is accepted as dogma by some noted economists. It essentially teaches that we humans are such clever little buggers that we will always invent ourselves out of every hole we are capable of digging ourselves into, including problems¬†like disease, resource scarcity, and overpopulation. (Sounds like hubris to me.) The effect of this is to encourage us to dig ourselves into ever deeper holes. Jabbering¬†about infinity devices, or flying cars for that matter, encourages that delusion. Who needs to recycle or buy a fuel-efficient car or practice safe-sex when Doctor¬†John Seely Brown has an infinity machine?

Of course I could be wrong. Maybe John Seely “Thanos” Brown actually owns and operates¬†an infinity machine. But the examples from Sydell’s story of what our nation’s infinity labs are doing certainly don’t inspire the expected awe. For example I’m sure the 3D-printed model¬†of San Francisco’s antique cistern system is attractive¬†and interesting, but it¬†isn’t exactly a cure for Malaria, much less a fix for the continents of plastic debris laying waste to¬†our oceanic biosphere. In fact¬†I’m guessing odds are good that the¬†plastic 3D-printed model¬†of San Francisco’s antique cistern system is fated¬†to choke a Sea Lion in the not too distant future, shortly after the forgotten gewgaw¬†is discovered in an attic and junked by a mystified¬†tenant.

oceans_impacts_seas_degradation_garbage_plastic_pollution_galapagos_q_16148
Sea life greet 3D-printed tchotchkes with less enthusiasm than Laura Sydell and Ira Flatow.

Now, in spite of her vituperations against yours truly and her not-very-imaginative or infinite dreams of a smart fridge, I do generally respect Sydell. So I went ahead and looked up this Doctor John Seely Brown as she so icily demanded.

Instead of finding a list of Tony Stark-like world-changing inventions, I discovered that Doctor John Seely Brown has a lot in common with none other than my frequent target, professional religion-adorer Krista Tippett. Like Krista Tippett, John Seely Brown won admission to Brown University. Like Krista Tippett, John Seely Brown is the eponym for his own website. And like Krista Tippett, John Seely Brown is clearly a very talented, intelligent person, an accomplished self-marketer, and sometimes talks in ways that, while verbose and grandiloquent, fail to convey specific meaning to the average listener.

Here are a few TED-talk-ready Seelyisms (Holy Cow does he give a lot of lectures!) from his website:

“Today, I’m Chief of Confusion, helping people ask the right questions, trying to make a difference through my work”

“Learners¬†craft their own pathways,¬†through a rich ecology of¬†learning experiences” (I guess they craft their pathway through the ecology with some sort of imagination machete?)

“Welcome to the Imagination Age¬†where the arts, humanities & sciences fuse¬†creating a new kind of alloy.” (applause, presumably)

“For the problems we now face in the 21st century we need vividness and texture to sense what might be needed given their complex nature.” (who can argue with that?)

“His personal research interests include digital youth culture, digital media, and the application of technology to fundamentally rethink the nature of work and institutional architectures in order to enable deep learning across organizational boundaries ‚Äď in brief, to design for emergence in a constantly changing world.” (emphasis mine)

Do those¬†mean anything tangible to you? It’s all a bit vague for my apparently raisined, lifeless,¬†and pride-distorted imagination. I¬†assume¬†he has nurtured vivid¬†imagishperical ecologies that have enabled¬†deep¬†utility for the world, such as the copier his team developed at Xerox PARC that could actually predict when it was about to break and call for repair – which is very cool, except, you know, Malaria and all – but he sure has produced a lot of triumphalist techno-evangelical jargon as a by product. A lot of research¬†outfits manage to produce incredible breakthroughs without that sort of hype.¬†Hell, Apple Computer is a shrinking violet compared to this stuff.

But Sydell clearly¬†drinks the rhetorical Kool-Aid¬†and so do a lot of very smart and successful people in business and the academy, so I’ll check to see if Google Translate has a “Thought-Leader Lecture¬†–>¬†Unimaginative Egotistical Zombie Grunts” translation mode.

If not¬†I’m just going to have to sharpen my imagi-machete and get to work crafting¬†a new path through my personal learning ecology.

What’s Annoying on Public Radio Now

On a Tuesday, this is Airbag Moments returning to air – or wifi anyway.

I notice with horror I made zero posts in 2014. I am tweeting a lot, though, so blame the siren song of social media and fear of the Riyadh Flogger for my lack of blogging. (@airbagmoments)

What has driven me beyond the 140 character restriction today, the first time in over a year? Only a brief list of weird/annoying micro-trends in Public Radio, especially NPR, that I feel need some publicity Рso they can stop.

Let’s do the numbers!

1. The Daily Grind

Apparently Steve Inskeep feels our pain. (Well he doesn’t feel my particular pain, since¬†he took to his fainting couch and¬†blocked me on Twitter at some point – see below.) But apparently he feels the rest of you, because he has pioneered a new version of the useless¬†day-of-the-week¬†intro¬†ritual (ie “on a Wednesday”) he and other hosts have adopted over the last couple of years. Now he’s taken to uttering¬†pseudo-ominous inanities¬†like “well, you’ve made it to Tuesday!” I think everyone out here in listener-land is¬†pretty aware of what day of the week it is and whether or not surmounting the previous midnight¬†is worthy of¬†succor and sympathy.

I will go so far as to say I would not mind being calmly reminded of the date, Steve, which you never do for some reason.

2. Yay us!

NPR or its shows were mentioned in two nerdy inner sanctums in the past week, the game show “Jeopardy” and the NY Times crossword puzzle. Given the exuberant twit-storm about this from NPR staffers I can only deduce that it’s¬†apparently everything¬†they’ve been working towards for their entire lives. What will they do now for a second act?

This brings me to a more general annoyance, which is the self-aggrandizing vanity retweets many hosts and official public radio program feeds indulge in. I guess I’m glad that @doctormom420 cried in her driveway during the segment when Scott Simon sang “Danny Boy” to Draggy, GoryCorps creator and aptonym¬†David Isay’s 2-legged¬†Golden Retriever, but I¬†don’t need to know about it.

Let’s make a deal: if you are going to retweet the effulgent praise then I expect you to retweet the trenchant critiques also, which you can find more easily if you unblock me on twitter.

Which brings me to…

3. Throwing a block

I try to be a resource for people by following every public radio personality and show I can find on Twitter, unfollowing them only when their feeds become choked with baby pics and vanity retweets.

Those of you who are familiar with the effete and grammatical¬†pokes¬†I take¬†at public radio must¬†marvel at Steve Inskeep’s (and EXCITING UPDATE “Vocal Fry Guy” Raz!) precious¬†sensitivity. This is unbecoming in one who makes a living ostensibly¬†asking tough questions¬†in interviews. If Twitter actually notified¬†users at the time when other users blocked them I could know which comment of mine tweaked¬†Inskeep’s and Raz’s hair-trigger peevishness.

Then we come to On The Media, a show I myself have praised effulgently in this space. Yeah, they blocked me for some reason. Really, OTM? You are the show that hates censorship so much you have produced entire episodes about it. What could I, who have called OTM the best show on radio, have said to offend them so much that they would block me from their official Twitter feed? What does that even accomplish other than tainting the purity of my love for them? At least Brooke and Bob, the hosts, have yet to block me from their little-used personal feeds.

I admit that I do sometimes say things that don’t follow the public relations guidelines for human society¬†known as “political correctness.” But I am not one of these ignorant, racist, sexist, conspiracist or wing-nut (left or right) knee-jerk public radio trollers you find in the¬†comment sections dangling under so many segments’ web pages.

To those who block me I have this to say: no matter what you claim, vous n’√™tes¬†pas Charlie.

4. Same old pundits vs. Sarah Chayes

I have written before about how outrageous it is that Chayes, one of the most valuable voices about Afghanistan we have and a former NPR correspondent, has been ignored ever since she left her radio job to actually do something instead of just “getting a sense.” I have also written about how weird it is that smart voices only seem to appear on radio shows like Diane Rehm when they are coincidentally on a book tour.

Well the second phenomenon has, at least for a brief period, solved the first because Sarah Chayes is on a book tour, which is the golden ticket to get back on the radio. Yay!

Meanwhile most of the regular pundit slots remain filled with people whose responses are entirely predictable: either political talking points or conventional wisdom.

I’m out of time, but not out of bile, so stay tuned!

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.

Highlights for Children

I’ve long noticed that NPR correspondents, with or without conscious intention, water down the language they employ in their reportage.   I’m not quite sure why.  I might imagine they were trying to create the journalistic equivalent of “easy listening” music – or maybe “new age.”  But their selection of topics (war, disease, the economy) belies this.

The “M”-word is the perfect example of this tendency.  Whether from spontaneous groupthink or ironclad editorial edict, NPR reporters go out of their way to avoid the word “mother” the way an alcoholic avoids free wine tastings.  Jennifer Ludden did an entire piece on the fertility of women in their 40s without once using the word.  This is only possible due to her substitution of the much more popular word “mom”, which she uses four times.

One explanation would be a polite differentiation of biological motherhood from “family of choice” momhood so as not to implicitly stigmatize those who come by at least some members of their clutch in ways that are not, uhmm, “in-house” as you might say.  But Ludden’s story, with its subject entirely devoted to the difficulty middle aged women encounter when trying to, ermm, “grow their own” so to speak, would be the perfect place for the biologically specific term “mother.”  Its total absence in this particular story, along with the clumsily repetitive use of “mom,” indicates something else is going on.

Maybe it’s the fact that “mother” is sometimes used in a rather extreme piece of two-word profanity that, let’s just say, implies a globally frowned-upon form of over-parenting.  Having it all, so to speak.  Sometimes, to avoid inevitable bleeping, that epithet is shortened to “Mother-f-” or just “mother-” on television.  So is it this?  Is the word “mother” now anathema just because it occasionally hangs out in the wrong part of urbandictionary.com?

It turns out that theory is also faulty.  The proof is that NPR reporters avoid the words “children” and “fathers” with as much awkward sidestepping and repetition as they do “mother”.  They compulsively prefer “dads” and “kids” to party with all the “moms”.  When a “father” shows up, things can get ugly, as in the Loudon Wainwright song “Me and All the Other Mothers”.

Maybe, as with some profanity, it’s some kind of word origin problem?  Is “mother” from some poorly thought of word root and “mom” from an original language that’s a bit more presentable in polite society?  Turns out that’s not the case either.  Both the hated “mother” and the beloved “mom” seem to originate from the same semi-universal infant sound “ma” or “muh”, which may itself derive from the satisfied “mmm” infants sometimes utter after a bout of nipple noshing.  So there’s another theory shot-down.

Let’s examine the larger context.  As their Twitter feeds attest, most NPR reporters *cough* Scott Simon *cough* are child or grandchild-addled.  Or do I mean “kid” or “grandkid”-addled?  It’s so odd how different these exact synonyms can feel.  One would never say “wicked stepmom”, “kid of the depression”, or “dad of our country”.  At least not yet.  “Mother’s Day” is holding on with 35 million Google results, but “Mom’s Day” is coming up fast in the rear-view with 994,000.

Anyway, to me all this linguistic pre-chewing smacks of parental and grandparental overcompensation.  The same way marketers forced used-car dealers to start referring to their jalopies as “pre-owned”, and realtors to start calling houses “homes”, parents continually try to spin reality to their children as something more palatable.  It’s the difference between “shit”, if you’ll pardon the expression, and “poop”.  It’s exactly the relationship of Ray Liotta’s character to Jeff Daniels’ in the totally brilliant and allegorical “we’ve all got a darkside” Jonathan Demme film “Something Wild.” A word clothed uncomfortably in gym shorts and a t-shirt purchased hastily at a gas station is still naked underneath.

So is this the answer?  Do NPR reporters actually know the difference between Shineola and that other nasty substance that isn’t Shineola, but they just don’t want to come out and say it in so many words?  I really hope so.

The alternative is that they actually mentally inhabit this baby-proofed, rose-colored Nicey Niceland.  In Nicey Niceland, Wall Street math-prodigy mountebanks aren’t prodigious monsters, they’re “number crunchers.”  And in Nicey Niceland the politicians don’t “lie,” they “exaggerate” or “mis-speak.”  When the lies come flying, the reporters at Nicey Niceland Today report on the public opinion reaction to the dishonesty rather than even noticing the rude fact of the moral unfitness of the liar.  Nicey Niceland Public Radio (NNPR) reporters are so happy just to get a “sense” of things.  Reality had them at “hello.”

In this formulation, evil is real, and the banality of evil is to perceive and describe it in child-friendly gauziness. ¬†Like Jeff Daniels’ character, Gallant is so Gallant that he becomes Goofus without realizing it. ¬†(“Gallant lets his children starve to death because stealing bread is illegal.”)

Public Radio is a format that features vocal intonations sometimes too closely resembling the cadences of a parent reading a storybook to a child at bedtime. I hope they are at least explicitly aware of these linguistic habits, and that they have a good reason.  I would also love to hear the reason.  Journalism is the first draft of history, and that draft should not be written with sparkle pens and hearts over the “i”s.

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

Got Milk?

Have no fear, dairy fans, Laura Sydell is still on the job!¬† Indeed, she’s all over the whole milk-detecting “smart refrigerator” thing like Judy Miller on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.¬† Her bio on Twitter says she’s interested in “looking at the intersection of culture and technology.”¬† Who knew she meant “milk culture”?

The only problem is that her Vitamin-D fortified monomania may be blinding her to the larger world of technology.¬† Have you ever heard the old saw that “if your only tool is a hammer then everything looks like a nail?”¬† Evidently every technological advance is, to Sydell, just another inevitable step on the many-streamered path to our glorious smart-fridge future.

The opportunity arising from the opening up of new wireless spectrum for digital devices?  Milk-detecting smart fridge!

Coolest thing she might find at the 2011 consumer electronics show?  Duh!  Milk-detecting smart fridge, obviously!

She is giving this gallons of coverage. She tweets “Getting ready 2 talk about CES on ATC. So far what interests me most is internet connected appliances:refrigerator, washing machine.”¬† In that¬† two-way on ATC she brings up the whole milk thing right at the beginning to make sure it isn’t edited out for time.¬† Additionally she writes in the synopsis/blog-post that accompanies the audio for this on the ATC website yesterday that “I want my fridge to tell me when I’m out of milk, but,” she adds moovingly, “I don’t know if we are there just yet…”

Courage, Laura!¬† Don’t be a milquetoast!

Listen, I’m as interested in the status of my domestic milk supply as the next blogger, maybe even more than some (looking at you, veganlife.blogspot.com…), but if you think about it for a couple of seconds you’ll realize that this 2% solution to our admittedly nightmarish collective ignorance of our own milk quantities is probably not all it’s cracked up to be, even in theory.¬† What if the smart fridge knows we have gallons of milk but doesn’t know it’s all gone horribly off?¬† What if we have to constantly monitor and recalibrate the accuracy of the M.I.L.K.?¬† (Milk Indicator Level from Kitchenaid)¬† What if the fridge is ignorant of some sort of catastrophically unanticipated increase in our milk requirements, like providing enough nog for the NPR Arts Information Unit staff holiday party?¬† And this is not to mention the privacy issues.¬† What if the Department of Social Services learns about our failure to keep our child’s bones strong through maintenance of an adequate dairy supply?

As fascinating as the topic is, one has to wonder why Sydell keeps milking it.¬† Is there a sour note here?¬† Does she have some udder motivation to constantly call our attention to the national tragedy of our milk ignorance?¬† Your humble blogger has discovered there exists not only a “Sydell” brand goat-milking stand, but also a “Sydell Spa” brand milk-based facial cleanser.¬† Coincidences?¬† You, dear reader, or better yet the NPR ombudsperson, can make that call.¬† (Memo to FOX News: get Juan Williams on this, please!¬† What else does he have to do?¬† Oh wait, I forgot, FOX News doesn’t do actual journalism.)

I suppose it could be personal.¬† Does Laura live several hours from the nearest milk provisioner?¬† Is she exhausted from wasting entire days when she returns home for a nice virgin White Russian only to find that the fiendishly opaque milk carton, when hurriedly opened with that funny little cap they all have now, reveals nothing but her hopes and dreams?¬† Everyone knows you can’t drink those, unless you are newly-appointed house speaker John Boehner.

Or perhaps this is the consumer technology equivalent of what Reagan termed the “soft-serve bigotry” of lowfat expectations.¬† How can any careful observer not be disappointed by the state of consumer technology?¬† I, too, am cowed by the fact that here we are in 2011 and we still have no warp drives, no teleportation, no clean and infinite fusion power, pretty much nothing we were promised by the imagineers of the greatest generation 50 years ago.¬† (Except, of course, that stupid Facebook game that Isaac Asimov predicted in his speculative novel “I, Time-Wasting Fake Farmer” in 1947.)

Maybe, just maybe, if we can do this one stupid thing, if we can just have a refrigerator that can put a cussing update on our cussing Facebook wall to tell us how much cuss-damned milk we have, maybe we can, as President Kennedy promised in his stirring oration announcing the Apollo program, “do the other things” too.¬† Was it Browning who said “Man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Alright, dammit,¬† I’m on board!¬† I’ve talked myself into it!¬† From this day forward I hereby dare to believe that one day, in some shining Sydellian Utopia, we’ll even have a fridge that can tell us when it’s time to buy more Half and Half.

Good luck in Vegas, Laura!  Those of us who dive for dreams are counting on you!

Sensational

NPR interviewers are actually mutating the English language into a new dialect I call “Commentatorese”.

Liane Hansen asked the following question today of Joe Sharkey:

Do you have a sense of how many flights were delayed?

Sharkey’s response was that about 10,000 fights were delayed.¬† But that isn’t at all what Liane asked, at least not in English.¬† She posed the question in Commentatorese.

Either Sharkey speaks this dialect, or the full, unedited interview must have sounded more like this:

LH: Do you have a sense of how many flights were delayed?

JS: Yes, I think so.

(silence)

LH: Okay, what is your sense?

JS: Uhmm, I guess it’s a numerical sense.¬† Maybe like the numerical equivalent of literacy?¬† I’m not sure what you –

LH: Fine. What’s your numerical sense of how many flights were delayed?

JS: Well, I guess it’s what you’d call an “estimate” or maybe “estimation.”

LH: And what is the sense of your estimation?

JS: A numerical one.

(silence)

LH: Do you have a sense of the number?

JS: Yes.

(silence)

LJ: Is it a big one?

JS: The sense?

LH: (thinks) Uhmm, I guess I mean the number.

JS: Yes, I guess it’s a pretty big one, at least in the context of flight delays.¬† In the context of, let’s say, cosmology, it’s actually really, really small.

(silence)

LH: What is the size of it?

JS: A lot of zeroes.

LH: Can you give us a sense of how many zeroes?

JS: Yes.

(audible sighs from both)

LH: What is the sense of how many zeroes?

JS: Hmm.  Are you asking about the way we scale a number by powers of ten so you can tell how big it is?  Is this a show about math?  I thought we were talking about weather-related travel delays.

LH: We are.¬† You don’t get what I’m asking.

JS: What are you asking?

(silence)

JS: Do you want my estimate of how many flights were delayed?

LH: Yes, I guess that’s it.

JS: Then why don’t you just ask me that?

LH: Okay, do you have a sense of how many flights were delayed?

JS: Yes, I do have a sense, but that’s not what I said.¬† Ask me for an estimate of how many flights were delayed.¬† Or better yet just ask me how many flights were delayed like my wife did when I told her I’d figured out how many flights were delayed.

LH: Uhmm.¬† Do you have a sense –

JS: STOP!¬† Just repeat after me: “How”

LH: Is your sense –

JS: I’m going to walk out of this studio right now if you don’t repeat after me. “How”

LH: How

JS: “Many”

LH: Many

JS: “Flights were delayed”

LH: Flights were delayed?

JS: Much better.  About 10,000 flights were delayed.

(silence)

LH: And do you have a sense that –

Sharkey throws off his headphones and exits studio.

A Radio Show About Nothing

“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, dar√ľber muss man schweigen.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Loosely translated: “About which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.”¬† In other words if you don’t have something intelligent or useful to say, just be quiet.

If Public Radio lived by Ludwig’s rule then some things would change.¬† “Speaking of Faith” would have been called “Not Speaking of Faith” and would have consisted of an hour of blessed silence.¬† Of course that show, which I think I’ve mentioned once or twice on this blog, has been born again as “Krista Tippett on Being.”¬† It would have to become “Krista Tippett on Nothing,” which can only be an improvement.

But the main thing that would happen, freeing up countless hours of currently wasted time, is that NPR would have to cease its breathless, obsessive handicapping of upcoming elections.  I have railed against the horse-race nature of what passes for political coverage on NPR several times before but, shockingly, it appears to be having no effect.  In fact things are getting worse.

How many radio hours have been wasted in the last month breathlessly poring over the latest poll numbers and pre-announcing the imminent demise of the Democratic majority?¬† Even more than the number of hours spent during the approach of last year’s “nothing to see here” off-year elections.¬† Remember how it was supposed to be a big revolution?

I have three explanations for the amount of blather on this topic.¬† First of all the press thrives on reporting on conflict and change, so the prospect of party turnover interests them far more than what the new party in power will actually try to do.¬† Second the coverage of polls is a low risk for them politically because they’re just talking about poll results so they can go on for hours without worrying about appearing to be, God forbid, non objective.

Finally it’s easy.¬† Which makes me think they are lazy.¬† It’s like filler.¬† “Hey, guys, can you fill up ten minutes talking about poll results?”¬† “No problem!!”

If Zonker Had a Radio Show

Renee Montagne interviewed Gary Trudeau today on Morning Edition about the last 40 years of Doonesbury.  They jawed on quite a bit about the characters, especially B.D., the veteran who lost a leg in Iraq.  Somehow the lengthy (almost 8 minute) piece failed to talk about politics.

Now I know it’s not polite to talk about religion or politics AT A DINNER PARTY, but this is a news show.¬† How is it that a normally politically obsessed radio program avoids talking politics with the guy who changed the comics page forever by invading it with explicit political cartoon content? (Sadly he thereby paved the way for such luminaries as “Mallard Fillmore.”)¬† That’s really the main thing about Doonesbury, right?¬† It’s like interviewing Bob Dylan and only talking about his Christmas album.

Thinking about why Montagne was so careful not to mention politics in this context (or to include a single example of the strip’s outright political content in the collection of strips on display at the NPR website) I realized the explanation holds the key to many of NPR’s journalistic failings.

What we listeners want from journalism is passionate investigation to discover truths that matter to us.

Let’s break that sentence down contextually.¬†¬† “Passionate” means we want journalists to take their profession seriously, maybe more seriously than many yuppie parents of young children are capable of.¬† (See Studs Terkel on this topic.) This means putting their careers and even lives at risk when necessary.¬† “Investigation” means to use skills, contacts and other resources we laypeople don’t have.¬† “Discover” means that the information we receive should be new and non-obvious.¬† “Truth” means the discovered information should shape the story, not other way around.¬† “Mattering” in this case could simply mean quenching our curiosity, but it could also mean inspiring us to change our vote, whistle-blow at our job, or do something nice for the family of a deployed soldier.

If we use that carefully worded sentence as a set of filtering criteria for news stories, and we require all stories to meet all of the terms, 90% of nightly news stories fail.¬† 100% of FOX News stories fail.¬† I’d say something like 60% of NPR stories fail.¬† That last is actually pretty good, but only by comparison to the dismal performance of everyone else.

One of the key terms that stories fail to meet these days is “investigation”.¬† What are the recent stories most passionately investigated by NPR?¬† They are all about wounded veterans, and most of those are by Danny Zwerdling.¬† While I would criticize some of the content of those stories because Zwerdling has a preconceived narrative that he tends to impose, his investigations are clearly passionate.¬† But they’re not risky.¬† Everyone wants veterans to get all the help they need – or at least everyone who can recall the fact that we are at war.

And that’s why Montagne felt so comfortable talking about Doonesbury’s own wounded warrior: no controversy but loads of human interest even if the human is imaginary.

Meanwhile the Doonesbury strips that really mattered over the last decade were the many that effectively challenged the conventional wisdom coming out of the White House, especially regarding the Iraq war.  It was on that topic that the news media, NPR included, failed us to the point of debasing our very democratic principles.

It’s no coincidence that even now NPR is too timid to talk to (let’s be frank) a mere cartoonist about that particular part of his career and our recent national history.

D-, Renee.

I’m a Beale-eiver

Okay, now I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.¬† (more after the image)

Beale
Crazy Like a Fox...Network

Evidently Republicans turn off the movie Network when they get to the part, only a few minutes in, where everyone is encouraged to run to their window, throw it open and yell the famous phrase.  Maybe Republicans become hypnotized and actually obey these instructions, so they miss the rest of the movie in favor of waking their neighbors.

But it seems that political commentators never make it all the way to the end either, though they seem to have a slightly longer attention span.¬† Take today’s well stated but still missing-the-point commentary by Mike Pesca.¬† He does better than most. He makes an important connection that Republicans seem to miss: the fact that the character Howard Beale, accidental savior, is stark raving mad.¬† Beale’s not held up as a noble hero by the the screenwriter, Paddy Chayevsky (yet another Greatest Generation casual genius).

But Pesca, like every other Network-mentioner I’ve heard since Glenn Beck created his Howard Beale tribute-band persona, fails to mention the most important and relevant aspect of the film.¬† You see Howard Beale is crazy in Network, but he nevertheless spouts quite a lot of truth in his highly-rated Jeremiads.¬† Many of these truths have to do with the failure of television to actually inform.¬† But the truths that really get him into trouble are those which inveigh against his corporate masters, the mega-company that owns his network.

As a result the company subjects him to an artificial epiphany in the form of the god-like presence of (believe it or not) Ned Beatty, one of the exalted executives from the parent company.  He converts Beale to the sort of Ayn Randianism favored by major multi-nationals. You can watch this scene here.

God Inc.
God Inc.

Beale becomes a Eunuch, singing the corporate message beautifully, all the sound and fury drained of significance.

And thus we have Glenn Beck, whose religion is apparently that which helps the bottom line of Rupert effing Murdoch.

Postscript: The 90s version of Network is The Matrix.¬† While the dialog is far less artful, the message is even more subversive.¬† Plus there’s awesome Kung Fu.

Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Scott Simon is a genuine NPR personality.¬† He lets you know who he is, where he’s coming from.¬† It’s not just some reporter covering a story, it’s the avuncular, sentimental, self-described “luckiest SOB in the world” giving us his take on things.¬† Sometimes, from his tone alone, we can tell when he likes something (baseball) or when he’s not happy with something (genocide).¬† This affect-laden delivery can be helpful and enjoyable.

I contend that one reason people love Stewart and Colbert is that their reactions to the nightly outrages in our world are expressed with the dismay and passion, through humor, that such events provoke in normal people.¬† Simon practices this not through humor, but simply via his honest, folksy demeanor.¬† Scott, and I’m guessing he never allows anyone to call him “Mr. Simon” (that’s his dad!), is clearly a genuinely great guy almost any NPR listener would love to have a beer with – including me so long as the drinking doesn’t take place in a sports bar and we can stay off the subject of sports.

Plus can anyone resist those puppy-dog eyes?!?¬† Does he not perfectly resemble someone who’d think Obama’s use of the phrase “ass to kick” still qualifies as “locker room talk” from which children need to be protected in the year 2010?

But there are risks when a journalist/host wears his heart on his sleeve. The abandonment of the comforting myth of journalistic objectivity puts him in a foggy area along with Fox News.  Are we hearing truth or spin?  Another problem is that he risks alienating listeners who disagree with him.  (Helen Thomas ring a bell?)  He can avoid these pitfalls as long as he offers only studiously apolitical personal opinions.  Scott has proved himself remarkably nimble in this regard, even with his dangerously prolific tweeting.

One of the many non-controversial opinions he has made pretty clear of late is his support for organized religion.  This is not going to get him in much trouble in the USA, the most religious (by far) of all developed nations.

But it does have a tendency to annoy your humble, though easily annoyed, servant.

Take last Saturday’s Weekend Edition.¬† Scott interviewed Christopher Hitchens, noted dipsophile, atheist and author of “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

One of the ways Scott injects his personality into the show is by including his personal opinions in introductions of interview subjects, which could otherwise be very dry Curriculum Vitae excerpts.

His introduction of Mr. Hitchens (who I’m guessing allows the honorific) proceeded thusly:

He’s been a socialist who found Margaret Thatcher sexy; defender of the war in Iraq among leftists, a supporter of gay rights among rightists, an eloquent atheist who devoutly believes in ideals, not just skepticism.

That last bit bears repeating: “an eloquent atheist who devoutly believes in ideals, not just skepticism.”¬† There’s quite a lot of subtext buried in that seemingly innocuous aside, especially in the context of Simon’s previous utterances (or silences) on the subject of religion.¬† Simon employs the word “devout” in conjunction with atheism. This is a lazy and intentionally obnoxious category error frequently indulged in by irrationalists; kissing cousins with the meaningless expression “atheist fundamentalist”. The attempted¬† juxtaposition of opposites pretends that skepticism is not, in and of itself, a laudable ideal but is instead a flaw of character whose redemption requires the leavening of ideals.¬† Exactly which ideals are, as usual, not specified, and the stochastic menagerie of worldviews Mr. Hitchens has adopted, from sexy Cuban Communism to bellicose neocon paranoia, is too peculiar to be endorsed by anyone else. No, this is naked belief in belief, which I have mentioned before.¬† To be a good person it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe in six impossible things before breakfast.¬† It doesn’t matter which designer’s clothes you think the nude emperor is wearing, as long as you believe him to be gloriously arrayed.

But I have some news for you, Scott, delivered in my own inimitable style:  skepticism is an ideal.

It may be the best of all ideals because it guards against any of the others, including  baseball and genocide, gaining too much power over the mind of man.

“Personal Miracles” My Behind

Scott “There Goes Cryin’ ” Simon, NPR Nation’s reliably lachrymose Saturday morning sentimentalist, spent a tellingly lengthy, as well as tellingly mild, chunk of the show today conducting the full range of what public radio recognizes as religious discussion.¬† On the one hand, in a segment entitled with gratuitous obsequiousness “Oral Roberts Leaves Personal Miracles Behind,” there were the red state red meat Oral Roberts adherents, who happen to be true believers in some rather specific and rather extreme doctrines. One of them claimed he was, as a child, on the receiving end of an actual healing miracle. (WTF?¬† Is this NPR or CBN!?)¬† And in this corner, representing the blue states, there was Mitch Albom, who declared his admiration for a more Krista Tippett sort of faith, where it’s the faith journey that’s good in and of itself, pretty much regardless of what the beliefs are or how sincerely they are ultimately accepted by their professors.

And that’s really the problem.¬† The latter makes it impossible to robustly interrogate the former.¬† A lack of confidence in one’s own belief system, something of which I’ve accused the public radio upper middlebrow intellectual ecosystem many times before, makes it impossible to offer thoroughgoing coverage of a subject.

An interview subject on a news program needs to be challenged, or what’s the point of having the interview? I admit, Scott soft-balled a question along the lines of “what if your miracle was just a coincidental recovery from an allergic reaction,” but that’s really, really not good enough.¬† A leisurely 30 second googling of the Oral Roberts empire of Elmer Gantry charlatanism will yield untold treasures for the journalist wanting to talk about something of importance.

Here are a few suggested topics that are immediately relevant to Robert’s death:

  • What is the prosperity gospel?¬† Is it uniquely American?¬† What does it say about us as a country?¬† Did it contribute to our recent economic downturn?
  • There is a spectrum of prosperity gospel purveyors.¬† On one extreme you have Nigerian mountebank “pastors” who are so evil they cause little boys to be murdered in order to increase their own notoriety as witch hunters and thereby raise more money from their gullible flocks.¬† On the other extreme, I assume, you may find sincerely misguided leaders who honestly think god will improve your material circumstances to reward faith and, of course, tithing.¬† Where on this spectrum did Oral Roberts sit?¬† (By the way NPR never covered the “little boy witches” story even though it’s perfect for Gwen Thompkins.)
  • Pentecostalism is growing rapidly all over the world.¬† What is it?¬† Why is it becoming so popular?
  • And so much more…

But instead of taking on these kinds of questions we get the standard kid glove treatment.¬† Barbara Bradley Hagerty‘s not going to ask them.¬† All she could bring herself to do in her unenlightening and pointless obituary was give him credit for reinventing televangelism and mention briefly his too-notorious-to-ignore-even-for-Barbara claim that god would kill him if he didn’t raise $8 million.

Krista Tippet’s not going to ask them. “Prosperity gospel” is barely mentioned on the Speaking of Faith website.¬† You’d think they’d get around to that a few episodes before Ambian-outmoding esoterica like “Re imagining Sitting Bull“.¬† (Or maybe “Sitting Bull” is a yoga posture?¬† That would explain it.)

Why are they doing such a piss-poor job of this?¬† There are two reasons.¬† First, there is the aforementioned dearth of cojones as either journalists or philosophers that results in an inability to really take on these subjects.¬† Second, they think discussions of religion that are anything other than “nice” are dangerous and unpleasant so they simply choose to pretend that religious activities and ideas that aren’t nice don’t exist.

For an alternative treatment of Oral Robert’s death I strongly recommend Karen Spears Zacharias‘ take on it.¬† She, herself a faithful believer in a teleology a bit more specific and full throated than Karen Armstrongian Neo/Pseudo/Crypto deism, has absolutely no problem calling it like it is. But I don’t think you’ll hear anything like this on public radio, especially not on Speaking of Faaaaaith.

Come on Scott, I know you’d love to interview her.¬† After all, she’s been mentioned in the same log roll with Fanny Flagg, one of your favorites I’m certain.

As a side note I’d like to thank “Entertainment Weekly” reviewer Jennifer Reese for describing Albom as setting “tough new standards for sticky sentimentality [and] insipid moralizing” in “The Five People You Meet in Heaven”.¬† That’s right, a glossy excuse for movie and cosmetics ads puts Weekend Edition to shame, even at the risk of alienating an advertiser.

Public Radio could really use a bit more of this kind of attitude, which is only found on “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” and “On The Media,” and then all too infrequently and inconsistently.¬† I mean I understand the semi-ironic impetus for having on Andy Williams at Christmas time, but come on.¬† The guy said Obama’s a Marxist who wants our country to fail.¬† Now those are fightin’ words which, and this is the point, invite the same, not misty memories of watching Christmas specials last century.

You’re Soaking In It

America's Teens At Play

Careful readers of this blog will have picked up on a few broad themes :

  • mild, barely noticeable antipathy towards the Palinista wing of the Republican party
  • cringing at the over-use of certain words and phrases by Public Radio personalities
  • distaste at the shameless promulgation of Karen Armstrongian ecumenical pseudo-deism by the likes of Krista Tippett
  • rejection of conventional wisdom (“Con-Whiz!”¬† it’s like Cheez-Whiz for the mind) talking point ping-pong tarted up as “analysis”
  • mortified attention-calling to the pathological hyper-mega-parenting that has become the norm in today’s global yuppie culture

There’s some saying about fish not being able to see the water they are swimming in, and I think it applies to Public Radio staffers’ attitudes to the last four of these.

Studs Terkel wisely lamented that journalists have become too bourgeois to question the status-quo they are now totally invested in.¬† He was correct.¬† The toothless and intellectually passive correspondents of the supposedly liberal mainstream media have turned the likes of Stewart and Colbert into Woodward and Bernstein by comparison.¬† You can’t see the elephant in the room if you are the elephant.

And thus the entire meaning of today’s little Morning Edition story about a dramatic drop in teen driving orbited high above the head of story-filer Beth Accomando.¬† Now, don’t get me wrong.¬† I’m all in favor of the clear benefit to society we’ll see when America’s pimply texters reject their traditional role as scary statistic generators for MADD. It’s not the result that bothers me, it’s the cause.

Beth Accomando posits that the cause must be the internet.  Or maybe video games.

But no, Beth, you totally, totally blew it.  The cause is simply and obviously the invisible fence 21st century teens have had conditioned into their brains by a relentless combination of agoraphobia-by-proxy created through an unprecedented level of parental anxiety and the debilitating sloth inculcated by a culturally humiliating practice of parents behaving like harried personal assistants to a celebrity.

This is the kind of attitude that turns the theme of Cormack McCarthy’s “The Road”, which is that we’re all mortal and that having children is no redemption because they too are mortal, into “a love story between a father and a son” as the progeny-besotted director stated yesterday in a Morning Edition story about the adaptation.

So small point: overparenting is trying to ruin the next generation.¬† If they don’t even want to drive, the traditional dream/lust of all teen-agers, what the hell will they ever want do of any value?

Large point: get your heads out of your asses.¬† We’re at war.

Had enough yet? How ’bout some more!

In case we denizens of northern New England weren’t depressed enough by waking up to the cold rain that will fill the approximately seven minutes of daylight allotted us this time of year, we were presented with the following story corpse by Morning Edition today:

Before his ninth birthday, Brian told his parents he wouldn’t make it to his “double digits.” He died months later. “That’s what he was trying to tell us all that time,” Kathryn recalls.

Thanks!  Really appreciate that.  No, really.  Seriously.

On another topic, does anyone have any cyanide?

Hagerty Inanity Ubiquity

This I believe.

I believe Barbara Bradley Hagerty is a shill for religion and shouldn’t be a reporter in the legitimate news media.

The public radio echo chamber is unbearably loud this week with vapid discussions of NPR religious correspondent Hagerty’s new book “The Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality.”¬† Incredibly, they’re giving her a five part series that amounts, of course, to a national book-tour of inestimable value.¬† Maybe NPR’s got a piece of the book sales proceeds, or maybe they’re so accustomed to lavishing attention on every page ejected from Cokie Robert’s laser printer their brains have changed and they don’t realize this is inappropriate.

Meanwhile she appeared today for an hour on Diane Rehm (further expanding Diane’s reputation for gullibility I’m afraid).¬† I’m guessing these aren’t the last.

Hagerty is a sometimes-admitted supposedly former Christian Scientist, which is sickeningly appropriate given the book’s title.¬† Although she has many connections with more fundamentalist people and organizations (brilliantly exposed by Better Angels and Eschaton), she soft pedals it here suspiciously in line with the latest gratuitous anti-atheist pushback from the likes of Terry Eagleton and Stanley Fish.

The theist argument can be split into two questions, “is there a god?” and “if there is a god, what things must follow from that fact?”¬† The second question is much harder because you have to start making a lot of extremely questionable truth claims about things like the age of the universe, virgin births, Roe vs. Wade, and, of course, whether zippers are okay.

The easy road is to start with the whole divine existence question.¬† You have to appear to approach it very timidly and humbly.¬† The tricky part is to first define god with such sweeping generality that the definition conflicts with no faith.¬† It’s “something larger than ourselves”, a “spiritual feeling”, or (straight from the book) “the unearthly wine of transcendence”.¬† Then you interview some scientists and ask them unanswerable leading questions like (again from the book) “When people pray, do they connect to God or tap into a dimension outside of their bodies?”

When you ask a question like that a lot of scientists will try to avoid seeming arrogant or hurting your feelings.¬† Often they are religious themselves.¬† So they’ll respond as the scientist in the book did :

Even if I do a brain scan of somebody who tells me that they’ve seen God, that scan only tells me what their brain was doing when they had that experience, and it doesn’t tell me whether or not they actually did see God.

Then you come to the safe conclusion, as Hagerty does in her book and on the air, that belief in this extremely nonspecific God has the same validity as non belief, that it’s all just a matter of opinion and everybody is equal and everybody wins.

Never mind the fact that this conclusion is nothing more than a hazy tautology, that making this statement after putting a bunch of people in fMRIs is no different than making the statement without the fMRIs.  Never mind the fact that this sloppy sentiment contributes not one iota to the eons old debate about god.

The real problem is that Hagerty has, quite intentionally,  just made it easier for dogmatists of all stripes to peddle their pernicious claims.

Web 2.0 The Humanity! (aka NPR Media Player Epic Fail)

I have been both listening to public radio and using the internet since long before NPR’s awkward, vaguely Luddite first encounters with the World Wide Web.¬† I recall vividly Linda Wirtheimer’s bemused tone as she gingerly announced that listeners could finally provide feedback via “the email”.

Gradually, and mostly to great advantage, NPR began to make online services available that acted as force multipliers for listeners.¬† We could email questions to Diane Rehm or Talk of the Nation instead of wasting time hanging on the phone.¬† We could look up broadcast schedules.¬† We could break annoying outmoded regional monopolies by listening to distant stations’ live feeds.¬† (Local stations HATE this.)

More important than all of this, we could listen to any episode from almost any show at our convenience.¬† This, at least to someone like me who actually owns a dusty cassette tape of an episode of Morning Edition I ordered by snail mail, was the real revolution.¬† By now, being human, I’m a little jaded about it, but I can still remember being a bit drunk with power at the ability to call up any story from any episode of All Things Considered going back years.

My how things have changed.¬† A charming mild suspicion of the more laughable and faddish aspects of Web tech (still appropriately evinced by On The Media) has, on most NPR shows and in its executive conversation pits, transmuted into a gushing fanboi obsession that is echolalic at best and gigglingly hysterical at worst.¬† It reminds one of certain scenes in “Reefer Madness.”¬† The indiscreet charms of Tweet-By-Night Web 2.0 social media, their nauseating, Octomom- like fecundity, and their ultimate shallowness, have not been kind to NPR as it attempts to mainline all of them simultaneously.

Diane Rehm’s Tweets accidentally got routed via LinkedIn through the Facebook page of Krista Tippet’s podcast and then into the comment stream of Danny Zwerdling’s blog.¬† Tragedy ensued when Terry Gross naively gave it a Digg, Buzzfeeding it back to WAMU’s RSS reader, ultimately causing the Minnesota Public Radio’s Streaming Server to become sentient and go Cloverfield during a recording of Prairie Home Companion.

Or at least that’s what I imagine is the reason my now thrice-damned Media Player won’t let me listen to an only slightly stale episode of Fresh Air.

I’m not actually overreacting here.¬† The problem is one I expressed concern about in my original positive review of the NPR Media Player (which I am now dubbing the “NPR Media Gatekeeper”): it’s a giant step backwards¬† and makes the internet worse.¬† Congratulations.

In the good old pre-Gatekeeper days you could stream or download many NPR programs, and it seemed like it would soon be true of all of them.¬† This is the best of all possible worlds for listeners, but for NPR itself there are some major problems with this whole “information (media) wants to be free” ethos:

1. It’s difficult to manage advertising in this kind of model. For one thing it’s not easy to keep the ads current.¬† If they, for example, pre-encode a commercial for Archer Daniels Midland in a downloadable podcast then it’s there forever –¬† even if ADM stops its sponsorship when NPR reports on something unflattering about them involving melamine.

2. It screws local stations.¬† Why should I listen to my local affiliate or even go to its website if I can listen to my favorite show live or at any later time from NPR’s site?

NPR appears to have adopted two stratagems to deal with this.¬† They don’t make shows available to listen to live, and after-the-fact they want to force you to use the Media Gatekeeper to listen to them.

The Gatekeeper, of course, has the nefarious power to insert ads live, though I really don’t resent that in principle.¬† What I do¬† resent is that when the Gatekeeper doesn’t work, which in my experience on numbers of different computers happens frequently, you find yourself unpleasantly back in the early ’90s before Susan Stamberg’s smith-coronaphilia had ever been troubled by the phrase “web site.”¬† It’s 2009, and while we don’t have flying cars¬† I absolutely refuse to lower myself to ordering a cassette tape.¬† What would I play it with?

This restriction to using the Gatekeeper or nothing¬† is what’s known in the world of corporate I.T. as “business logic.”¬† In other words the question becomes, as Diane Rehm so likes to say, not what NPR can offer on the internet but what it chooses to offer.¬† This is bad behavior by a network that is directly funded by its listeners.

So here’s my oh so unsolicted advice to NPR: find a happy medium between your former web ignorance and your current Web 2.0verload.¬† Spend less effort chasing every MyblogSpacebookfeeder trend that comes along and more time making your content available to all in every form they’d like to have it.

We’ll see if NPR’s new boss “gets it” and takes this in a better direction.

Harvey Korman

I loved Harvey Korman.¬† He was a hilarious guy.¬† I’m sorry he’s dead.¬† NPR told me about it this morning.

You know what it also told me?  During a newsbreak, where each item should be as brief as possible to get to as many things as they can in the several minutes they have, the newsreader valiantly macheted his way through the following:

Korman died of complications from surgery to repair a ruptured aortic aneurysm.  He had undergone several major surgeries.

Why do we have to know this?  What gives us the right to know this?  Why does NPR think it appropriate to shout it out of a million radios?

I just talked about this a few days ago and here they go again.

Deblogracy Internet Webmerica

Yesterday’s Talk of the Nation featured an internet-besotted booster named Don Tapscott, author of the unpoetically named “Wikinomics.” Tapscott has never met an internet gewgaw he didn’t like. I’m sure he doesn’t read blogs anymore because they’re sooo two-hours-ago.

I’m used to his breathless, “Everything Two Point Oh” ilk, and he’s right about a lot of things, but one thing he said struck me as a bit over the top. He seems to think email is ancient technology practically lost to history. He said it was pretty much limited in use to sending thank you notes to your grandparents. He actually said that. I imagine it was to heighten his perceived hipness factor, akin to Wired magazine’s “Tired” rating.

Now, I know most kids today are just not physically capable of putting pen to paper due to repetitive stress injuries sustained while texting “LOL” 4500 times per day, but to characterize email as the medium of choice for expressing sincere gratitude is really a bit much.

I guess in the future grandparents will be expected to search through blog or twitter posts to see if any thanking has occurred.

Window Moments

Call this “Who’s riding my coat-tails now?”

Gretchen Woods, a caller to Weekend Edition Sunday last week, whined (with what sounded like good cause) about some story she’d heard.¬† So far so good.¬† Sounds like she and I would get along just fine.

But my ears pricked up when she suggested that the unsatisfactory piece was a “window moment,” as in making her want to throw her radio out of her car window.

Not bad, lady, but I did it first, I did it better, and, most important, I did it bloggier.

If you’re so fired up about criticizing NPR with labored but apt plays on words I invite you to become a co-contributor here.