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’s doing”, not a spit-take inducing doubling down on “infinitely powerful.” 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 – 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 – so 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’êtes 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!

Dumbest thing heard on public radio this week

My local public radio station played a piece from a PRX podcast called “99% Invisible” this weekend about the history of pneumatic tube delivery systems.  It was quite interesting.  Unfortunately it contained the following howler, uttered by producer Sam Greenspan:

If you think about the kind of technology that we were promised by something like Star Trek, we have just about all of it except the transporter.

Has this guy ever actually seen Star Trek?

If so, then I am really excited because I guess I missed the latest issue of Sky Mall, which I assume now features:

  • A real-time language translator that works from thought, and not just human thought, so it can translate alien languages it has never encountered
  • Food synthesizers
  • Faster-than-light travel
  • Instant communication across light-years
  • Time travel via manipulation of faster than light travel
  • Artificial gravity
  • Beds that can monitor all of your medical vitals with no probes or straps
  • Near infinite, powerful clean energy from crystals
  • Robots so much like humans you can’t tell the difference

That’s really just the beginning of a complete list, and it ignore probably the most outrageously bogus prediction: the end of racism among humans.

So, Sam, either you need to send me some “Buy Now” links for this stuff or you need to calm down your tech triumphalist hyperbole about our current, really quite lame state of technology compared to Star Trek’s actual implicit promises to the contrary.

The much more accurate and interesting point is the very opposite of Greenspan’s sentiment:  very, very few of the things promised us by 20th Century sci-fi have come true. Why is that?

(Oh, and let’s not forget the greatest expectation the producers instilled that we in glorious 2015 have failed to invent: world peace.)

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 than 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

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 Daniel’s 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…

A Radio Show About Nothing

“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber 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.

“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.

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.

Lawn Darts 2: The Revenge

So is NPR correspondent Wade Goodwyn’s official “beat” stupidity?

The poor guy seems to be stationed in Texas where the stupidity, of course, grows bigger than it does in other states. As a result he encounters more of it than the average NPR flatfoot. His coverage of the giant UFO witnessed by the future Sarah Palin voters of Stephenville, TX is a case in point.

But today’s entry, hyping the terrifying threat posed by a small, well-intentioned foldable soccer goal for children, sets some kind of record for unintentional self-parody. The plaything is earnestly described as a “deadly toy that lurks in thousands of backyards.”

Renee Montagne made this introduction, right out of a local network news teaser:

“Families with young children and toddlers should pay attention to this next story…one child has already died.”

They buried the lede. I think it’s more sensible to say “out of 200,000 of these soccer goals, only one deadly incident has occurred.” It wouldn’t surprise me if sock puppets have a higher fatality rate.

I don’t want to diminish the truly horrific (and too gruesomely described in the report) tragedy of the single child killed through interaction with this unstoppable playground death machine, but let’s be serious. Even irresponsible lifestyle journalists require three data-points to make a trend.

Is this toy really the most dangerous thing to be found around the average home? (After studying this useful Daily Show item I was convinced the worst offender was gravity.) Is it in the top hundred potentially deadly items? Frankly Sarah Palin’s gubernatorial tanning bed seems more perilous, yet even her notorious litter of slack-brained Ewells managed to survive its proximity pretty much intact. (Or at least that’s what they tell the press…maybe the inevitable Palin-aimed October surprise will reveal some kind of tanning bed/conjoined twin shocker.)

You’d certainly never know this from the panic-stricken tone of the report. Parents are told to remove the nets “immediately,” as if their ultra-supervised 21st century children are, at this very moment, in the act of improvising an explosive device from the thing and detonating it near an arms depot. By the time the piece was over I had an image in my head of the Omaha Beach sequences from the beginning of Saving Private Ryan.

The story does try to draw some larger conclusions from this wet firecracker of a news item:

  • The Bush administration is irresponsibly laissez faire in pretty much everything it does, product safety included.
  • Companies making toys in China are dangerously focused on price over all other considerations
  • Sarah Palin is an uneducated frontier beauty contest loser who can’t manage the executive branch of her own family

While all of these points are axiomatically true, this report is too fundamentally weak in premise to prove them.

Hey, wait a minute! Sarah Palin wasn’t even mentioned in the original Morning Edition story! She’s taken over this blog post the same way she took over the Republican presidential campaign!! That’s so devious!

Just how senical (senile + cynical) are they?

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.

Necrophiliac Public Radio

Ghouls, those vile creatures of myth who make graveyards their home and feast on the dead, can’t compare to journalists in the area of necrophilia. It’s unseemly.

Yes, it’s important to know that Ted Kennedy has a very serious illness. Perhaps, because he is a senator during a time of frequent close votes, it’s even valuable to know something of his prognosis. But the news media treats this sort of situation as an occasion to obsess and, worse, speculate about symptoms, treatments and anything else they can think of to drag out the coverage. It’s as if the moment someone with any fame becomes ill or dies the entire world has the same right and obligation to know every gruesome detail as consulting physicians or anguished members of the patient’s immediate family.

Today NPR spent many more minutes on what should be private details of Kennedy’s disease than on the situation’s actual political consequences. And, if that weren’t enough, Carl Kasel’s news update during Morning Edition about Hamilton Jordan’s death told many details about his years fighting illness to the exclusion of all other information. Was that really the right focus? The update should obviously have focused instead on what made him a public figure, not his personal medical history.

I first started noticing the extremity of this instinct on the part of the news media in general and NPR in particular with the death of a somewhat famous classical musician last year. I say “somewhat” because, while a large number of classical music fans knew of his talent, few others did. Yet every twenty minutes we received a detailed description of his lengthy battle with illness. Why is it necessary for people who have barely or never heard of this man to be privy to the saddest and grimmest details of his end?

Whatever happened to “natural causes?” Is that seen as some kind of journalistic failure? I presume so given the disappointment and humiliation I often detect in the voices of newsreaders forced to report that posthumous details aren’t available.

This practice is odder still in a country so paranoid about the privacy of individual health records. After all, one of the roadblocks to a national health ID card connected to a computerized patient record system is fear of loss of privacy. We’re so concerned about our health records that even our doctors have a hard time getting them and often have to employ paper filing systems from the 19th century. Yet the news media shouts detailed health information like a gossipy aunt to anyone who’ll listen every single time someone of fame dies or becomes ill – and the very same society acts like it’s normal, even required behavior.

This bad habit plagues public radio interview shows as much as it does magazine and news shows. Diane Rehm demonstrates a particular fascination with the diseases of her guests, the more horrifying the better. I’ve heard her force actors who are just trying to promote a movie to discuss their traumatic health problems at great length. At least she holds the same standard for herself. But is it really necessary that we be informed every time she’s on leave for her voice treatments and not a vacation? And if she must tell us, shouldn’t we have some input in designing her treatment plan? Why not?

I realize that the gruesome and gory have always been mainstays of journalism, but the more ingrained a practice is in a field of endeavor the more it’s usually overdue for scrutiny.

I challenge all NPR producers to reconsider how much medical detail is really necessary and appropriate for broadcast.

Since that clearly won’t happen, I also challenge Bob Garfield or Brooke Gladstone of On The Media to address this issue directly.

Hypocritical Mass

From meteorologists we know that storm systems are created when air masses with different qualities encounter each other. High pressure meets low, warm meets cold, dry meets moist.

In politics and business hypocrisy is created when two idea masses with different agendas collide. Generally the conflict is between what needs to be said and what needs to be done, or between what should be done and what various interests would prefer to have done instead.

Any regular public radio listener can tell that the world is enduring a perfect storm of hypocrisy, and it seems to be intensifying.

A small case in point: I don’t actually believe writers should use the worn out cliche “perfect storm”, but there it is anyway. It is what it is.

Actually, I really don’t approve of that ever more popular tautology, “it is what it is,” either.

And I hate blogs!

In light of these unfortunate facts, I feel I must apologize to my family, most importantly, and, of course, to the American people.

Let’s take a look at the map of the category 5 hypocricanes that have made landfall recently, each covered by brave public radio correspondents on the scene yelling into their microphones in an attempt to be heard over powerful, putrid winds.

The Florida & Michigan primaries

Florida is a well-known magnet for hypocricanes, but rarely do they stretch north all the way to Michigan. Obama and Clinton have each created high-minded sounding arguments why the primary fiascoes in those states should be handled one way or the other. By amazing coincidence each camp’s moral calculus has come out in such a way that they support the answer most likely to give them advantage in the delegate count. What are the odds? Wouldn’t it be refreshing if each just said “Look, I’m running for president. I’m obviously going to want the solution that serves my cause, no matter what the rules said when the states intentionally broke them.”

The Boeing/Airbus Contract

This is another massive system stretching from Washington, D.C. to Washington state, and reaching as far south as Alabama. Like the aforementioned Hypocricane, this one is accompanied by a deafening whining sound.

Autonomically allegiance-pledging Boeing union workers interviewed on Morning Edition had the nerve to mouth flag-draped inanities like “hey, we’re not going to have a French-made product protecting the United States!”

First of all, France is our ally, not our enemy, as much as Republican demagoguery would have you think otherwise. Second, you work for Boeing, you jingoistic meat-head. Think about it for one second. Who buys billions of dollars of Boeing-made military equipment? That’s right, OTHER COUNTRIES!!!! What if they, like you, sit around their union halls (somehow making double-overtime I’m sure) demanding that only planes made by domestic companies (i.e. not Boeing…see where I’m headed?) are good enough to protect their troops?

This particularly transparent example of American exceptionalism is so stupid that it will, if its principle is followed to its logical conclusion, result in the opposite of its own thinly disguised agenda.

Then of course we have the politicians. By another stunning coincidence the feelings of the various congress-people involved in this matter line up exactly with money the states they represent stand to gain or lose. Coincidences are to hypocricanes what downed tree limbs are to hurricanes.

Eliot Spitzer

A crusader against corruption and, so sadly for him, prostitution rings, is found to be an enthusiastic repeat customer of “Emperor’s Club VIP”. I guess VIP stands for Very Ironic Politicians.

Full disclosure: I, myself, once tried their much more reasonably priced service, Emperor’s Club VIB. (Very Ignored Bloggers) I don’t recommend it.

Okay, Spitzer looks bad and everyone is calling for his resignation, especially Republicans. I wonder if ostentatious non-resigners Senators David Vitter (R-Louisiana) or Larry Craig (R-Men’s Room) are among them? God, for the sake of this blog entry, I certainly hope so. And let’s hear from our self-appointed moral compass gazers on the religious right about this matter. Somebody get the reaction of the not very reverend Ted Haggard.

(Hey, Bob and Brooke, isn’t it lucky for OTM that the Spitzer thing came out on a Monday?)

In Conclusion and In Summary

As a staunch small-government conservative I propose a massive new federal program based on FEMA to help deal with damage caused by these terrible hypocricanes. Let’s call it FIMA, the Federal Irony Management Agency. I’d like to suggest we appoint someone as brilliant as Michael Brown to run it. How about Senator Tim Calhoun?

We’re going to need enough FIMA trailers for the whole nation at this point. Aren’t you excited to discover what industrial poisons their insulation is ironically made of.