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?

Open Letter to Weekend Edition & Scott Simon RE: Glenn Beck

Dear W.E. Team:

You guys generally do such a great job! But you made a very questionable choice today, and since second-guessing NPR is one of my most cherished self-appointed and under-appreciated jobs you know I’m obligated to interrogate it.

Why, I mean seriously, why did you invite Glenn Beck (of all possible pundits) on your show to publicly vet Donald Trump’s conservative bona fides?

I’m not questioning the idea of having a conservative on your show for this purpose, I’m questioning your choice. Although Glenn Beck managed to sound calm and reasonable on your show – he only referred to himself in the third person twice – he has a very long and colorful history of saying bizarre and awful things. With good reason he is considered (sometimes even by the man himself) to be one of the most divisive, irresponsible, unhinged and inflammatory characters in the whole conservative freak-show. (I was tempted to use “Let Me Google That For You” for those links.)

By putting him on the air you are unquestionably lowering yourself and worsening the polarization and poisoning of the American political landscape, a tragic and potentially catastrophic situation you yourselves have bemoaned on previous occasions.

The fact that you chose Beck demands that we consider what your motivations might have been.

  • Was it stunt-casting to try to increase ratings?
  • Was it an attempt to attract sponsorship for your show from the merchants of gold, doomsday-prepper supplies, and ersatz male enhancers who support Beck’s poison-spewing media empire?
  • Was he the only conservative willing to criticize Trump in public?

Feel free to message me on Twitter with the actual explanation.

Please don’t do anything like this again. It’s so much worse than Kardashian on Wait Wait I can’t even.

Quizzically,

Airbag Moments

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.

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.