Sunday, December 28, 2014

When Siskel and Ebert and Roeper gave thumbs down — way down

"There are 3 good things in [Catwoman]: Halle Berry's face, Halle Berry's body, and Halle Berry's costumes. Those are first-rate. Everything else in this movie is unbelievably bad." — Roger Ebert

"When I saw She's Out of Control, I became so depressed, I actually thought about quitting my job as a film critic, feeling as though the movies had abandoned me. Because what I was seeing there really wasn't a movie. It was some sort of strange concoction by someone who didn't understand what movies are all about. Fortunately, however, I would see the movie Say Anything later in the same day, and all is right with the world. I'm still on the job." — Gene Siskel

At the end, Siskel and Ebert correctly foresee that Siskel will die before Ebert.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Memes of yesteryear

So many internet memes are rehashed versions of things that were already cringe-inducingly trite when I was a kid.

". . . said no one ever!" is a throwback to ". . . not!"

"First-world problems!" is a throwback to "Finish your dinner — there are starving children in Africa who would love to have that food!"

Monday, December 22, 2014

The "real college rape hoax"

Glenn Reynolds writes:

For months we've been told that there's a burgeoning "epidemic" of rape on college campuses, that the system for dealing with campus rape is "broken" and that we need new federal legislation (of course!) to deal with this disaster. Before the Rolling Stone story imploded, Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., were citing the Virginia gang rape as evidence of the problem, but now that the story has been exposed as bogus, they're telling us that, regardless of that isolated incident, there's still a huge campus rape problem that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

And that's the real college rape hoax. Because the truth is that there's no epidemic outbreak of college rape. In fact, rape on college campuses is — like rape everywhere else in America — plummeting in frequency. And that 1-in-5 college rape number you keep hearing in the press? It's thoroughly bogus, too. (Even the authors of that study say that "We don't think one in five is a nationally representative statistic," because it sampled only two schools.)

Sen. Gillibrand also says that "women are at a greater risk of sexual assault as soon as they step onto a college campus."

The truth — and, since she's a politician, maybe that shouldn't be such a surprise — is exactly the opposite. According to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rate of rape and sexual assault is lower for college students (at 6.1 per 1,000) than for non-students (7.6 per 1,000). (Note: not 1 in 5). What's more, between 1997 and 2013, rape against women dropped by about 50%, in keeping with a more general drop in violent crime nationally.

Upshot: Women on campus aren't at more risk for sexual assault, and their risk is nothing like the bogus 1-in-5 statistic bandied about by politicians and activists. So why is this non-crisis getting so much press?

It's getting press because it suits the interests of those pushing the story. For Gillibrand and McCaskill, it's a woman-related story that helps boost their status as female senators. It ties in with the "war on women" theme that Democrats have been boosting since 2012, and will presumably roll out once again in 2016 in support of Hillary Clinton, or perhaps Elizabeth Warren.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Worst. Punditry. Ever.

The New York Times, December 20, 1924 — 90 years ago today:


Friday, December 19, 2014

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Hollywood didn't always yield to dictatorships

How is it that Hollywood was willing to release this scathing satire of Hitler in 1940, in the middle of World War II and the Holocaust, yet we're not allowed to see The Interview for fear of North Korea in 2014? I thought we were supposed to be "the land of the free and the home of the brave". . .

The Obamas on their "racist experiences"

Actually, these are not necessarily "racist experiences." The reason a woman asked Michelle Obama to hand her something from a shelf in a store is that Michelle Obama was much taller than the woman. Michelle Obama is apparently 5'11" — an inch taller than me — and I often get asked by other customers in stores to get things from the high shelves. This is not because of prejudice against me; it's because I happen to be of average height for a man. Relatively tall people like us are advantaged by having an easier time reaching products in stores; how can we complain about occasionally being asked for help by someone who's too short to comfortably reach some of the products?

I've also been mistaken for a store clerk. I've also been closely followed by store clerks, and interrogated while trying to leave a store without buying anything. I've also been refused entry into my own workplace, when I was wearing a suit and tie and had been working there for a long time, because the security guard (a white man) didn't believe I worked there. (I should mention that this was not at my current job.) Yes these things are annoying, but they happen to people of all races.

Many of the Obamas' examples reflect a certain classism: Don't you know who I am?! How could you possibly mistake me for a lowly waiter?!

There's something unseemly about the most famous, powerful couple in America expressing dismay that a random citizen would ever fail to recognize how important they are.

UPDATE (December 21): I was looking around for help in a clothing store today, and it wasn't totally clear who was a customer and who was an employee. The employees had no obvious dress code or name tags, and some of them walked around nonchalantly in a way that blended in with the customers (which could be a good sales technique). It occurred to me that if I had taken seriously what Michelle Obama said about racist microaggression, I should have avoided asking any of the black or Hispanic employees for help, and sought out the white employees instead. But that would mostly help whites and hurt minorities! They're all working for commissions, and they can benefit from the sales experience of interacting with me even if they don't make a sale. That seems to be a worse "microaggression" than occasionally mixing up a customer with a store employee, which isn't going to prevent anyone from making money.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

An idea

If I were Lorne Michaels, I'd offer Dan Aykroyd tons of money to rejoin the cast of Saturday Night Live to play Jeb Bush.

What should "white privilege" mean?

Reihan Salam writes:

I wonder if the racial self-flagellation of ‪#‎CrimingWhileWhite‬ is like buying an indulgence. If you engage in ritualized expressions of white guilt, you are free to enjoy your white privilege, comfortable in the knowledge that you are nothing like those ignorant and presumably terrible white people who refuse to do so. I have little patience for this kind of privilege-checking. As Phoebe Maltz Bovy observed back in May, invocations of white privilege are more often than not a way for one privileged person to “win a sensitivity competition” with another privileged person. What, then, is a useful way to think about what white privilege means and how it works? . . .

It’s also important to understand the social and economic components of white privilege. The basic idea, as described by scholars like Nancy DiTomaso, author of The American Non-Dilemma, and Daria Roithmayr, author of Reproducing Racism, is that all kinds of valuable social goods are transmitted through social networks. If you hear of a job opening at your company, you will likely pass that information along to a close friend or relative. I’ve shared information in this insider-y way, and I’m guessing that you have as well—if you don’t, then the people you value and respect might value and respect you a little bit less.

Why does white privilege come into play here? Because most Americans, like most humans, associate with people much like themselves. Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute has found that the social networks of white Americans are 91 percent white, and three-quarters of whites have entirely white social networks. This shouldn’t be too shocking, as most Americans are non-Hispanic whites and there are many neighborhoods in which making nonwhite friends would take a great deal of effort. Looking at these relationships through an exclusively racial lens can be misleading, as factors like the neighborhood you live in, the high school you attended, and your religious background could be doing more of the work than any preference for associating with other people of your own race. But the neighborhoods we live in and the high schools and churches we attend tend to be segregated by race, so even the mildest same-race preference will get magnified by these other avenues. Since white people hold a disproportionately large share of the most lucrative and the most powerful jobs, the natural tendency to help those you care about most ends up reinforcing racial inequality.

There is nothing intrinsically white about helping your friends and relatives. When it comes to building self-reinforcing social networks, one could even make the case that other groups are beating whites at their own game. Recently, Chris Martin, a graduate student in sociology at Emory University, and John Nezlek, a social psychologist at the College of William and Mary, found that people consistently underestimate the median household income of Asian Americans, and that people who believe that whites are highly privileged were particularly likely to assume that Asian-American households earn less than white households. This is despite the fact that Asian-American households have had higher incomes than white households for more than 30 years.

Does this mean that we ought to talk about Asian-American privilege more and white privilege less? Not without acknowledging what “privilege” means in the context of different groups. If anything, newcomers to American society and their children might find themselves more dependent on friends and relatives than deeply rooted whites, and thus more likely to cultivate and maintain these ties in an environment that seems alien and at times hostile. Those who arrive with high levels of educational attainment are particularly well-positioned to take advantage of job opportunities, and to share inside information with their co-ethnics. Virtually all Taiwanese immigrants benefit from the fact that 74.1 percent of American adults of Taiwanese origin have at least a bachelor’s degree. Similarly, the life chances of college-educated Hmong Americans are affected in all kinds of ways by the fact that 37.9 percent of American adults of Hmong origin have less than a high school diploma.

Imagine if we could rigorously apply a similar subgroup analysis to white Americans. The Census doesn’t capture data on educational and labor market outcomes for religious minorities like Jews and Mormons, yet there is evidence that people have a much greater tendency to associate with narrower ethno-religious groups than with fellow members of larger racial groups. Even so, we don’t generally speak of Jewish privilege or Mormon privilege. The language of white privilege also obscures the ravaging effects of poverty in heavily white regions like Appalachian Kentucky, where drug abuse is rampant and privilege-checking seems almost totally irrelevant.

Why does the white privilege conversation ignore the ways in which Asian Americans have used their social ties to achieve success, or the yawning chasm that separates upper-middle-income Mormon Californians from impoverished Appalachian whites? The simple answer is that we talk about white privilege as a clumsy way of talking about black exclusion.

Even white Americans of modest means are more likely to have inherited something, in the form of housing wealth or useful professional connections, than the descendants of slaves. In his influential 2005 book When Affirmative Action Was White, Ira Katznelson recounts in fascinating detail the various ways in which the New Deal and Fair Deal social programs of the 1930s and 1940s expanded economic opportunities for whites while doing so unevenly at best for blacks, particularly in the segregated South. Many rural whites who had known nothing but the direst poverty saw their lives transformed as everything from rural electrification to generous educational benefits for veterans allowed them to build human capital, earn higher incomes, and accumulate savings. This legacy, in ways large and small, continues to enrich the children and grandchildren of the whites of that era. This is the stuff of white privilege.
There's an interesting analogy to be made between Asian Americans and Jewish Americans. Both groups are richer than the average white American. But they reached that point only by doing a lot to compensate for discrimination and historic oppression.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"Warren's present-tense denial adds to speculation she will run in 2016"

A correct headline.

"I am not running for president" is what you say when you want to leave the door wide open to the possibility that you might start running for president any day now.

Someone else who said he was not running for president was a junior Senator named Barack Obama.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Lennon or McCartney?

My favorite answer is by Adam Duritz of Counting Crows (starting at 4:44):

I think Lennon's a great lyricist especially … a great writer, really. But melody is unquantifiable. I mean, you live your day, so you've got shit to write about. I don't know where people get melody from. The ability to write something that sticks in people's heads for 10, 20, 50, couple hundred years — the ability to be Puccini or McCartney … I don't know where that comes from. And I don't know how one guy wrote so many pieces of music that I can hum 50 years later. I don't know how it's possible. And that to me is such a rare thing.… All the dark … cool songs in the world are great, but the only reason we love music is because melody gets to the gut.… The ability to write something that we're all humming … that's how I remember the Beatles. Not that Lennon didn't write a lot of great songs too, but McCartney's abilities there are … without peer.

Hillary Clinton vs. Elizabeth Warren

Howard Dean and my friend Ben Wikler debate the Democratic primaries, focusing on Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren. At one point, the host seems a little disappointed that they're both being too positive, and Howard Dean responds that he's not going to "fight" Ben Wikler — who Dean calls one of the smartest Americans under 35.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Things that have become less annoying than people complaining about them

• smartphones

• people who don't have a TV

• hipsters

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sam Cooke died 50 years ago.

50 years ago today, on December 11, 1964, Sam Cooke died at the age of 33.

There’s a home video of me at about age 5, where my mom asks if I want to sing a song. I sing a couple verses of “You Send Me." Then I point out that it's really "a grownup song." Sam Cooke had clearly touched me from very early on. He had a light, warm, amiable quality that could appeal to a young child, while having the depth and maturity to appeal to adults. And he had a passion and feeling that’s allowed his music to endure for 50 years.

Wikipedia sums up his career:

Samuel "Sam" Cooke (January 22, 1931 – December 11, 1964) was an American recording artist and singer-songwriter, generally considered among the greatest of all time. Influential as both a singer and composer, he is commonly known as the King of Soul for his distinctive vocals and importance within popular music. His pioneering contributions to soul music contributed to the rise of Aretha Franklin, Bobby Womack, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Billy Preston and popularized the likes of Otis Redding and James Brown. AllMusic biographer Bruce Eder wrote that Cooke was "the inventor of soul music", and possessed "an incredible natural singing voice and a smooth, effortless delivery that has never been surpassed."

Cooke had 30 U.S. top 40 hits between 1957 and 1964, plus three more posthumously. Major hits like "You Send Me", "A Change Is Gonna Come", "Cupid", "Chain Gang", "Wonderful World", and "Twistin' the Night Away" are some of his most popular songs. Cooke was also among the first modern black performers and composers to attend to the business side of his musical career. He founded both a record label and a publishing company as an extension of his careers as a singer and composer. He also took an active part in the Civil Rights Movement.
Here's "Good News," followed by a short interview of Sam Cooke (by Dick Clark), in which he tells "the secret" to his songwriting:

Cooke wrote "Chain Gang," after meeting some chain-gang prisoners on a highway while he was on tour. (Chain gangs have been almost entirely abolished from the United States.)

Cooke concisely answers the question: "What is soul?"

That recording shows that Cooke wasn't the most technically perfect singer — his voice breaks a little. And he didn't have the biggest range. I've read that he had the exact same range as Justin Bieber, of all people.

But just listen to this — a scorchingly intense performance of "Bring It on Home to Me," with an extended intro that brilliantly includes some of "You Send Me":

"Bring It on Home to Me" is probably one of Cooke's most covered songs — it's been done by Wilson Pickett (who gave a shout-out to "the late Sam Cooke" in the beginning of that 1968 recording), Aretha Franklin, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and She & Him.

He clearly brought something extra to his live show that isn't on the studio recordings:

Though he generally wrote his own songs, he was also a gifted interpreter of classics. Here's "Summertime" (by George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward):

"Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" (a traditional spiritual):

Before Cooke switched to pop, he sang gospel with the Soul Stirrers. Here's a rousing, 9-minute "Nearer My God to Thee":

But to many people, the most soul-stirring Sam Cooke song is his civil rights anthem, "A Change Is Gonna Come." He recorded it in January 1964, a little less than a year before he died.

When Rolling Stone ranked Cooke the 4th greatest singer of all time, Van Morrison wrote this for the magazine:
If a singer is not singing from the soul, I do not even want to listen to it — it's not for me.

Sam Cooke reached down deep with pure soul. He had the rare ability to do gospel the way it's supposed to be — he made it real, clean, direct. Gospel drove Sam Cooke through his greatest songs, the same way it did for Ray Charles, who came first, and Otis Redding.

He had an incomparable voice. Sam Cooke could sing anything and make it work. But when you're talking about his strength as a singer, range is not relevant. It was his power to deliver — it was about his phrasing, the totality of his singing.

He did a lot of great songs, but "Bring It on Home to Me" is a favorite. It's just a well-crafted song with a great lyric and melody. It's a song that's written to allow you to go wherever you can with it.…

Not many people can play this music anymore, not the way Sam Cooke did it, coming directly from the church. What can we learn from a singer like him, from listening to songs like "A Change Is Gonna Come"? It depends on who the singer is and what they are capable of, where their head is and how serious they are. But Sam Cooke was born to sing.
Let's keep his music alive for 50 more years.

(Sam Cooke in Billboard magazine, from Wikipedia.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Should you "follow your heart" or your "head" when it comes to dating/relationships?

Your head, according to this Psychology Today article:

One famous study conducted in Jaipur, India, compared couples there who married for love—"the Chosen"— to those who wed for family—"the Arranged." As you’d expect, Chosen couples reported being significantly more in love at the start of the marriage than the Arranged. But by the five-year mark, the figures had reversed—with the Arranged couples reporting being in love at the same levels as newlywed Chosen couples had, and the Chosen couples now declined to the newlywed levels of the Arranged couples.

And at the 10-year mark? The effect had doubled. Arranged marriages just kept getting better.

Does that mean that love’s not important in arranged marriage cultures? Hardly. It just means that here, we expect love before marriage; and there, afterward. Here, we expect love to conquer all; there, they expect similarity to pave the way for love.

And, factually speaking, they’re usually right. . . .

I’m not suggesting that you let your family arrange your marriage. If you’re not from such a culture, it could be intensely weird, and daunting for your parents. But I am suggesting we would be wise to emulate arranged-marriage cultures by valuing our heads as much as our hearts—starting with logic and ending with love. To that end:

• Define your standards, making sure they’re realistic and vital;

• Only date those who seem to meet them—ditching those who lack your required qualities, no matter how appealing they might otherwise seem; and

• Let yourself fall for someone from the small group that fits.

In other words, arrange your own marriage. You can do it with the help of the Internet, of course—and recent research suggests that online dating may be associated with longer, happier marriages than those that are launched in person.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

What Facebook does with your face

Sterling Crispin’s “Data Masks” are haunting portraits that don’t actually depict any one person. Instead, they use raw data to show how technology perceives humanity. Reverse-engineered from surveillance face-recognition algorithms and then fed through Facebook’s face-detection software, the Data Masks “confront viewers with the realization that they’re being seen and watched basically all the time,” Crispin says.

Facebook actually makes masks out of everyone’s faces,” the artist explains. The social network analyzes every face that appears in photos on its servers and renders them into three-dimensional models. “It’s happening whether you get tagged in the photo or not” . . .

As the U.S. government builds biometric databases like its Next-Generation Identification face-recognition system, it’s more important than ever to know how our identities are captured and processed by the technology we adopt. Crispin’s work is a reminder.
(Quoted from "This Is What Your Face Looks Like to Facebook" by Kyle Chayka.)

Monday, December 8, 2014

Pantera's "Dimebag" Darrell died 10 years ago.

On December 8, a great musical artist’s life tragically ended when he was not yet 40 years old, shot by a murderer who’s euphemistically referred to as "a crazed fan." A great guitarist and composer, who must have had plenty more great music to give to the world, although his legendary band for which he'll be best remembered had already broken up. I feel honored to have gotten the chance to see him live in concert. The world lost one of the greatest metal guitarists 10 years ago today.

“Dimebag” Darrell, born Darrell Lance Abbott, died at the cruel age of 38 on December 8, 2004. As the guitarist of Pantera, he pushed the envelope of ultra-heavy rock music, inspired countless guitarists, and was acclaimed by many as the greatest metal guitarist of all time.

Some of Pantera's standouts:

"Hollow" starts out disarmingly gentle for a Pantera song, with some beautiful melodies by Darrell, then descends into a more straightforward metal song halfway through. One line is chilling today:

No one knows what's done is done — it’s as if he were dead . . .

"I'm Broken," which is probably Pantera’s most famous song, was essentially made by Darrell even if he didn't write the lyrics. Both his riffs and his solo in this song are unforgettable. Some of the stretched-out notes of the guitar solo seem to have a playful sense of humor — uncharacteristically for metal.

(And here's what it sounds like for Pantera to be played as chamber music.)

"Mouth for War" — You probably won’t like this. In fact, please don’t click on this unless you like music that’s aggressively heavy. If you do listen, notice how brilliantly the band starts the song with the pre-chorus riff (instead of a more common choice like the verse or chorus), which lends a special, climactic feeling to the actual pre-chorus ("bones, in traction . . .").

"This Love" melds the quiet and heavy sides of Pantera. Darrell plays a soaring guitar solo with some unexpected key changes.

"Walk" is a good example of why Pantera is called "groove metal" (as opposed to the "thrash metal" of Metallica and Megadeth, for instance). Here's a bluesy cover that's faithful to the spirit of the original while being radically different. A commenter at SongMeanings describes how meaningful the song has been to her:

This is the song that gave me back my confidence and self belief. For the years I was at high school I suffered at the hands of bullies who ripped my confidence to shreds and left me in tatters. They basically chewed me up and spat me back out. This song is about attitude and self belief. I got into the metal scene and found an outlet and music I loved. Far from being the victim, I became the victor, this song was my anthem.
Shedding Skin” — I'm surprised this isn’t better known. To me, it’s one of Pantera’s best. But please don’t click that link unless you’re OK with some pretty crude lyrics and brutal music. Starts with a compelling riff, then switches to an eerily soft verse, which flows seamlessly into the heavy chorus. Tempo changes keep things interesting later on: the part where it slows down, in the section right before the guitar solo, is transcendent. The guitar solos (plural) are amazing as usual.

Cemetery Gates” is an earlier song from Pantera — a classic showcase for Phil Anselmo’s singing and Darrell’s guitar virtuosity. This came out in 1990, and you can tell that it's rooted in the '80s in a way their later work wasn't.

"Planet Caravan" is a haunting cover of Black Sabbath. Pantera was so concerned that this un-heavy song would alienate the fans that the liner notes included a message justifying the decision to include it on the Far Beyond Driven album. It gives us a rare chance to hear Darrell soloing with a clean tone.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The longest word in the English language

A word so long you grow a beard saying it — and (spoiler alert) a plant dies.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The "old" drive out the young at TNR

"I can no longer in good conscience even imagine my work appearing in the magazine. Your assault on the magazine has nothing whatsoever to do with print versus digital or with age versus youth. Chronologically, you are young — and some of us who are now leaving the magazine are older. But to me you seem old — old in the conventionality of your fast-forward thinking that goes nowhere. What you have done to The New Republic has broken the hearts of many people in their twenties and thirties — people who would like to take part in the great intellectual conversation that The New Republic has been for a hundred years and is no more."

— Jed Perl, resigning as TNR's art critic

Why the end of The New Republic matters

David Greenberg, a former TNR editor, writes in Slate:

The bloodletting this week at the New Republic—the journal of opinion regarded for a century as the flagship of American liberalism—has been rightly taken to herald the end of a great magazine. With the news that its two top editors, Frank Foer and Leon Wieseltier, resigned, that much of the staff subsequently quit, and that the magazine will halve its yearly output and move its headquarters from Washington to New York, the political and intellectual worlds are thrumming with outrage toward the short-sightedness of the magazine’s new leadership and elegies for an august institution. . . .

But one reason for the New Republic’s demise has not been fully appreciated, and that has to do with its unique tradition of heterodox liberalism. The New Republic is being seen as a casualty of the crisis of print journalism that has felled many other newspapers and magazines during the past decade—the drying up of advertising revenue amid free and cheap online commentary. The problem with this line of argument is that “little magazines” have always lost money, relying instead on the largesse of rich owners, whose combination of public-spiritedness and vanity has led them to sponsor high-quality journalism. The New Republic was hurt by something more specific: the polarization of a media environment that leaves little room for a strain of liberal thought that not only attacks the right and the far left but also prods and questions liberalism itself.

Founded in 1914 by some of the leading minds of the Progressive Era—Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, and Walter Weyl—the New Republic from the beginning sought to challenge conventional thinking, including among its own readership. These editors recognized that while liberalism (like all political creeds) needs foundational principles, one of those principles specific to liberalism is openness to debate, experiment, and reconsideration. Dogmatism, even more than conservatism, was its bête noire.

Over the years the magazine sometimes wavered in that mission. During the editorial tenure of former Vice President Henry Wallace in the 1940s, it descended into high-minded cliché, and for spells in the postwar years, it lapsed into sleepy predictability. But with its purchase by Harvard professor Martin Peretz in the mid-1970s, the New Republic regained its stature as the most provocative magazine on the left. Peretz hired a bevy of brilliant young minds. Three in particular became the three finest editors of their generation: Michael Kinsley, Hendrik Hertzberg, and Wieseltier. The twentysomethings who cut their teeth at the magazine in these decades include some of the most accomplished nonfiction writers working today. . . .

Under Peretz and his editors, the magazine led the way in questioning left-wing shibboleths on issues such as crime and fiscal policy and especially foreign policy, where it championed a revival of the liberal internationalism that had guided the Democratic Party from Woodrow Wilson through John F. Kennedy, until the disaster of Vietnam. The election in 1992 of Bill Clinton, whose candidacy the magazine supported early on, marked a triumph of this reconstructed liberalism.

Some old-time subscribers and confirmed partisans disliked the magazine for its willingness to publish conservative voices—Fred Barnes was its ace White House correspondent for years while staff writer Charles Krauthammer migrated during his time at the magazine from Walter Mondale speechwriter to neoconservative paragon. Critics assailed its perceived hawkishness and its unapologetic Zionism, which had long been anathema to the hard left and was now becoming distasteful to certain high-minded progressives as well.

But to other readers, the sense of freewheeling debate—as opposed to bien-pensant wisdom or party-line doctrine—gave the magazine its exciting appeal. As a college student in the late 1980s, I found its pages more stimulating than those of rival publications, which tended to toe what was already being called the “politically correct” line. I never agreed with all of the magazine’s positions—its support of the Nicaraguan contras, its opposition to affirmative action—but its pieces made me think in ways that few newspaper columnists or television pundits did. . . .

The New Republic’s heterodox liberalism—the willingness (indeed the eagerness!) to test liberal thinking from within the liberal family—is now being squeezed. Internet journalism has made it easy to find opinions that confirm one’s own beliefs and flatter one’s prejudices. Facebook places soothing assurances before our eyeballs. The left and the right are retreating into cocoons of information and opinion, on cable TV and social media.

Accordingly, the New Republic’s fortunes flagged amid the polarization of the Bush years, when its full-throated support for the Iraq war was too much for even many liberal internationalists to bear and when, post-Clinton, liberalism now seemed to need a course correction toward the left, not the center. Though Foer dynamically reinvigorated the magazine, it never regained the wider circulation it once enjoyed.

Wiser ownership could have recognized that although little magazines must adapt to the digital age with strategies for reaching social media users and mobile phone readers, they will never be cash cows. They succeed through influence, not volume. When I worked there in the early 1990s, it was often said that while the magazine had only 100,000 subscribers, it was “the right 100,000” . . . .

The impending transformation of the New Republic from a liberal magazine into a “vertically integrated digital media company” is regrettable for many reasons, not all of them sentimental. Conservatives need a liberal magazine that’s unpredictable enough to make them want to read it. Liberals and leftists need a magazine that will prod them to question their beliefs, and revise or strengthen them. All of us need robust intellectual debate of a high caliber that treats politics and ideas with the seriousness that they deserve.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Is The New Republic breaking up with itself on its 100th anniversary?

It sure looks like it.

TNR used to be my favorite magazine. I've been reading it since I was in high school. It played a significant role in teaching me how to write and how to think.

It used to be known as a liberal magazine that would question orthodox liberalism and conventional wisdom. TNR's outgoing editor, Franklin Foer, even wrote an article in 2001 challenging the conventional wisdom that conventional wisdom is often wrong!

But lately it's become predictably liberal — I can't think of the last thing I've read in TNR that differs from "what you'd expect a generic liberal to say."

The magazine seems to have been taken over by people who are more interested in transforming it into a "digital media company" than in taking over the helm of an august journalistic institution. It's going to move from DC to NYC and switch from 20 to 10 issues a year — not even a monthly. Its top two editors (Foer and Leon Wieseltier) just quit. The new CEO has warned of a "staff restructuring"; some are predicting "mass resignations"; and two of its former writers whose names are still on the masthead (Ryan Lizza and Jon Chait) have asked for their names to be taken off the masthead "immediately."

Chait has written a "Eulogy for The New Republic," and the consensus seems to be that "eulogy" is the appropriate term. This is a sad day for opinion journalism.

UPDATE: The "mass resignations" prediction was correct — look at TNR's masthead now! (Source.)


On Friday morning, 28 senior staff and contributing editors resigned from The New Republic en masse. A letter of resignation to Chris Hughes was signed by ten contributing editors, including Lizza, poet and literary critic Helen Vendler and Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz:

“Dear Mr. Hughes,

 We are contributing editors of the New Republic, and our commitment to 
the venerable principles of the magazine requires us now to resign. 
Please remove our names from the masthead. 

Yours truly, 

Paul Berman, 
Jonathan Chait, 
William Deresiewicz, 
Ruth Franklin, 
Anthony Grafton, 
Enrique Krauze, 
Ryan Lizza, 
Sacha Z. Scoblic, 
Helen Vendler, 
Sean Wilentz.”

For Foer, Wieseltier and others at the magazine, the brutal shakeup by [Guy] Vidra, 40, who was hired in September, and his 30-year-old patron, [Chris] Hughes--who purchased TNR two-and-a-half years ago for an undisclosed sum from a consortium that included longtime owner Martin Peretz--didn’t come as a surprise. Tensions have been building since the summer. According to multiple sources, Hughes came to think of his writers and editors as “spoiled brats,” and especially disliked the flamboyant, feud-prone, white-maned Wieseltier, who was more than twice his age. Much of Hughes’s distaste was telegraphed in his body language; he strikes many TNR staffers as passive-aggressive and averse to confrontation.

The friction escalated with the arrival of Vidra, who is said to have complained to Foer that the magazine was boring and that he couldn’t bring himself to read past the first 500 words of an article. According to witnesses, Vidra did little to hide his disrespect for TNR’s tradition of long-form storytelling and rigorous, if occasionally dense, intellectual and political analysis--to say nothing of his lack of interest in the magazine’s distinguished history--at an all-hands meeting in early October.

Presiding at the head of a long conference table, Vidra didn’t acknowledge Foer, who was seated beside him; he didn’t look at him; he didn’t mention him. Instead, as he started to speak, Vidra confided that he liked to stand up and move around the room as he communicated his thoughts, as though he were Steve Jobs unveiling the latest technological marvel. Oddly, he stood up, but he didn’t move.

Vidra spoke in what one witness described as “Silicon Valley jargon,” and, using a tech cliché, declared: “We’re going to break shit”--a vow hardly calculated to ingratiate himself with TNR’s veteran belle-lettrists, who feared that he was threatening the magazine’s destruction. Only a few interns dared to ask questions, which Vidra repeatedly dodged. “The senior people were too shocked to speak,” said a witness. “Jaws were dropping to the floor.” Through it all, Chris Hughes nodded approvingly, an unnerving grin on his face.

To be sure, that meeting was a warning sign. But the manner in which the two technology mavens administered their coup de grâce only two months later has left a bitter taste.

According to informed sources, Hughes and Vidra didn’t bother to inform Foer that he was out of a job. Instead, the editor was placed in the humiliating position of having to phone Hughes to get confirmation after posted an item at 2:35 p.m. reporting the rumor that Bloomberg Media editor Gabriel Snyder, himself a onetime Gawker editor, had been hired as Foer’s replacement. Yes, it’s true, Hughes sheepishly admitted, notwithstanding that he and Vidra had given Foer repeated assurances that his job was safe. . . .

“It was cowardly, the way Chris and Guy went about this,” Ioffe said. “Media reporters have been calling for months, asking, ‘Is Frank fired?,’ and they’ve been lying to everybody, including Frank.”

It is far from clear whether the remaining, relatively inexperienced staff will be able to get out the next issue, which is scheduled to close on Wednesday. Two multi-thousand-word pieces slated for publication--a profile of Jeb Bush by Alec MacGillis and a report on Vladmir Putin’s political arch enemy, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, by Russian expert Ioffe--were still being edited when the ax fell. And even if the newbies manage to produce the issue, it will be accomplished in an atmosphere of outrage, recrimination and sorrow over the apparent death--some would say murder--of an American institution that was, for decades, a bulwark of liberal thought, cultural criticism and groundbreaking journalism.

“The New Republic was always a small political magazine that was trying to change the world,” said senior editor John Judis, who was trying to figure out late Thursday night if he could continue to work for the magazine. “My impression of what happened is Hughes and Vidra have decided to transform the magazine into a profit-making media center that is entirely different from what the magazine historically has been and what it has represented and entirely different from what The New Republic has been at its core--and this has led to this cataclysm where Frank and Leon have both left. I liked the old New Republic. I thought it had a really important role to play in America and I’m sorry if it’s no longer going to play that role.”
UPDATE: TNR's Facebook page is flooded with negative comments from readers. Just look at the comments on any recent article. Example:
A once storied institution with unsurpassed journalistic prestige & my source for thoughtful engaging content. An unfortunate end to The "old" New Republic. I will be unliking your page . . .
So much for adapting to the digital age.

UPDATE: If there was any doubt about whether TNR as we know it has gone, the fact that Noam Scheiber and Jonathan Cohn just quit today (December 5) has put an end to any suspense. Scheiber says:
So I just resigned from @tnr. People do muuuuch harder things every day. But boy was it brutal. A great ride for 14 years.
Cohn says:
Feel so lucky that I got to work at Herbert Croly's and Walter Lippmann's magazine for 17 years. Thanks to readers and my great colleagues.
UPDATE: Julia Ioffe quit but still attended the staff meeting — and she tweeted it:
Chris Hughes at staff mtg: "This is a setback. These are great journalists that we lost this morning. But we are incredibly well positioned."

Chris Hughes at the meeting: "This institution has been around for 100 fucking years." no fucking kidding

Guy Vidra treats the remaining staff to more deep thoughts at mtg: "This is hard. But we will get through it and we will be better for it."

Chris Hughes telling the staff that he is different from other FB founders bc he cares about institutions, that he's always sent that signal

Thing is, neither Chris Hughes nor Guy Vidra bothered to communicate anything to the editorial staff. Nothing. It's been silence for months.

Chris Hughes, some advice for you: instead of "sending signals" to your staff, talk to them. Honestly.
UPDATE: The New York Times reports:
Some staff members have asked that their work be pulled from the coming issue of the magazine, which will have to be completed without an editor, and a greatly diminished staff.

Mr. Foer was replaced by Gabriel Snyder, the former editor of The Atlantic Wire, who will start on Dec. 22.
The next issue is supposed to come out on Wednesday, but TNR won't have an editor-in-chief from now through then!

It looks like Hughes was right about his announcement to the staff: TNR is no longer a magazine.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"If lobbyists aim to empower the rich, they’re doing a lousy job."

Robert Samuelson argues:

How often have you heard that we have the best government money can buy? Washington is overrun, it’s said, with fat-cat lobbyists whose lavish campaign contributions and insider connections manipulate the White House and Congress to serve big corporations and the rich. Meanwhile, the poor and middle class are ignored. This damning and demoralizing indictment has only one major defect: It’s about 98 percent untrue.

What we actually have is government that’s beholden to the poor and middle class. It redistributes from the young, well-off and wealthy to the old, needy and unlucky. To be sure, Washington is awash with lobbyists who do secure tax breaks, congressional preferences and regulatory advantages for wealthy clients. But these triumphs — often cited to prove the system’s “unfairness” — are small potatoes in the larger scheme of things.
Read the whole article for the supporting evidence.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Bill Clinton on "our one remaining bigotry"

Here's former President Clinton giving the keynote address at a gala for the 100th anniversary of The New Republic:

So we need inclusive economics. We need inclusive governance. And we have to give back to systems of cooperation which minimize the happening of big, bad things and maximize the chances that good things will flow. And we have to do it through networks. That is the business of the 21st century. We can do it. But . . . you can't do it if you refuse to talk to people that disagree with you and to work with them.

You know, Americans have come so far since, let's say, the era of Joe McCarthy. I mean, think about it. We're less racist. We're less sexist. We're less homophobic than we used to be. We only have one remaining bigotry. We don't want to be around anybody who disagrees with us. And if you look, actually residential patterns in America are changing. I mean, not just on by Congressional Districts. I mean fixed-line borders, like counties, the internal, social and political complexion of them are changing, and we also are siloing our information sources.

I read the other day that 47 percent of self-identified conservatives will only watch Fox News on television. That's good for Fox News. I mean, it's a good business model. My mother-in-law, who died a couple years ago at 91, and whom I love dearly and who lived with Hillary in our Washington home while she was secretary of state and senator, was the most liberal member of our family. She watched Fox News every day. I asked her if she was trying to give herself a heart attack. She said, "No, I'm just trying to keep my blood pumping."

But then my—but then she seriously said—she said, first of all, Bill, I need to know what they're saying so I have an answer and I need to know what they're saying in case they're right. She said, nobody's wrong all the time. It's like almost biologically impossible.

So it was really interesting to see for me—as I had time to study this in the last few years—how much we are disaggregating ourselves from people who disagree with us.

So one of the things that I hope The New Republic will do in the coming century of its life and innovation is to actually make people debate an issue instead of labeling each other. I was shocked—you know, campaigns I used to be a part of, you'd see these negative ads or positive ads. But they were usually like reasonable ads subject to fact-checking, like, "My opponent wants to vaccinate cows against mad cow disease, and I think it's a terrible waste of money." And the other one said, "No, we really should do this, because just one mad cow can make a lot of people sick."

In other words, they would hit each other over something real. This was, "My opponent voted with the president 93 percent of the time." Well, what did they vote on? Would that include all the budgets? What is it? There's all this sort of dark labeling business going on. And I think the differences are healthy, but not if they're meaningless designed to shut people's brains down instead of fire them up, because unfortunately if you want to return to the kind of broad-based prosperity we had in the 1990s, it will require some really clever thought.

For example, I was blessed because the information technology revolution moved out of Silicon Valley, and the exchange companies here in northern Virginia, and the videogame companies in Texas, and Route 28, and it went into every aspect of the American economy. So all I had to do was put the pedal to the metal and try to figure out how to get it to places and people that would otherwise be left out and left behind. And it was 8 percent of our employment, 20 percent of our job growth, 33 percent of our wage growth, guaranteeing broad-based prosperity. The bottom 20 percent of our workforce's income grew as much as the top 5 percent, the only time in more than 40 years. A hundred times as many people moved out of poverty into the middle class as during the Reagan presidency, which was the high point of trickle-down economics.

Now there are people who say, if you look at Uber, Airbnb, all the fun stuff, that now we're on the 100 percent downside of that and all these technological innovations are by definition using less labor and not starting enough economic activity in some other place to generate more jobs. I don't believe that, by the way, because we're still a couple million jobs or more we could be generating in America on the energy revolution, which would in turn create a lot of other jobs, and because the biotechnology revolution is just getting underway, and because there are four or five categories in which there will be more jobs created in health care, even if we continue to implement the law and we continue to lower the price of it relative to our competitors.

But this is the first thing we have to do. We have got to focus on having an economy where prosperity is more broadly shared. And we have to think about it for the rest of the world, too, because a lot of the appeal of a lot of these groups comes to young, angry people who don't have anything to do when they get up in the morning and don't have anything to look forward to and think, unless they go pick up a rifle or a bomb, every tomorrow will be just like yesterday.

When I was born at the end of World War II, more than half The New Republic's life ago—alas, way more than half—my native state's income was 56 percent, I think, of the national average, the second poorest state in the country. But if you could put clothes on your back and food on the table and feed a neighbor who walked up unannounced, nobody really thought they were poor. And it was relatively rare to see somebody who had nothing to do and no way to earn any money.

When I was in law school, I had six jobs, never more than three at once. I never felt burdened or put upon, because I always knew that I could do something. I became a lawyer because I wanted a job where nobody could ever force me to retire. I wanted to die with my boots on. . . .

But the point is there was this sense of possibility in our country. So we had to do the civil rights revolution, because we were cutting too many people out of it, but once we did that, there was a sense of possibility. We have got to recover that. And we have to understand, in my opinion, that immigration reform is a part of that.

Having lost it, I can tell you: Youth matters. The youth of a workforce matters. One of the problems is, according to Fareed Zakaria's show last Sunday, Americans think 31 percent of our population are immigrants. And in fact, it's about 12 percent or 13 percent.

But I really was almost physically ill at the—what some people say when all those Central American immigrants showed up at the border. I don't even know if everybody here knows this, but there had been zero net in-migration from Mexico in the last four years. Zero net in-migration from Mexico, partly because the previous president, Mr. Calderon, established 140 tuition-free universities. And last year, Mexico, barely a third our population, graduated 113,000 engineers, the United States 120,000. They're in the innovation business. All you got to do is go to Mexico City now and look around. . . .

George W. Bush signed a bipartisan bill saying that if somebody showed up on our border and they felt they were at risk, they had a right to a hearing. It was a good and decent thing. It's fine if the administration is trying to protect people where they live so they can process there and they're not all lined up on the border, but to think that this means, oh, the border's out of control, the world's coming to an end, we don't need immigration reform, it's wrong. Those people will make America's future.

Do we have to have fair rules? Do we have to make people wait in line, do you not want people jumping? Yeah, all of that's true. But the more prosperous our neighbors get, the less illegal immigration we'll have and the more we'll want people to come here and, if they get an education, to stay here, particularly, and contribute to us. So I'm looking forward to what will be said tomorrow. . . .

The New Republic can affect that, not by pretending there's only one side of the story, but making sure people at least know what's going on. We've got—if you want to have inclusive governance, there has to be a conversation that has some rough relationship to the facts. And I don't mean just the facts that are useful in a political debate. Everybody in a busy life has to be careful not to become vulnerable to the storyline and have it then turn out to be inconsistent with the story.

But I'm just telling you, you should not be pessimistic about America. And you should not be pessimistic about the world. These guys are not going to win over the long run in the Middle East with the strategy of decapitating everybody that disagrees with them. The local people (inaudible) now, the Kurds are fighting back. It may be a long, hard fight, so nobody wants to live that way. They are recruiting by and large who are looking for a quick trip to Heaven because they think all those tomorrows on Earth are going to be just like yesterday.