Savvy Punditry Isn’t Smart

An article I think about a lot is William Labov’s 1972 “Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence.”

For decades, policymakers and linguists were convinced that Black English (once called “Ebonics” and now sometimes known as African-American Vernacular English), was a formless, arbitrary form of slang incapable of expressing complex thought or intelligent reasoning. “It is said,” Labov tells us, “that [Black children] cannot speak complete sentences, do not know the names of common objects, cannot form concepts or convey logical thoughts.”

This was, of course, simply a statement of bias. Starting in the 1960s, linguists began to map the features of Black English and identified consistent structures, rules and grammar. They may have differed from those of Standard English, but they were just as capable of conveying information.

The problem, looking back, was not that Black English speakers were unintelligent. It’s that (mostly white) listeners could not separate the form of speech from its content. Take this interview with “Larry,” a 15-year-old Black kid interviewed by one of Labov’s colleagues.

LARRY: Some people say if you’re good an’ shit, your spirit goin’ to heaven… and if you bad, your spirit goin’ to hell. Well, bullshit! Your spirit goin’ to hell anyway, good or bad.

Q: Why?

LARRY: Why? I’ll tell you why. Cause you see, doesn’t nobody really know that it’s a God, y’know. ’cause, I mean I have seen black gods, pink gods, white gods, all color gods. And don’t nobody know it’s really a God. And when they be sayin’ if you good, you goin’ to heaven, that’s bullshit. ‘Cause you ain’t goin’ to no heaven, ’cause it ain’t no heaven for you to go to.

As Labov points out, Larry’s speech includes all of the hallmarks of Black English: Double negatives (“don’t nobody”), invariant conjugation (“they be sayin'”) and something called “optional copula deletion” (“if you’re good…if you bad”). Non-AAVE speakers are conditioned to see these features as “broken English” — and thus markers of lack of intelligence — but each appears in numerous foreign languages and doesn’t, by itself, convey information any less efficiently than Standard English.

But Larry’s speech also contains the hallmarks of complex reasoning. His argument is that the core precept of many religions — good people are rewarded in the afterlife and bad people are punished — is impossible to determine because everyone has their own definition of ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ If no one can prove that God exists, how could we determine that he created a heaven for us to go to? That’s pretty smart for a 15-year old!

The reason this wasn’t obvious to most white listeners at the time was that their preconceptions about how Larry speaks made them incapable of hearing what he was saying. They simply couldn’t fathom that “broken English” could express a sophisticated concept.

The same concept — I’m finally getting to the point of this post, I promise — also works in reverse. Labov then quotes a middle-class, college educated adult named “Charles.”

Q: Do you know of anything that someone can do, to have someone who has passed on visit him in a dream?

CHARLES: Well, I even heard my parents say that there is such a thing as something in dreams, some things like that, and sometimes dreams do come true. I have personally never had a dream come true. I’ve never dreamt that somebody was dying and they actually died, or that I was going to have ten dollars the next day and somehow I got ten dollars in my pocket.

I don’t particularly believe in that, I don’t think it’s true. I do feel, though, that there is such a thing as witchcraft. I do feel that in certain cultures there is such a thing as witchcraft, or some sort of science of witchcraft; I don’t think that it’s just a matter of believing hard enough that there is such a thing as witchcraft. I do believe that there is such a thing that a person can put himself in a state of mind, or that something could be given them to intoxicate them in a certain frame of mind that could actually be considered witchcraft.

This is gibberish. Charles is arguing that some people believe dreams can predict the future, but since it’s never happened to him it can’t be true. He then, somewhat nonsensically, changes the subject and says that people may be able to put themselves in a mind-state where they can perform witchcraft. He doesn’t, however, specify what that actually means.

The vast majority of listeners would perceive Charles as more intelligent than Larry. Charles’ speech adheres to all the rules of Standard English. It contains no profanity and pads itself out with words and phrases (“intoxicate them in a certain frame of mind”) that indicate a large vocabulary. The markers of intelligence make it easy for listeners to convince themselves that Charles must be saying something smart — even when he isn’t.


All of this brings us to the debate over Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Over the last week I’ve become increasingly frustrated at the number of articles that insist on casting the Taliban takeover of Kabul as an episode in a political drama, an event whose primary importance is the role it will play in the midterm elections … in 15 months.

“If the virus continues to worsen or the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates further,” said the New York Times on Sunday, “many of the president’s allies fear he will lose the confidence of the moderate swing voters who lifted his party to victory in 2020.”

The story, like many others in this genre, doesn’t attempt to determine whether Biden’s decision was correct. It is simply a collection of quotes from strategists and Democratic political figures speculating about how this week’s events will be perceived by voters. A Hawaiian House Rep worries about the “optics” of the pullout. A Republican pollster warns of frustration among unnamed Democrats. A North Carolina state senator says Afghanistan “has entered the conversation in a big way.”

The story ends with a Democratic National Committee member telling the authors, “The reality is, you break it, you buy it. President Biden has this pandemic in his hands and regardless of the cause of disinformation, he gets to own that.”

I want to be very clear about the argument I am making: This. Is. Not. Smart.

Every quote in the New York Times story reads like the air-fried nothingburger of the Charles excerpt from Labov’s article. They seem intelligent, but what are they actually saying? It reflects badly on presidents when their foreign policy decisions generate grisly news footage? Ummm, yes. Afghanistan has become a more salient issue for voters in the last few days? No duh.

The DNC member’s kicker quote boils down to “voters blame presidents for things that happen during their administrations even when they’re not directly responsible.” Did we really need a political insider to tell us that?


The true Shakespeare of this form of hollow punditry is political scientist and professional Persuader Yascha Mounk. On August 17, Mounk published an Atlantic article arguing that pulling out of Afghanistan wasn’t a mistake due to the human suffering it will cause, but because it will embolden Donald Trump’s brand of populism. Creating chaos in Kabul, Mounk says, only reinforces the Trumpist critique of out-of-control government waste and incompetence.

Let me now struggle to fully convey just how not-smart this fucking article is.

First, Mounk never provides any evidence for his central claim. He notes that most Americans support withdrawing from Afghanistan and that pulling out will allow Biden to focus on domestic problems. “The U.S. presence in the country did not serve any significant economic interests,” Mounk says.

Sounds like a pretty good argument to leave!

But not so fast. Withdrawing from Afghanistan, Mounk says in the next paragraph, “fails to meet its intended purpose. Designed to weaken the hands of populists like Donald Trump, it will only make their resurgence more likely.”

And then… nothing. He changes the subject. Later he returns to the issue of public polling and says:

So: Americans like Biden and don’t like the war in Afghanistan. But once they find out how bad things are, they’ll change their minds.

This is not evidence. Usually when people predict the future they at least attempt to support their view. The Yankees are going to lose tonight because they don’t play as well when it’s raining. Clinton is going to win because gas prices are down. Something! The only pieces of evidence Mounk presents for his assertion are a) we’re likely to see violent videos come out of Kabul over the next few months and b) this could inspire another terror attack in the U.S.

Again: Not evidence. You can’t support a prediction about the future with more predictions about the future!

Take a look at the paragraph where Mounk lays out this argument.

This is Charles personified. Mounk displays all the markers of intelligent speech (“could grow even more potent”), but the actual argument here is both asinine and incorrect. America might not have another terror attack. Mounk claims that voters will turn on Biden if we have another 9/11-style attack, but let’s rewind to what happened to George W. Bush’s approval rating after, um, a 9/11-style attack.

Speaking from a cynical, amoral, polls-uber-alles perspective (which Mounk absolutely is), Biden should be rooting for a terrorist attack. If you’re gonna do punditry, at least do it well.

The second central dumbness of Mounk’s column stems from three words: “Fairly or not.”

So far, attacks on Biden as incompetent have lacked punch outside the right-wing media echo chamber; voters had little reason to think that he was unable to lead the country. But the videos now emanating from Afghanistan give a visceral visual to a line of attack that is sure to ramp up in the coming months. Fairly or not, they connect Republicans’ preferred characterization of Biden with a real-world catastrophe he oversaw.

This is another nonsensical argument. The basic premise here is that Biden’s Afghanistan pullout was wrong because it will invite Republican criticism — regardless of whether that criticism is accurate.

Mounk clearly does not realize this, but he is delivering an argument against Democratic presidents doing literally anything. Don’t raise taxes on the rich, Republicans will say you’re hurting the middle class. Don’t support clean energy, Republicans will say you’re impoverishing coal miners. Don’t fund infrastructure, Republicans will say you’re tearing down bridges.

This is not a standard of morality we apply in any other field of human behavior. If you, I dunno, raise the pay of all the interns at work and your boss criticizes you for lowering productivity even though productivity increased, most of us would say your boss is being an asshole. When someone lies about someone else, we typically blame the liar rather than the person they’re lying about.

I could go on. Mounk never grapples with any of the events that led to Biden’s decision, nor how the stunning incompetence of America’s occupation could also reinforce a narrative about government ineffectiveness. While criticizing the human toll of pulling out of Afghanistan, he ignores the human toll of staying. He says Donald Trump wanted the U.S. out of Afghanistan, then notes in a parenthetical that he did not, as president, actually do this.

Reading this column teaches you nothing whatsoever about Afghanistan or America. If its predictions turn out to be false, its analysis is incorrect. If they turn out to be true, it is redundant. Either way, there is no reason to revisit this kind of journalism in a year’s or even a week’s time. It is, to get proverbial on you, the intellectual equivalent of the raccoon and the cotton candy.


But this isn’t about Yascha Mounk or his shitty article or the Afghanistan pullout. It is about what Jay Rosen calls the “cult of savviness.” Over the last 30 years, journalists have convinced themselves — and their readers — that this above-it-all form of political analysis is an expression of intelligence. Instead of getting into the messy minutiae of whether it was right to pull out of Afghanistan, these pundits want to explore whether it was strategic. What are the “optics” of the withdrawal? What narratives will it reinforce? And most importantly, always and forever, HOW WILL IT AFFECT THE MIDTERMS?

I am here to tell you that it is not smart. It is easy and it is lazy and it is just as sophisticated as bullshitting with your friends at a bar about the best Marvel movie (Guardians of the Galaxy 2) or whether pineapples should go on pizza (they should not). It requires no intellectual effort.

Rosen has a great anecdote about a journalist who spent years looking into the Flint water crisis. When pressed on the question “who’s responsible?” he prevaricates, resorting to punditry about “it depends on which team you’re on,” and “it’s impossible to separate truth from spin.”

What strikes me about those answers is that anyone could have given them. Declaring “each party has their own narrative about Flint” doesn’t require any knowledge about the crisis or even deep knowledge about U.S. politics. It is the journalistic equivalent of reading the back cover of a book and then pretending you read it. Similarly, pontificating about the political impact of Flint doesn’t require so much as opening a Wikipedia entry. All you have to know is what politicians are saying about the crisis — the easiest possible information to gather.

It’s telling that Mounk’s Afghanistan take doesn’t include any interviews with experts or links to Afghanistan-specific research. It demonstrates no understanding of the country or the reasons the American occupation failed. But why would it? It’s the past that’s messy and complicated and requires intellectual engagement to understand and explain. Predicting the future just requires a few CNN articles and a glance at cable news. “Optics,” after all, is just another way of saying how things look. No need to get bogged down in how things are.

And this is what I want to end with: All of the questions savvy punditry puts aside — the impacts of policies, the context of events, the accuracy of a politician’s line of attack — are the core functions of journalism. They require effort and knowledge and time. They are why we are here, why this is a job.

Skipping them doesn’t make you smart. It makes you Charles.

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Princess Diana Part 5: The Crash

“You can be a hot mess express and still leave the world better than you found it.”

In the final episode of our series, we talk about Diana’s untimely death and the everlasting conspiracy theories surrounding it. Digressions include RPGs, Madonna and Tickle Me Elmo. This episode contains spoilers for the movie “The Queen.” 

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Pictures!

The Swan Lake dress:

The swimsuit:

The from-space pictures:

The last picture:

The crash:

The country mourns:

The eulogy:

The outdoor wedding:

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Princess Diana Part 4: The Divorce

This week, Diana leaves the royal family with her reputation intact and her title slightly edited. Digressions include “Love Actually,” “Pride and Prejudice” and Marie Antoinette. Both co-hosts reveal their staunch affirmative stance on wine moms. 

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The cubular home:

The mom jeans:

The secret gym photos:

The revenge dress:

The trip to Angola:

The panorama interview:

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Princess Diana Part 3: The Affairs

This week, Diana swaps out her husband for a Horse Dude and Mike and Sarah act out other people’s PG-13 dirty talk. Digressions include shoulder pads, Billy Joel and “Seinfeld” (twice!). There’s a moment 55 minutes in that is going to make you feel very weird. As with previous installments, this episode contains detailed descriptions of disordered eating.

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Performing with the Royal Ballet:

Expo ’86:

Horse Dude:

Giggling with Fergie:

The handshake:

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Princess Diana Part 2: The Wedding

This week, Diana gets married, joins her new family and meets the press.
Digressions include Judy Garland, Edward Cullen and the AITA subreddit. Unfortunately, this episode includes detailed descriptions of suicide attempts and eating disorders.

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Pictures!

The black dress:

The wedding:

The honeymoon:

The baby:

The public tour:

The bikini:

The sweater:

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Princess Diana Part 1: The Courtship

We start our new series with the story of a girl, a prince and the society that convinced them they liked each other. Digressions include camels, Beyoncé and the idiosyncrasies of British place names. We’re sorry to say that this episode has detailed descriptions of disordered eating.

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Here’s Diana when she’s 7 or 8. She’s on the right.

Here’s the infamous picture outside the kindergarten. Those legs!

And here’s the clip we watched. We warned you it was awkward!

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Quarantine Deep Dive: Jessica Simpson’s “Open Book” (Week 2)

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“Her parents’ financial success is dependent on her abdomen.” This week, Jessica moves to L.A., records a video and meets a boy. The celebrity cameos escalate. Digressions include overalls, werewolves and Judy Garland. This episode unfortunately contains detailed descriptions of disordered eating.

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Quarantine Deep Dive: Jessica Simpson’s “Open Book” (Week 1)

Open Book

Our journey through late-’90s pop stardom begins with an intervention and ends with an audition. Digressions include Willie Nelson, Ozzy Osbourne, Jane Fonda and the cast of the Mickey Mouse Club. Sarah’s English degree and exercise habits make appearances. This episode, we’re sorry to say, contains descriptions of sexual abuse.

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The Y2K Bug

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Mike tells Sarah how an obscure technical glitch became a nationwide mobilization. Digressions include Twitter beefs, “The Net” and VHS pricing. We spend much of the episode roasting our own work from the relatively recent past.

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CORRECTION: It seems the women in Britain didn’t terminate their pregnancies due to the false positive test results. We were wrong about this and we’re sorry!

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Quarantine Book Club: “Michelle Remembers” (Week 5)

FloJo Satan

We conclude our book club with Michelle’s escape from the dungeon. The dead baby trend continues; Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Satan’s fingernails make brief appearances. Digressions include Dustin Hoffman, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and things that rhyme with Beelzebub.  This episode contains references to child abuse and sexual assault.

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The O.J. Simpson Trial: When Kato Met Marcia

Kato Marcia

Sarah tells Mike about the clash of the titans, the fury at the grand jury. We follow Kato, the wise fool of the kingdom, for the week between the murders and the Bronco chase. Digressions include John Travolta, French kickboxing movies and “The Mummy.” The celebrity cameos are less numerous than usual but no less absurd.

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Quarantine Book Club: “Michelle Remembers” (Week 4)

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This week, our lithe psychiatrist takes his favorite patient hiking, a priest burns some furniture and Michelle tries to escape her remembering. This episode contains descriptions of kitten sacrifice, sexual abuse and three more dead babies.

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Quarantine Book Club: “Michelle Remembers” (Week 3)

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Sarah and Mike continue into the depths. With Dr. Pazder home from Mexico, he and Michelle journey into her subconscious and the stories they find there continue to get weirder. This episode contains kitten sacrifice and the first—but not the last—dead baby of the Satanic panic.

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Marie Antoinette

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“What’s sad about her has nothing to do with the content of her character.” Special guest Dana Schwartz tells Mike and Sarah how an Austrian princess became a French scapegoat. Digressions include Rubik’s Cubes, Taylor Swift and Tom Stoppard. The use of the word “bawdy” exceeds all previous episodes combined.

Find Dana at her website or listen to her podcast!

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Quarantine Book Club: “Michelle Remembers” (Week 2)

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Sarah and Mike continue their journey into the book that launched a thousand lawsuits. Michelle and Dr. Pazder’s relationship grows more troubling by the chapter. Digressions include orgy etiquette, sheepskin jackets and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Neither co-host believes anything depicted in this book happened as described, but still want to warn you that it contains scenes of torture and sexual abuse.

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The Exploding Ford Pinto

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Mike tells Sarah about a dying industry, a dangerous car and the acclaimed article that misrepresented them both. Digressions include “Mission Impossible,” “Friday the 13th” and the naming conventions of academic articles. This episode contains a larger-than-usual number of dad jokes and a shocking revelation about Johnny Carson.

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Quarantine Book Club: “Michelle Remembers” (Week 1)

michelle-remembers

Sarah describes the spark that ignited the Satanic Panic. Our setting is a therapist’s office in 1976 Victoria, B.C., and our digressions include Sybil, scary paperbacks from the ’80s and shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. This episode describes child abuse.

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D.C. Snipers Part 4

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In the final chapter of our series on the D.C. sniper attacks, Mike finally tells Sarah about the D.C. sniper attacks. Digressions include “The Abyss,” Ed Rooney and Jack the Ripper. We begin the episode with an update on our quarantine plans. Sarah misremembers the name of the TV show she was on.

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The O.J. Simpson Trial: Marcia Clark Part 2

Marcia

Sarah tells Mike about a week in the life of Marcia Clark, who became America’s most famous prosecutor on June 13, 1994. Digressions include car phones, college group work and “Titanic” (as usual). In keeping with the theme of this episode, Sarah had a bad feeling about recording without her mic screen, but Mike said it would be fine. Please excuse our p-pops.

This episode contains descriptions of murder and sexual violence.

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D.C. Snipers Part 3

John Lee

Mike tells Sarah about the indoctrination of Lee Boyd Malvo and the beginning of the sniper attacks. Digressions include Jonestown, Greek tragedy and something called “creepy crawling.” The episode begins with a lengthy meta-discussion of true-crime tropes and whether we are playing into them. The final section includes a detailed description of a suicide attempt.

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