Monthly Archives: August 2021

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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