Tag Archives: criticism

There is no proof too much exercise will kill you: health news is the worst

There’s been a piece of “reporting” going around saying that it’s possible to exercise oneself to death. The New York Post’s headline is “You can exercise yourself to death, says new study.” A bunch of articles share that title, or slight variations on it.  Short form: it’s bullshit.  Deep and highly piled bullshit.

The news “stories” is based on a paper that has been electronically distributed by The Mayo Clinic Proceedings titled 25-Year Physical Activity Trajectories and Development of Subclinical Coronary Artery Disease as Measured by Coronary Artery Calcium by Deepika R. Laddu, PhD, Jamal S. Rana, MD, PhD, etc. I’ve provided links so, y’know, you can read it, too, if you’re so inclined. I did.

Continue reading There is no proof too much exercise will kill you: health news is the worst

Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner review – it’s a history of the CIA!

I have finished reading Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner. I found it to be a very odd book.

On the one hand, I have no fault for Weiner’s research. Since I’ve been following the CIA for a while, much of it was known to me, but seeing it collected in one spot was moving – the CIA has done so much evil.

On the other hand, Weiner doesn’t follow his research to the obvious conclusion: that the CIA never worked, and never will, that people operating in secret cannot be trusted, and secret services are a threat to democracy and global stability. Which is to say, the CIA should be shut down for the good of the United States and the world.

Continue reading Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner review – it’s a history of the CIA!

Fare thee well, Cruzbike, adieu, adieu

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I. . . got another new bike. Well, a new used bike. A Rans X-Stream.

One might be asking, “Kit, what happened to the Cruzbike Sofrider v3?” Good question! Here is my review of the Cruzbike Sofrider v3.

I rode the Sofrider for almost exactly four weeks. During that time, though, I rode it thirty times for a distance of approximately 650 miles. Without a doubt, it is a faster bike than my Sun Bike EZ-Racer, which I rode before it. I can claim without hesitation or reservation that, indeed, Cruzbikes are climbers. I saw increases uphill in the 30% range, and the Sofrider was just faster everywhere else, too. Like all recumbents, it is a comfortable bike, too, though it wasn’t until the end that I got everything dialed in. Pro tip: if you’re not comfortable on a recumbent from day one, seek advice!

Continue reading Fare thee well, Cruzbike, adieu, adieu

Publishers have always made a killing on the backs of writers

Tara Sparling posted There’s An Indie Publishing Gold Rush, And Guess Who’s Making A Killing?

While the article is, itself, worth reading, I’d like to point out that publishing as we currently know it is the primary form of writer exploitation.

In traditional publication, writers give up much of their rights over their work for a period – often years, sometimes indefinitely. Most writers get damn little support, too. And for giving up the right to price their book, sell it where and how they please, and a bunch of editorial control, the writer gets ten percent of cover price (or about 20% of what the publishing house makes).

Defenders of traditional publication will say that the publisher assumes all the financial risk. Which is untrue. The writer has spent untold hours of their life writing and editing before they get to the point of publication – that’s financial risk, too. But no one talks about the financial risk of a writer because it happens beforehand. But it’s there and its real. The writer has spent their precious hours writing the book with the hopes of financial reward for their labor, after all.  That’s the definition of financial risk.  Writers are taking a chance writing at all.

Absent an argument of financial risk – which is shared equally by the writer and publisher – the rationale for the publisher getting eighty percent is. . . what, exactly?

Let’s flip the script a bit. You’re an engineer. You’ve spent a lot of time, money, and effort to become an engineer. And you spent another year of your life making a cool invention. So you take it to EngineerCo and pitch your invention. What they say is, “It’s a great invention, we like it, but we’re not going to pay you anything for it – or we’ll pay you a pittance, like, five grand for your years of work – and if we sell any, we’ll take eighty percent, and you won’t get paid anything until we recoup the money we forwarded to you.” If you’re an engineer, you’d be insulted and seek elsewhere – or go into business for yourself.  Society would praise you for your entrepreneurial spirit.

But that’s what publishers tell authors. Even when they like their work, they don’t pay a living wage for it (unless you’re one of the lucky few), and they take a shamelessly high percentage of book sales. So if your book sells a few hundred copies, they make their money back, and if it sells a million. . . well, they make about four times as much as the author.

It’s a good scam, really.  And the most significant one, too.  Traditional publishers are robbers.

Wine tasting as the construction of “quality”

One of the things vexes me as a writer is how quality gets constructed. How do humans decide what they like and dislike? The simple answer is “we like what’s good.” Slightly less simple, but only slightly, is “we like what we like.” But the longer I think about the subject, the more I think that perhaps the most significant factor in determining quality is a person’s internal narrative. I also believe that how we decide what we like and dislike is intensely important because unless we understand the origin of our internal narrative – and how outside forces shape it – we diminish our intellectual freedom and harm our communities.

Which brings us to io9‘s article, pithily entitled, “Wine Tasting is Bullshit. Here’s Why.” It is useful for my purposes because it is a survey of other articles that discuss the problem with wine tasting. In none of the articles does the idea of “narrative” come up, but I firmly believe that’s the underlying issue.

Continue reading Wine tasting as the construction of “quality”

Bad editing at both Politico and the Brookings Institute: Susan B. Glasser and “Covering Politics in a ‘post-truth’ America”

Susan B. Glasser’s article “Covering Politics in a ‘post-truth’ America'” is an interesting read, though not in the way it was intended. At least, not for me. As usual, the interest comes in the form of fnords, and how it demonstrates bad editing.

What’s the fnord? The whole thesis of the article! The idea that the press is better than it has ever been while also being more hated and more ignored than it has ever been is FUCKING INSANE. “The press is so good, today! It’s too bad that we have poisoned the well and no one respects us or pays attention to us.”

(And, as ever, I will take this time to point the finger at the Brookings Institute guys who let this obviously flawed thesis past the draft stage. The fundamental contradiction in the article is obvious, and I’m hardly an elite editor. If my primary job were to make sure that content was intelligible, I’d be ashamed to have let something this obvious slide by. The thesis makes no sense, and Glasser should have known it, and her editors at the Brookings Institute, too.)

Glasser also ignores some very real items. The biggest is the money.

The press loved Trump because he sold newspapers. So they followed him with a dogged, slavish devotion, hanging on his every word. The amount of free press that Trump got from the traditional media was in the billions of dollars. If they had treated Trump fairly, if they had focused as much on his flaws instead of just his fucking Twitter account, if they hadn’t been so sycophantic in following him, Clinton would have won. And they did this for money. It does not follow the basic principles of journalistic ethics – they prostituted themselves for money, and the whole country will suffer.

And, not for nothing, for the press, there is a hell of a silver lining. Trump is now President, and he’ll keep on selling papers. For them, there was no downside. Middle-class white people – and the press has yet to face the racism in its biz – are going to do fine under Trump. We’ll probably see big tax cuts, even! PLUS, they’ll sell a lot of papers! It made it very easy for the press to ignore how much they profit from Trump, and how that profit makes it hard for them to be objective about what happened in 2016.  Glasser ignoring the role that money played in the media portrayal of Trump is unconscionable.

So when Glasser says that “the big media crisis of the Reagan era was all about the ease with which the journalists could be spun or otherwise co-opted into the Hollywood-produced story line coming out of Reagan’s media-savvy White House,” I think she’s ignoring that media manipulation is a problem we have today. Her article with the Brookings Institute is part of the modern willingness of the press to succumb to manipulation!

After all, part of the very story of the election was the way Trump was manipulating the media. They knew it was happening. It wasn’t a secret. But they let it happen; they let the Trump stories that should have remained in the pages of TMZ and other gossip rags spread through the “real” news and treated his every tweet as important. Sure, there were good stories about Trump’s corruption and incompetence – but they were buried in a non-stop barrage where the news media hung on his every word and movement.

Otherwise, it reads like a paean to the Good Old Days. I understand that Glasser believes that the democratization of media of the Internet age is a good thing. But the fact remains: as the media has been democratized, it has become easier to dismiss. This is not good. So while the technology of the news has improved dramatically, its effects have diminished. If computers ran faster than ever but broke down all the time, we would not say that “computers had improved.” We would yearn for the days when computers worked properly.

The inability of the news media to adapt to modern technology – even as that technology has made parts of their job much easier – means that the media has not improved!

That at this stage of the game they’re only becoming aware of the crisis is, itself, exceptionally telling. The public’s dissatisfaction with the news is old news. The Daily Show – the show is nearly old enough to vote – has been a running commentary on American dissatisfaction with the media. So while Glasser writes her personal history in the news business in the rise of Internet news, she doesn’t talk about how media’s failure with the Internet created the dissatisfaction with the news. It becomes a story of a day late and a dollar short – that the traditional press didn’t understand the significance of the 24-hour cable news, or the Drudge Report, or Facebook, or Twitter.  She doesn’t describe better news, but worse.

Perhaps most tellingly, the article has a chart where age cohort ranks people’s primary news sources. Unsurprisingly, young people mostly get their news from the Internet. Equally unsurprisingly, the older you are, the more likely that you get your news from cable news shows, local news, and newspapers.

But remember Glasser’s thesis – that the Internet, specifically social media, has created insular worldviews that allow people to ignore objective facts.

Her chart, however, seems to indicate, well, the contrary. Young people voted for Clinton, they like gay and trans rights, they are pro-choice and believe in evolution and anthropocentric climate change. Trump’s anti-fact, news-hating cohorts tend to be older Americans, often with limited or no direct Internet access!

By her own data, there is an inverse correlation between getting news on social media and being gulled by anti-news conspiracy theories and counterfactual stories. If anything, it suggests that the real culprit behind hating the traditional news is cable news channels! But it is hardly a story that Fox News has attacked the basis for objectivity in America. However, that’s where Glasser’s data goes.

(And, again, how did this pass editorial muster? I know that analyzing data is hard. I do. But Glasser is the editor of Politico, and I presume there are editors for the Brookings Institute, too. These people are supposed to be the best in the world at editing news stories. I am constantly struck while reading this at how badly it is reasoned and analyzed. Clearly, they don’t even understand the data that they’re looking at, or else they would not have so brazenly printed it!)

Scattered throughout are ads for Politico (“These days, Politico has a newsroom of 200-odd journalists, a glossy award-winning magazine, dozens of daily email newsletters, and 16 subscription policy verticals. It’s a major player in coverage not only of Capitol Hill but many other key parts of the capital, and some months during this election year we had well over 30 million unique visitors to our website, a far cry from the controlled congressional circulation of 35,000 that I remember Roll Call touting in our long-ago sales materials,” and similar nonsense.)

It ends by continuing to ignore the brute fact that the Internet generation is pretty fact-loving – that they aren’t the problem. The people buying the “fake news” and “post-truth” garbage get their news from cable TV and newspapers.  Glasser offers no solutions, not even for the wrong problem her article identifies. She says that traditional news media “took their audience for granted.” She talks about the dearth of investigative reporting and ignores Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowdon and the whistleblower websites that have utterly transformed investigative journalism. She also doesn’t mention the many failures of the news media – not just with Trump, but with, say, the Iraqi war when journalists “embedded” themselves with military units and praised Colin Powell for his “slam dunk” presentation to the UN that was entirely fictitious. Even though UN weapon’s inspectors were highly vocal about Powell’s failure and critical of the American march to war in Iraq – how did THAT happen, hmm? Glasser creates a fairytale where the sole problem with the news media has been a little arrogance, not that they have failed at every turn to both effectively communicate their ideas (which is necessary for their job) combined with factual errors of the highest caliber.

And while bragging about how much Politico is worth, Glasser fails to mention the extent to which editorial greed motivated the news media’s puppy-dog-like prancing after Trump, and how this plays into modern news reporting on all platforms. When Glasser started the job, newspapers were sustained almost by patronage. No one expected to get rich owning a newspaper. Nowadays, that’s the whole point. CNN ushered in an age where news was profitable on a scale large enough to interest big-money investors. And they want their money’s worth. And they were willing to pursue Trump – and be one of the forces that handed him the Presidency – to get it. So by failing to touch on the role of money in news, Glasser doesn’t have to look at the incredible journalistic ethical failures of modern news corporations including Politico and her own compromised status.

I also find it utterly disingenuous by Glasser to admit that the press sabotaged the election with their non-stop coverage of Trump (and, as a corollary, their equally bad coverage of Clinton) but then have a “shucks, who, us?” look on her face.  You can’t grab a bunch of money in defiance of journalistic ethics and then claim that it was just a little mistake.  If she was honest, she would have known that chasing money rather than legitimate, fact-based stories is part of the problem – and part of the reason why the news isn’t trusted.  How many times can the media chase money and fail at their jobs before surrendering their claim to truth?  I would argue we are well past that point.  That skepticism of the news is a rational decision in the face of their money-grubbing and lies.

Which does not make it good for people to fall for conspiracy theories and fake news.  It is, however, a dilemma.  If you can’t rely on the news for accurate facts – and as the Trump election shows, again, we can’t – where does a person go?

The ass-kissing sycophancy of Ron Chernow’s Titan makes it altogether unreadable

About seventy pages in I stopped reading the biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Titan by Ron Chernow. The reason is simple: it is unadulteratedly sycophantic and the otherwise shoddy research and analysis.

The precise moment I quit was when Rockefeller proposed. Chernow said, “One imagines the two of them smilingly shyly with relief.”

No, Ron, one doesn’t. Because you’re writing history, not fiction, and there are a lot of explanations why it might have taken Rockefeller so long to propose – ranging from profound social awkwardness to homosexuality, for instance. Maybe the reason why Rocky took SEVEN YEARS to propose is that he. . . wasn’t interested in women. Which, admittedly, might make him smile in relief, but not for the reason you mention, but because his beard agreed to it. And if we’re just imagining things, why not imagine that he was gay? BECAUSE IT ISN’T HISTORY WITHOUT RESEARCH. You don’t just get to “imagine” things!

Of course, this is the same guy who did not discuss the possibility that the reason Rockefeller avoided the Civil War, which started when he was a young man, was cowardice. But, later on, when Rockefeller doesn’t give into a bully, Chernow is quick to attribute Rockefeller with bravery. Like it’s some great feat to tell someone yelling at you in your place of business to fuck off!

He also quotes several times even in the first seventy pages, the “philosopher” Max Weber. Weber’s contributions to philosophy are racist and sexist – and as one of the founders of sociology, his racism and sexism would cast a long, fascist shadow.

In particular, Chernow is obsessed with Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I have no fucking idea why Chernow would quote this book during the early years of Rockefeller’s life, given that it was published in 1905 and not 1955, except that Chernow is a terrible historian. Chernow also gives no indication whatsoever that Weber ever influenced Rockefeller, or even that Rockefeller was aware of the German philosopher.

From the start, Weber’s work was also highly controversial, even in theological circles. Immediate critiques flowed in from Catholic and atheist Germans who were less than impressed by Weber’s “reasoning.” And, of course, there were a lot of German philosophers in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Why not discuss Schopenauer, Hegel, Marx, or Nietzsche? Of all the German philosophers to pull, why Weber?

Because Weber provides an intellectual-sounding rationalization which casts Rockefeller’s greed in a positive light. Rockefeller was successful because of his Baptist theology which created virtue, and (Chernow repeats this) teaches that wealth is gained to be a steward of God’s creation. Bringing up those other Germans would reinforce the possibility that Rockefeller was aware of his greed and how ethically atrocious it was, and how charity is a poor substitute for political action.

Lastly, while Weber is still highly regarded in sociology, his works are intensely racist. The Protestant Work Ethic is an ideal example of this. Weber took the previous century of human existence, and his feelings about it, as “proof” that Protestants work harder than other people, and it is from their hard work that wealth is created. It ignores, of course, the effects of colonialization perpetrated by Protestant nations, including Germany, but especially England. It also ignored poorer Protestant nations, particularly Scandinavian countries, in the 19th century – that wealth was created along the lines of conquest and colonization rather than religious background.

Of course, it also ignores that the origins of capitalism arose not in Britain, but in Renaissance Italy and that for centuries before the Industrial Revolution, it had been Catholic nations that were economical, politically, and culturally dominant. And, of course, it ignores that the reason industrialization happened more in Northern Europe than in Southern Europe were the easily accessed coal in England, Scotland, and Germany, as well as the captured markets created by European colonization.

I could go on in this vein for a while, of course, but suffice it to say that Weber twisted history in racist ways to prove his “point.” And as I have said before, and I’m sure I’ll say again, if you have to go on a campaign of wholesale lying to prove your point, you don’t have one.

In the context of Titan, then, one would ask what any of this has to do with Rockefeller? The answer is simple: nothing, other than a reason for Chernow to get down on his knees and shove his tongue up Rockefeller’s anus. By repeatedly returning to Weber, Chernow can create a facile intellectual argument that Rockefeller wasn’t just a grasping, greedy sonofabitch, but motivated by ethics. Which is why Weber comes up half a dozen times in the first seventy pages – every time Rockefeller does something sketchy, Chernow drags out Weber’s corpse to say we shouldn’t be too hard on the old boy. I found this sycophancy disgusting and intellectually dishonest.

If one looks at Weber’s other religious works, this bias becomes more evident. In his book on Protestants and capitalism, Weber focuses on the 16th century forward. In Weber’s The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, he primarily looks at ancient Chinese history. Which conveniently ignores having to face the troubling aspects of European colonialism in China, such as the British engaging in a policy of addicting China to opium, which was highly relevant at the time Weber was writing. (The Boxer Rebellion was in 1899, whose origins were the Opium Wars.)

It is highly interesting today, a century later, because no one in their right fucking mind would say that the Chinese suck at capitalism or that they don’t work like rented mules. Weber rationalized the present economic domination by Protestant nations in a simple, ahistorical, and inherently deceptive way. Confucianism and Taoism did not stand in the way of economic development! Most most of human history, China has been a powerhouse of trade, industry, and technological progress, as well as good government. But rather than look at why China, in 1920, was “the weak man of Asia,” after literally thousands of years of cultural, military, and economic dominance of the greater portion of humanity, Weber studied things that happened literally thousands of years ago and drew the Hegelian conclusion that China was “frozen” in development. It is teeth-grindingly racist, and Chernow embraced him to “demonstrate” the benevolence of Rockefeller – which is depraved, and demonstrates how poor Chernow’s research was and that his analysis was worse.

And time and again, Chernow characterizes Rockefeller in a positive light, offering only flattering portrayals. So Rockefeller avoiding the Civil War was not cowardice, even though Chernow stresses that Rockefeller was an abolitionist, but guided by his desire to serve God by making money, so he could be a steward of wealth to help people. Just ask Max Weber.

When Rockefeller went behind his partners’ backs to set up funding and then dissolved the company without consulting them, this is not characterized by Chernow as a slimy, borderline illegal business practice, but a sign of his vision and adamantine will that viewed things on a longer timeline than us ordinary mortals. (This kind of language about Rockefeller’s “vision” being above us normal folks is everywhere in Titan, even though in my previous review I covered how Rockefeller stumbled into the oil business through coincidence, not vision.)

When Rockefeller overexposed himself by buying the business from his partners, it is again described as will and vision – not happenstance. In retrospect, we know that oil becomes the biggest business in the world, but at the time there was no reason to think that. The oil vanished in Western Pennsylvania very quickly, and there had been no other discoveries. But in Chernow’s farcical world, this happenstance is “vision.” If the oil had vanished in Pennsylvania just a year or two sooner than it did, Rockefeller’s financial overexposure when buying out his partner’s refinery would have spelled doom. But there is simply no acknowledgment that Rockefeller got lucky, that Rockefeller had no fact-based reason to overextend himself buying the refinery, or fact-based reason to think that the oil would last.

At any rate, the book is terrible. When Chernow wanted us to imagine what might have happened when Rockefeller proposed, though, it veered from simply bad analysis and writing to outright fiction.

But there’s always another book about a rich asshole being written, and hopefully, my research into the Johnson & Johnson dynasty will go better.

When biographies say one thing but describe another: Chernow’s Titan

As y’all might know, I’m a pretty critical reader, so it is very hard to read biographies of wealth.

I’m reading the a bio of John D. Rockefeller, Titan, by Ron Chernow. Like the bio of wealth I read before it, about J. Paul Getty, it is awful, full of prattling about willpower and concentration while describing mere ruthlessness and opportunity and ignoring chance.

So, Titan wants to present Rockefeller as a genius – a man of rare intellectual ability, concentration, and willpower, who brought an empire into being out of nothingness. But the actual story doesn’t seem to support that analysis.

John D. Rockefeller was, without doubt, a hardworking and skilled businessman. There are a lot of those, though. The narrative of his success, as told in the book, is stated to be one of genius but the events tell a different story. Titan tells of a talented businessman who, in his youth, started a commodities business on the eve of the Civil War. The remarkable success of his commodities business wasn’t due to any particular or unusual talents of Rockefeller, but his good luck to be a Cleveland businessman during the Civil War. Ohio was the breadbasket of the Union Army, and people who bought and sold foodstuffs made a lot of money. Rockefeller did not anticipate the war; he simply went into what he thought would be a profitable business, and before the war, it was profitable but not remarkable.

Then during the war, flush with cash from profitable wartime commodities trading, a man came along looking for funding for oil fields in Titusville, Pennsylvania, less than a day away from Cleveland. Rockefeller, at the time, did not think very much of the oil industry, which hadn’t taken off. He was simply a local businessman in the nearest city of note who happened to have a lot of money due to circumstances beyond his control. Rockefeller knew nothing about the oil business, then, and didn’t think it would amount to much, just a side business to his commodities trading.

This is not the origin story of genius. Unlike the man who intuited that Pennsylvania petroleum could be refined into a cheap illuminant (in this case, kerosene), Rockefeller didn’t have the vision of a future market in mind. Unlike the Yale professor who discovered the refining process, Rockefeller did not have the scientific acumen to process raw petroleum into finished products. And unlike the engineer who figured out how to drill for oil, Rockefeller added nothing to the extraction.  He was just there with money.

As I said, one dollar is much like another, and one businessman is much like the other.

But at no point in discussing the origin of John D. Rockefeller’s origin does Chernow admit that chance played a big role in the creation of Standard Oil. Despite his numerous descriptions of the various ways that chance played a role in creating Rockefeller’s wealth, the book presents this advance as not primarily luck but unusual abilities. I believe this is to retain the narrative that the intellectually undistinguished Rockefeller nevertheless has some unique quality – a genius – that justified his incredible wealth. The other story – the one where a talented but mostly unremarkable businessman found himself in the right place at the right time – is far less heroic, after all, and makes business success seem more like circumstance than ability. The narrative of that circumstance is more important than ability is contrary to capitalism’s ideology, and is avoided in the United States.

That is precisely what Chernow describes. It could have been any capable businessman with four grand in his pocket that started Standard Oil. Any at all.

Another example of how atrocious Titan is, Chernow never once considers that part of the reason that Rockefeller didn’t fight in the Civil War was that Rockefeller didn’t want to get shot. The possibility that cowardice might have been at the root of Rockefeller avoiding the Civil War was not brought up. It is an interesting lacuna.  When a possibility is unpalatable to a capitalist-loving audience, Chernow simply dispenses with it.  There is considerable irony because Chernow does acknowledge that Rockefeller had a selective memory.

The book is useful in the sense of providing the details of the life of Rockefeller. I’m capable of doing the interpretation on my own, and I have trained myself to see inconsistencies and contradictions, but the book is awful.

Lastly, I want to criticize editors, again. The problems in Chernow’s book aren’t subtle. He never demonstrates how, for instance, Rockefeller has more concentration than someone else. He consistently ignores alternate explanations for events in Rockefeller’s life despite them being obvious and plausive (such as Rockefeller being a physical coward as the reason he avoided fighting in the Civil War). But since Rockefeller’s business life is the center of the book, ignoring the extent to which chance played a role in Rockefeller’s business is particularly galling, editorially. If someone gave me a manuscript and said that Rockefeller succeeded due to the non-specific traits of “willpower” and “concentration,” but described success due to chance, I’d send the manuscript back. I’d say, “There is a disconnect between your description of Rockefeller and your description of his actions. It wasn’t genius or willpower or concentration that got him into the oil business, but happenstance – that he was flush with money from wartime speculation in commodities and someone happened along and convinced him oil would be a good side business. If Rockefeller had lived in a different time or place, if he had stayed in Owego, New York, instead of moving to Cleveland, or been born ten years later, we would never know about him.”

Once again, I find myself wondering at the usefulness of content editors if they miss what seems so obvious to me. At the bare minimum, it suggests that content editing does not improve a manuscript, but instead simply improves it for a specific audience – while, at the same time, moving it away from other audiences. Editorial decisions to ignore the role of chance in Rockefeller’s life to create the illusion of a capitalist genius formed by willpower sells to a different group of people than a book which openly admits that time and chance play a role in everything we do – and perhaps the biggest role.

Falsity of “strength of will” in Painfully Rich by John Pearson

jp_getty1944In Painfully Rich: J. Paul Getty and His Heirs by John Pearson, the author talks about “willpower.” As I research Atlas Stumbles and very wealthy people, I’ll hear that word again and again: willpower.

But in Painfully Rich, you don’t have to go very far to get to the essential absurdity of the term. When describing Paul Getty, has “formidable resources – originality, strength of will and an obsessive mastery of detail.”

The same writer on the same page says that Paul Getty was driven by competition with his dead father to create a huge fortune. Paul Getty had indomitable willpower, but is driven by a clichéd daddy complex? At the same time, Paul Getty is also a master of his emotions, but obsessed by this same childish revenge fantasy against his dead father!

Which is it? Does Getty have “strength of will” or did he spend his life seeking his dead daddy’s love through the pathetic surrogate of material acquisition? It seems to me that a person with real strength of will – if one believes such things exist – would conclude a person of great willpower wouldn’t particularly care that they didn’t live up to the parochial expectations of their parent’s fundamentalist morality. They could get by or through it to live their life on their own terms, unhaunted by the ghosts of the dead. In short: they would exercise self-control.

It is an inherent paradox to say that someone was both master of their fate but also driven by the ghost of their dead father. It is a contradiction to say that someone has mastered their emotions, while also obsessed with chasing a dead man’s approval. John Pearson fails to note these essential contradictions – often on the same page.

Belief in fake news is a call for censorship

I’m here to talk about fake news.  As a political independent over on the left, the current hue and cry over “fake news” is interesting to me because it is evident to me that much of news is “fake.”  In the YouTube video I posted here, Jon Stewart, the former host of The Daily Show, talks about listening to talk radio as he drives and how the right-wing people on the shows he listens to are saying truly insane things.

 

They are, and always have been, and they’ve long been very popular.  I remember quite clearly when Rush Limbaugh was hitting it big, and my then-friend sang his praises, characterizing him as well-researched news with unimpeachable arguments.  I tuned in for the better part of a month, listening to Limbaugh with horror.  Nothing he said was well-researched, and he engaged in many outright lies – all the while spewing vitriol on anyone who wasn’t exactly like him.  And this was in the 1990s, well before social media and “fake news,” a friend of mine characterized him as both informed and reasonable.

 

If you go back to the beginning of the country, “fake news” abounded.  The Boston Massacre was ginned up in the news rags of the day.  Then-modern news accounts of the tragedy left out the extent to which the British soldiers were being threatened by an angry mob, insulting them and hurling snowballs, stones, and other objects.  By modern standards, the British soldiers showed incredible restraint, refraining from firing even after being pelted.  Eventually, a soldier struck on the head did fire, without orders, but the tipping point had been reached: the soldiers fired into the crowd.

 

Wood carvings of the incident show well-regulated British soldiers being ordered to fire into the crowd – including a sniper in a window.  Pamphlets were circulated with stories that the soldiers acted with no provocation, in a calculated fashion under orders.  These accounts were untrue, but the image of the woodcut became the “reality” for colonial Americans, and not the more nuanced view of the riot and subsequent shooting as revealed in the trial of the British soldiers.

 

Our country was quite literally founded, in part, by “fake news.”

 

Likewise, “fake news” is seen to be a primarily rightist phenomenon – and while the preponderance of fake news is to the right, it isn’t like the left is free of it, either.  I recently watched a couple of episodes of Keith Olberman’s histrionically named The Resistance and found it rife with fabrications and untruths as serious as anything I’ve heard from Rush Limbaugh.  In particular, for a bit, Olberman was pushing the ridiculous concept that “Russian interference” was substantial enough in our election to justify electors switching their votes to Hillary Clinton.

 

But where was Olberman when UK-based newspapers like the Guardian effectively stumped for Clinton?  When Russia, through Wikileaks, publishes newsworthy sources, it is a violation of our national sovereignty – but when the Guardian publishes illegally obtained documents from Edward Snowden it’s just journalism?  When the Guardian pushes Clinton as mightily as it can, it’s not interference?  Let us be reasonable, here.  Foreign powers commonly take sides in elections in foreign countries, often expressing a preference one way or another – such as the way the US press and State Department treated Hugo Chavez.  It is standard for countries, both the press and government, to express opinions about outside elections.  The US does it, and we cannot be surprised that Russia does it.

 

But Olberman happily pushes the lie that Russian interference was someone less severe than, say, the Guardian’s interference in our elections.  The truth is that foreigners are quite allowed to attempt to influence the opinions of Americans.  Olberman knows that, but he is so partisan he preferred the convenient lie to the inconvenient truth.

 

Would I like it for news to be more, well, reasonable?  More truthful?  Absolutely.  But I live in the United States, and I think freedom of speech and the press is far, far more important than any individual opinion held by any particular person about what the truth “really is,” or how it “should” be presented to the public.  Do I find Limbaugh and his ilk idiotic, yea, pathetic?  Absolutely.  But I feel the same way about Olberman, the Young Turks, and leftist purveyors of false news equally idiotic and pathetic – especially as they cast stones from glass houses about “fake news.”

 

More generally, I find the uproar against “false news” to be typical of Democratic elitism and how they would cheerfully march towards tyranny if given a chance.  The narrative that surrounds “false news” is that ignorant Midwesterners need to be protected from malevolent freedom of the press!  This has been amplified this election season because most college-educated Americans (who generally vote Republican) instead voted Democratic – the Democrats can tell themselves (and they are) that they are the party of the educated elite who “understand” the world better.
This, after all, is the call-to-arms of all censors – the idea that some subset of the population needs “protection” from exposure to the “wrong” ideas
If you’re honestly worried about “false news,” first, clean your house.  Recognize that false news exists on whatever part of the political spectrum you fall – whether it’s gullible Communist Party USA members valorizing the murderous strongman Josef Stalin, or buying the New York Times’s analysis of Colin Powell’s “slam dunk” UN speech “proving” there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or the rightist conspiracy theories of birtherism and Benghazi.  We all have crap news.

 

Then, move out of your comfort zone.  Recently, a friend asked for me to do research on something expressly because he didn’t want to do “hours of research outside of his comfort zone.”  Fuck the “comfort zone.”  That’s how this starts, right?  People call news that confirms their biases “true,” and news that runs against their biases “false.”  That is lazy and cowardly, if for no other reason than you need to know your rival’s argument to counter it – and if you find you can’t honestly counter it, it shows a hole in your education or even your beliefs.

 

In the end, though, to get rid of false news requires something very hard – to admit that you are wrong.  Hell, not just that you are wrong, that perhaps you and everyone you know (since we tend to surround ourselves with people who think like us) is wrong.  This will probably require a change in our society, from one that believes holding onto an idea in the face of evidence to the contrary shows strength, into one that knows that changing an idea because of overwhelming evidence is far better – that it takes more energy, knowledge, and even character to hold off from totally committing to a belief than throwing oneself into an ideology and the warm embrace of those who hold it and will buoy your doubts with propaganda.