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Adventures in Cultural Anthropology

[ 131 ] August 9, 2012 |

SEK is always to be having fun in a supermarkets. Today he is standing in the checkout line. In front of him is a very large, very genial black WOMAN unloading eighteen loaves of white bread and half a dozen cases of Coke onto the conveyor belt.

WOMAN: (singing under her breath) Breakdown, uh takedown, shakedown, everybody wants into uh crowded line

SEK looks at her perplexedly. She removes yet another case of Coke from her clown car of a shopping cart and places it on the conveyor belt.

WOMAN: (still singing under her breath) Breakdown, uh takedown

SEK looks at her. She looks at SEK.

WOMAN: (like she’s Praising The Lord) YOU BUSTED!

EVERYONE ELSE IN THE STORE turns to see who’s been busted and for doing what. SEK would say something but he’s trying too hard not to laugh.

WOMAN: Well, you is! (her hands become little pistols miming Bang Bang Bang as she belts out) YOU BUSTED!

How to edit an interview (Romney standards edition)

[ 20 ] August 9, 2012 |

Businessweek‘s exclusive interview with Romney is far too long. Here’s what you need to know:

Much of the case you make to voters is that you’re a successful entrepreneur and a successful executive, and thus you’ll make a successful president. Why were you so successful as a businessman?

Well, I had the privilege […]

He sure did. And he built that himself, you people.

Forest? What forest? All I see is trees.

[ 114 ] August 8, 2012 |

The vehemence with which a conservative denies the veracity of this particular advertisement is directly proportional to their awareness that it speaks to the truth that occupies their nightmares: that so many millions of people will genuinely benefit from the Affordable Care Act that it’ll become increasingly difficult to elect Republicans. The brown people who once populated their nightmares have been replaced by roaming hordes of healthy Americans who appreciate the legislation that saved their lives. These people will pull the lever for Democratic candidates because they feel indebted to the party. But they’re even more frightened by another group of people: those who have lost loved ones due to dropped coverage or lifetime limits. Why?

Because it’s impossible to defend a system in which corporations invest in the deaths of their clients to the relatives of the deceased. Rationing works according to a terrible but understandable rationale: “You must die so that others may live.” But the current system works according to a singularly grim calculation: “You must die so that others might profit.” That’s not a winning argument and those responding to this advertisement know it. They need to transform its message into something palatable. For example:

Knowing what we know now about the timeline of all this, what’s left of the accusation in the original smear ad? What is it, precisely, that Bain is being faulted for doing or not doing? They shouldn’t have closed down the plant because it was unfair to expect the workers who were laid off to ever find new jobs with insurance? It was negligent not to predict that some workers’ wives might get laid off too and wouldn’t find a new job for years before they became ill? There appears to be no actual policy or business critique here.

There only “appears to be no policy or business critique” because someone’s afraid that confronting it will remind people of the substantial policy and business critiques that are always at play: that relying on an insurance system that’s only affordable when partially subsidized by an employer leads to a situation in which chronic unemployment is tantamount to a death sentence. They can’t even bring up that fact to refute it without ending up defending an untenable argument. So they deflect:

Romney left Bain’s day-to-day operations two years before the evil plant closing. The plant was in financial trouble before Bain ever got involved.

Because if they focus on the specific facts presented in this particular argument they might not be compelled to defend the current system on principle. They might be able to avoid the unpleasant truth that the emotional appeal of the advertisement comes from the manner in which it militates the facts of a life against the callousness of a corporate culture. Remove Bain from the equation and the appeal is no less effective. Conservatives know and fear this: they know that they’ll be running against stories like this and they know that the only humane response to them is to discredit the particulars. If they can convince the electorate that this tragedy didn’t happen as advertised they might not have to discuss the many millions that did. So this argument will be about the administration’s reluctance to distance itself from the advertisement. Or it’ll be about whether Romney’s personally responsible for this man losing his job. Or it’ll be about how unions are culpable in the closing of the plant that employed him.

It’ll be about any and everything except what it’s about: the fact that the impoverished and unemployed have a better chance of living a full life than they did before Obama was elected.

“Give me the White House or I’ll shoot myself in the face!”

[ 35 ] August 8, 2012 |

“Please don’t shoot yourself in the face!”

“You think I won’t shoot myself in the face? Because I will!”

“I know you like to shoot people in the face but please don’t!”

“I’m gonna!”

“Why would you?”

“You left me no choice!”

“This is my fault?”

Your commercial made me look like a bureaucrat with the sensitivity of a serial killer!”

“Shooting yourself in the face will change that how?”

“It’ll show that I care!”

“So it’s like ‘Bam!’ You care!”

“Damn right! Oh Bam! I care!”

“O Bam! A care?”

“What did you just say? Shit!”


[ 24 ] August 8, 2012 |

It turns out I need to revise my previous post because Leahy did, in fact, have access to the “secret report” he wrote about on 11 June 2012. He just preferred to withhold any of the actual evidence contained within it until 25 June 2012, because as an acolyte of the The Dearly Departed Breitbart, Hashtag War Be His Name, he cares far more about clicks than claims. He decided to smear Warren, sans evidence, on 11 June 2012 and hope that his readers would absorb the opprobrium of the first post and blindly consider the “facts” presented in the 25 June 2012 as evidence that the initial smear was warranted.

It wasn’t. Leahy doesn’t even think so:

Breitbart News is not alleging that Sullivan, Warren, and Westbrook engaged in scientific misconduct.

So why is he writing this?

The 1991 University of Texas Preliminary Inquiry Report fails to answer Shuchman’s charge that “the authors arranged matters…preventing any independent check of the raw data.”

That’d be Philip Shuchman, the Rutgers debt expert who complained that Warren and her co-authors “prevent[ed] any independent check of the raw data in the files from which they took their information.”* Feel like hoisting Leahy by his own petard? Because I do. Leahy claims:

[T]he central charge made by Professor Shuchman was neither investigated nor refuted in this secret report. Shuchman cited four specific criticisms of the 1989 book. It is the fourth and last complaint upon which charges of scientific misconduct hang.

What, as quoted by Leahy, is that “central charge”?

But the authors arranged matters so that they could not provide access to the computer printouts by case, with the corresponding bankruptcy court file numbers, this [sic] preventing any independent check of the raw data in the files from which they took their information.

How about we let Leahy restate that in the form of a question?

Did the authors arrange matters so that they could not provide access to the computer printouts by case, with corresponding bankruptcy court file numbers, thus preventing any independent check of the raw data in the files from which they took their information?

So all of this about access to the “raw data” that Sullivan and her co-authors used in their book. And by “all of this” I mean “everything” in the Catholic sense, as in this is the Original Sin, the fruit of the poisoned tree from whose seeds the entirety of his case against Warren sprouts. What does the letter from the Office of the Inspector General of the National Science Foundation that Leahy provides say?

I talked to Prof. Sullivan [one of Warren’s co-authors], and she says that they have offered to provide you with a machine-readable copy of the raw data file.

I’m going to offer Mr. Leahy a piece of advice: if you want to claim that someone committed “scientific misconduct” by withholding their “raw data,” you might not want to produce a quotation indicating that this person was perfectly willing to provide the raw data all anyone had to do was ask. Moreover, if you want to claim that people are withholding information about “scientific misconduct” you might not want the sole source of your evidence to be one of the people you claim is withholding information.

This has been an updated lesson in how not to be profoundly stupid.

*Trained scholars will note the difference between my quotation of Shuchman here and Leahy’s above. It seems only one of us actually know how the rules of proper citation. I’m not going to ding Leahy for this little white lie of academic misconduct but I could.


[ 73 ] August 7, 2012 |

Big Government‘s currently running a blockbuster four-part series on the “THE ACADEMIC SCANDAL ELIZABETH WARREN AND HARVARD DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT.” THAT LINK WILL TAKE YOU TO PART ONE. IN PART ONE MICHAEL PATRICK LEAHY CLAIMS THAT HOLD ON WHY AM I YELLING WAIT ON A MINUTE LET ME FIX THIS. (Sorry about that.) Leahy claims that a “secret report” containing a “powerful allegation” against Warren was “accepted by University of Texas President William Cunningham.” The problems with the material in the quotation marks is that those words don’t actually mean anything. They represent a blatant attempt by Leahy to convince readers of a conspiracy where none exists. Consider “secret report.” Sounds pretty damning, doesn’t it? One problem: the “secret report” in question is actually a book review published in The Rutgers Review of Law in 1991. Don’t believe me? Click on the link Leahy provides. That “secret report” is only “secret” because no one actually reads academic articles. Meaning that it’s as “secret” as every other “secret report” I’ve published.

Which is to say it’s not “secret” at all. Just because an article’s in an inaccessible archive doesn’t mean it’s “secret.” It’s not. Leahy has mistaken “I can’t find it” for “secret,” a category error that turns many a home into a veritable “house of secrets,” complete with “secret car keys” and “secret books” and “I don’t even want to know about the secrets under the couch.” But enough about labeling an archived review article a “secret report.” What about the fact that this “report” was “accepted by University of Texas President William Cunningham.” What does it mean to have a law review article “accepted” by a university president? Does it mean he received this issue of The Rutgers Review of Law in the mail and later read it? I don’t know and Leahy doesn’t bother to tell. But doesn’t it all sound rather ominous? A “secret report” that’s “accepted by a university president” sounds much better than a “book review” that’s “read by a university president.”

But none of this earns Leahy the honor of being charged with “REPEATED INSTANCES OF PROFOUND STUPIDITY.” This is simply a case of a mischaracterization so gross it qualifies as a lie. Leahy is a liar. But he’s more than that: he’s a stupid liar. His evidence for Warren’s academic malfeasance is that a scholar invested in proving other scholars wrong wrote a mean review of their book. The scholar in question, Philip Shuchman, is the author of “New Jersey Debtors, 1982-1983: An Empirical Study.” One of his complaints? Warren and her co-authors’ “selection of Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Texas” for their sample (192). They should have tried to “maximize the heterogeneity of the states with respect to what might be important variables” (193). That translates as not unsubtle professional whining to my ears: “Why didn’t they use my ‘Empirical Study’ in the data set?” But even if it’s a valid complaint—even if Warren and her co-authors should’ve consulted Shuchman’s data in their set—that’s not a case of “SCIENTIFIC MISCONDUCT.” It’s one group of scholars arguing about the validity of another’s methodology:

“Your sample size is too small!”

“Yours isn’t sufficiently representative!”

That’s bog-standard academic debate. Leahy would have you think otherwise by repeatedly quoting Shuchman’s claim that Warren and her co-authors “have engaged in repeated instances of scientific misconduct,” and it’s the rhetorical strength of the accusation that Leahy relies on to mislead his readers. His argument boils down to “Shuchman wrote something that sounds very mean,” and he believes that tone says something damning about Warren’s work. It doesn’t. It’s typically not done with the rhetorical flair of a Stanley Fish, but writing highly critical essays about other scholars in your field is part of the warp and woof of the academia. Leahy contends that an argument made in the back of a law review in 1991 is significant because he doesn’t know that similar claims are made with similar force in the back of every law review. He’s too stupid to do what any other scholar would: examine other issues of the journal and determine whether Shuchman’s review is uniquely adamant. (It isn’t.)

You might complain that I’ve dubbed him a stupid liar when his ignorance of academic conventions only makes him an ignorant liar. Fine. Given the severity of the charge he’d like to levy against Warren and her co-authors, Leahy needs to establish the authority of the person, Philip Shuchman, on whose work he bases it. He does so by citing one of Shuchman’s obituaries:

Professor Shuchman was a champion of the underdog—the average debtor in bankruptcy. In the early 1980s, creditors attacked the 1978 Bankruptcy Code, and claimed that bankrupts could afford payment plans, hence bankruptcy should be made more onerous. Professor Shuchman set out scientifically to see what the facts were […] and spent a lifetime teaching and writing and testifying for decent bankruptcy and consumer credit laws. He will be missed by all who strive for justice for consumers.

Audience matters, and in this case, his audience consists of conservatives. How authoritative do you think the readers of Big Government will think “a champion of the underdog” who acted on behalf of debtors against corporate interests is? I’d wager not very. So he’s building a case against Warren that relies on grossly mischaracterizing a book review, ignorantly misunderstanding the purpose of academic debate, and obtusely citing a person his audience won’t consider an authority. But that’s not what makes him stupid—much less profoundly so. What could he do that would warrant that? He could drop in a line about how this debate isn’t even a debate:

Professor Shuchman and Ms. Warren both came to the same conclusions about the causes of personal bankruptcy.

You read that right. Shuchman and Warren didn’t even disagree about the substance of their debate. They disagreed about how they came to the same conclusions. Leahy’s impugning the entire body of Warren’s work based on a disagreement that isn’t a disagreement in a “secret report” that isn’t secret on which “unresolved charges” that aren’t charges having been pending for twenty-two years.

Now that is some profound stupidity.

UPDATE: It turns out he did have access to the “secret report” and wasn’t basing it entirely on the content of the book review. So, while funny, that part of the post is factually inaccurate. But it is factually accurate to say that he sat on that information for over a month, and that his original claims were presented in a deliberately obfuscatory manner, and that he did this because The Heirs of Blessed Breitbart Most Holy care more about clicks than claims. I’ll untangle this mess in the morning.

The world’s most difficult books?

[ 146 ] August 7, 2012 |

The Guardian responds to the Million‘s list of the most difficult books, and to be frank, the results are underwhelming. Here is what the Millions managed:

Granted, like all lists, this one is shit. Its flaws include, but aren’t limited to the fact that it has a size fetish, the fictional works are entirely in English, and the philosophical works are philosophical works and so why should they count? I’d scratch Being and Time and The Phenomenology of the Spirit off on that account, and add The Guardian‘s suggested amendments: Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. But the amended list is still problematic, because I’m not sure anyone finds To The Lighthouse a difficult read, and Women and Men is only difficult inasmuch as it’s been out-of-print for so long a paperback copy will cost you $180. McElroy’s Plus is a far more difficult novel, because it’s narrated from the perspective of an ornery satellite. (And it’ll only run you $187.90.)

Maybe it’s because of my unusual graduate school career path, but of the novels listed only The Making of Americans, Nightwood, Finnegans Wake and Gravity’s Rainbow seem to me to be genuinely difficult novels. Except they’re not really that difficult for the people who read them, because the people who read densely poetic world-building novels do so because enjoy doing so. I know that Gravity’s Rainbow isn’t for everyone, but there’s a subset of the reading population for whom it’s very much for. I’d have no qualms, for example, recommending it to someone who’s obsessed over Infinite Jest.

A better list of the world’s most difficult books would expand its purview to “the world,” and it would be comprised of books that people who love difficult books find difficult, instead of ones that people who don’t do. I’d suggest adding:

  • Appleseed, John Clute
  • Dhalgren, Samuel Delany
  • JR, William Gaddis
  • The Tunnel, William Gass
  • Anything in German or Chinese, Because SEK Can’t Read German or Chinese

My list isn’t exhaustive, either, but at least it suggests that The Glass Bead Game might be tremendously complex or The Man Without Qualities can match Clarissa page-for-page. Since my list is a list and, as stated above, all lists are shit, I invite you to give me the what-for in the comments.

The Sorrows of Young A., Part I

[ 18 ] August 7, 2012 |

[If this strikes you as a peculiar thing to appear on this blog, that’s only because it is. It’s a serialized novel that I’ll be writing over the next few months.]

He remembers the first time it happened. It is his earliest memory. A. had awoken eager to walk along the banks of one of the city’s three rivers—he cannot remember which one—on that morning. He cherished these rare moments to himself, far from the wailing of E., his new brother. His mother insisted he not stray too far from home, but A. knew the area well and that E. would prevent her from following him, so he ranged rather further than he led her to believe.

But on this particular morning, A. felt differently adventurous, so he followed his father to the small walled garden occupied by his family’s honey bees. The bees frightened him, but he thought if he harvested a comb of honey he could prove to his father he was more worthy of attention than E. He hid behind the bushes lining the front wall and waited for his father to leave. It felt like hours before his father tired of his toil, but eventually he exited the small garden through the side gate and made for his favored tavern. A. allowed a few minutes to pass in case his father—who was always forgetting something—had forgotten something. He emerged from the bushes and approached the clay pots that housed the hives.

When the first bee crawled from the nearest pot and took flight, A. felt a strong urge to follow suit. He closed his eyes. He heard the bee circle his head twice, then once more, before he felt it settle on his shoulder. He wondered whether the bee recognized that he was his father’s son and pride shuddered through his young body. The bee had tested him and not found him wanting. His mettle steeled, he opened his eyes and glanced at his shoulder. The tiny bee made no effort to sting him, nor did it seem in any hurry to leave. A. took this as a good omen and stepped closer to the hive from which his new friend had departed.

He reached the hive and peered down into it. His new friend had many old ones. They danced up and down the walls of the honey combs in what A. could discern to be a pattern. He admired the orderliness of their movement, though he could not discover its purpose. Suddenly, he heard a footfall from beyond the wall. It had the character of a sound made by someone trying not to make sound. A. knew it could not be his father, because when his father returned from the tavern his feet made no effort to hide their tread. He waited, as still and silent in the garden as his new friend was upon his shoulder. One minute passed. Two minutes. Three. He decided that he had imagined the sound and returned his attention to the pot before him.

He slipped his hand down the side of the comb and attempted, gently, to dislodge it. His efforts resulted in the arrival of even more new friends. They lit upon his arm but, unlike his first friend, they were not still and silent. They made a noise that sounded like the air before a thunderstorm felt. Their orderly dance had been disrupted and they seemed upset about its abandonment. It was not until his first friend joined the rest of his hive in voicing its displeasure that A. began to worry. And worry he did. He removed his hand from the comb and began to retract it, slowly, slowly, from the pot. His hand was nearly free when he heard the front gate slam open. The bees heard too, but they seemed not to care who had been intruding where, only that an intrusion had occurred. A. felt a thousand tiny needles stab his hand. He reeled back, but the offense had already been given and must have been quite grave because the hive did not relent. He looked to the front gate—if he could make it to the gate he could jump into the river—and only then remembered what had startled the bees in the first place.

A man in a strange black coat stood in the gateway. His hair and complexion were dark, much like A.’s own, but his whiskers were unlike any A. had ever seen. He had something in his hand. The man shouted something that A. could not understand and began to run toward him. A. tried to say something but a bee flew in his mouth. He hoped it was not his friend, but there was no time to mourn.

The man was upon him.

The world went black. The sharp pains in his hand were replaced by deep pains everywhere else. A. desperately clutched at the black but a new pain arrived every second: on his head, in his chest, to his stomach. He felt the ground beneath him go slick. He tried to slip away but the blackness was too strong. The pains continued to arrive for what must have been hours. When the blackness finally drew back, A. found himself staring at a blue sky. The bees were still panicking but appeared to have lost interest in him. His back felt wet and the world smelled of shit and sick. He tried to move but the attempt only brought more pain.

Then the man returned. He leaned over A. and grabbed him by the hair. He shouted another string of words which had no meaning to A. and shook him. A. could no longer judge which of his many pains he was feeling. When the man struck him in the face with the object in his right hand, A. ceased to care. He no longer felt pain—he had become pain. He longed for the blackness to return and, quickly enough, it did.

It was light when he awoke, in his own bed, still very much in pain. Outside the door he could hear his parents arguing, as he would many times again, about what had happened. About why A. had been near the hives and how lucky they were that his father returned when he had. He learned that there had been a confrontation, but that the man had escaped his father, and that they had not been able to find him. A. did not want to think about that. Not now, not ever again.

But think about it he would, again and again, because this was only the first time it happened.

Dear The Media,

[ 140 ] August 6, 2012 |

I understand why you’re reluctant to identify Wade Michael Page as a white supremacist, but I’m an expert in visual rhetoric and I’m here to help you out. Consider the photograph of Page you’re currently using:

There are some subtle clues as to Page’s ideology hidden in this image. First:

That is a Nazi flag. You can tell because it contains a Swastika in a white circle surrounded by a red hem. It is highly unlikely that someone hung it because it means “good luck” in Sanskrit. Also:

The repeating patten on that guitar strap is the Confederate Battle Flag. It reminds white people of those glorious antebellum days when blacks were in their place and no real American had even heard of Muslims. Also:

That is a Celtic cross. It is the most favorite symbol of the good people at Also:

That is the number fourteen. It stands for the Fourteen Words most dear to oppressed white men in America today. Those words are “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children.”

So let me assure you: if you have correctly identified the man in the photograph above, you don’t need to “speculate” as to whether he was a white supremacist. Because there’s no room for speculation. That man in that picture is a white supremacist. Whether his white supremacist beliefs influenced his decision to murder peaceful Sikhs, that may well be a matter for debate. But that man? The one in the picture? He’s a white supremacist.

You’re welcome.

UPDATE: Looks like they finally figured it out. Glad I could be of service.

UPDATE II: Or not. I watched CNN while eating lunch and Jane Velez-Mitchell was horrified to discover that “There’s an entire underground society devoted to promoting hatred of the sort the Sikh gunman is alleged to have felt.” I’m tempted to be a grammar scold and tell her that she could probably phrase it better than “the Sikh gunman,” but they’re clearly having a rough day over there, so I’ll relent.

Why would anyone like someone like us?

[ 72 ] August 4, 2012 |

Because it’s a Saturday and Saturdays are slow around these here parts, I’m going to get a bit personal. I’ve been told that this post about Howard Zinn—which was written by someone clearly more talented than me—is more popular than the post on which my entire Internet Career is predicated. But because the truth matters, I confess before all the assorted masses that this is the post that most people remember me for. (At least according to Sitemeter.) All of which is another way of saying: given that we’re all about Internet Traditions here, what’s the first thing you think about when you think about any of us?

I’m interested to learn, and not just because I’m on the job market or anything.

We should applaud Harry Reid. No, I don’t care what Jon Stewart said, we should.

[ 202 ] August 2, 2012 |

Harry Reid crossed a heretofore unknown Rubicon yesterday when he repeated his claim that Romney might be withholding his tax returns because “[h]e didn’t pay taxes for ten years.” National Review‘s Jim Geraghty pounds Reid with a series of “How likely” questions, the answer to all of which is “Not very.” Jeff Goldstein condemns Reid for “trying to manufacture a news cycle and gin up innuendo [in a manner that’s] so transparently hamfisted.” Ed Morrissey demands an ethics investigation for behavior he deems so “despicable and grossly irresponsible … it should be actionable in court.” Nor is it just the far right that considers Reid’s statement to be bad form: even Jon Stewart’s upset with him. In their own way, each of these folks fails to realize that Reid’s probably laughing at them.

He’s made two statements that demonstrate tactical savvy, because he knows we live in a country where National Review writers and professional charity cases have been not-so-idly discussing evidence of kerning on birth certificates. He’s heard the soft denunciations of birthers by self-styled “serious” thinkers who just want to remind their readers that it’s patriotic to question the validity of state-issued birth certificates. He realizes that saying he has third-hand knowledge of an alleged tax impropriety means that people will be hearing that there are allegations that Romney’s tax returns may not be kosher. Do you know what I think about that?

I like the fact that someone who’s nominally a liberal has finally recognized what conservatives have been doing to Obama for four years now, and I appreciate the fact that he’s choosing to do so about a financial disclosure instead of, for example, whether someone’s really an American or whether they’re a sleeper agent for the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s not Harry Reid’s fault that conservatives have tacitly authorized this particular model of public document-shaming, he’s simply taking advantage of the fact that they have.

Racism? Solved. Sexism? We’re … working on it?

[ 45 ] August 2, 2012 |

In the spirit of this, I present this.

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