Posted by David A. Lehrer
This past weekend I had it. I’ve given up watching the time-killing Sunday morning talk shows and their endless supply of “all-knowing” pundits.
Last weekend I suffered through the bloviating of Arianna Huffington on George Stephanopolous’ This Week where every one of her opinions was delivered with the certainty usually reserved for the sciences where facts are indisputable (2+2=4, no ifs, and, or buts) not for choices involving countless variables, human beings and the vagaries of real life. Although this decade finds her on the left side of the political spectrum along with one of my least favorite windbags, Katrina vanden Heuvel, she has equals on the right—- from Ann Coulter to Laura Ingraham. (Lest I be accused of sexism, there is no shortage among the male of the species—Dick Morris, et al.)
They and countless others share an immodesty that is truly breathtaking.
Last Sunday, in discussing President Obama’s speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and his decision to increase troops in Afghanistan, Arianna offered her conclusions on the impact of Obama’s decision as if she had the powers of a prophet—-
no military solution in Afghanistan is possible
. No qualifications, no ambiguity, no “I think” or “I believe”—-simply bald assertions that are meant to make it sound as if she possesses information and divining skills denied to the rest of us.
Well, I’ve had it with her and most of the other Sunday morning mavens; no more of being a patsy for their self righteous baloney. We should all know better.
Or look at political experts. In the early 1980s, Philip Tetlock at UC Berkeley picked two hundred and eighty-four people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends” and began asking them to make predictions about future events. He had a long list of pertinent questions. Would George Bush be re-elected? Would there be a peaceful end to apartheid in South Africa? Would Quebec secede from Canada? Would the dot-com bubble burst? In each case, the pundits were asked to rate the probability of several possible outcomes. Tetlock then interrogated the pundits about their thought process, so that he could better understand how they made up their minds. By the end of the study, Tetlock had quantified 82,361 different predictions.
After Tetlock tallied up the data,
the predictive failures of the pundits became obvious. Although they were paid for their keen insights into world affairs, they tended to perform worse than random chance.
Most of Tetlock’s questions had three possible answers; the pundits, on average, selected the right answer less than 33 percent of the time. In other words, a dart-throwing chimp would have beaten the vast majority of professionals.
Tetlock also found that the most famous pundits in Tetlock’s study tended to be the least accurate, consistently churning out overblown and overconfident forecasts. Eminence was a handicap
But it’s not just that these BS artists are frequently wrong; what’s worse is that in their bravado they negatively impact us and our being thoughtful consumers of news: But here’s the worst part: even terrible expert advice can reliably tamp down activity in brain regions (like the anterior cingulate cortex) that are supposed to monitor mistakes and errors. It’s as if the brain is intimidated by credentials, bullied by bravado.
I’m not sure how to protect my “anterior cingulate cortex” so I am just not going to watch these windbags anymore—-as my son noted, watching four chimps throwing darts at various policy options would be as informative and predictive.
PS There are a few pundits on the right (e.g. David Brooks) and left (e.g. Tom Friedman) who qualify their analysis by acknowledging the complexity of the issues, the lack of simple, clear choices and the legitimacy of the views that may differ from theirs. I can watch and read them on Sunday, or any other day.
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December 16, 2009 | 9:10 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
From now until January 24th LA audiences will the opportunity to see Palestine New Mexico, the world premiere of a play by Richard Montoya at the Mark Taper Forum in Downtown. The play stars actors from Culture Clash and includes Russell Means as an Indian chief named Birdsong.
On reading the review, I had a flashback to Russell Means, the Native American activist and American Indian Movement (“AIM”) leader who took over Wounded Knee, Alcatraz and Mt. Rushmore in his more notorious days. I also recalled reading some time ago about Means, Israel and the Middle East situation and thought that that was a relic of his youthful days as the director of AIM in the early 70’s.
Thank goodness for Google. In short order, I discovered that Means never left the looniness of his youth but remains, to this day—-a far out radical with hateful views on Obama, the United States, Israel and God knows what else if I cared to sift through over his 8 million citations on Google.
In a video blog that he recorded after President Obama was announced as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, he denounced the president as a “Manchurian candidate and flim flam man….nothing more than Bush’s third term.” He described “Demopublicans as all brain dead” and then punctuated his commentary by announcing that“the revolution is on
His description of President Obama as a “Manchurian candidate” wasn’t just casual jabber, he has a notion as to who is pulling the president’s strings. In an interview earlier this year he described the president as being “a Zionist controlled by Israel.” He observed that “the Zionists who control Israel now control the United States….they found a house servant by the name of Obama
He blithely renders his view of history—- the United States began “as an outlaw and renegade nation” and that “today its imperial policies mean that Israel is a surrogate of the US… the 51st state of the United States.”
His nuttiness and vile rhetoric go on and on, it’s actually difficult to listen to.
I, for one, have no interest in buying tickets that might in any way pay the salary for a hatemonger and political nut like Russell Means. He may look like the quintessential American Indian and his website may describe him as “the most famous American Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse” but his fame will not be added to by my subscriber dollars, his politics are beyond the pale.
December 11, 2009 | 7:02 pm
Posted by Joe R. Hicks
A few years back, Tiger Woods appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s popular day-time television show and told the host that he considered himself “
,” something he’d awkwardly concocted to make a point. Tiger insisted that his Caucasian, black, American Indian, and Asian heritage defied the simplistic color-coded racial logic that the government as well as the arbiters of racial authenticity demand we all fit into.
This hasn’t prevented many from hijacking the tawdry Tigergate scandal for their own racial reasoning. Despite Tiger defining his ethnic identity otherwise, many insist there’s no escape from the racial reservation and that he’s black – no matter what he has to say.
Tom Joyner, the country’s most-listened-to black radio personality, made Tiger the butt of his jokes – as have many of the nation’s late-night comics. But Joyner and other black voices put a racial spin on the evolving scandal. He said, “The question everyone in America wants to ask you (Tiger) is, how many white women does one brother waaant?”
While fascinated with celebrities and titillated by the tawdry nature of Tiger’s private life, most American’s appear to have little interest in the skin-color aspect of this story. This isn’t the question that being asked by most people, but it is the question that race-obsessed people are asking.
Many Americans are rejecting skin-color as legitimate criteria for dating and matrimonial decisions. In fact, while some may be focused on
relations, Americans have been doing a lot of “mixing” over the last several decades. And other than the diminishing numbers of white supremacists and other racialists of various sorts, kinds and skin colors, few care one way or the other about the increasing number of “mixed” couples in our midst.
Most simply see Tiger Woods as an amazingly talented athlete, one who fell prey to fame, power and the arrogance of celebrity. He joins the ranks of other shamed public figures like David Letterman, the late-night television host, John Edwards, the former presidential candidate, and Mark Sanford, the Governor of South Carolina (whose wife just announced she’s kicking his sorry butt to the curb).
Nonetheless, some appear compelled to insert themselves into the private lives of others. Denene Millner, a black female author, said, “Why is it when they get to this level … they tend to go directly for the nearest blond.” “They” are of course black celebrities and athletes. A better question is why does she think it’s her business to question the highly-personal choices people make in selecting their bed-mates – in or out of marriage?
And what would this woman suggest as a corrective mechanism for what she appears to think is inappropriate racial behavior – the re-insertion of Jim Crow era anti-miscegenation laws?
To put a finer point on this - why is it that we give someone like her a pass when she asserts essentially that the only correct choice for a black man is a woman who shares his skin color? The “stick with your own kind” racial reasoning is precisely what America’s white supremacists and racial alarmists have argued since pre-civil rights days.
The Associated Press wrote a story on the Tiger Woods scandal which quoted one black women who said that “had Barack Obama had a white wife, I would have thought twice about voting for him.”
There you have it … the old bugaboo of racial authenticity raises its ugly head. Despite Obama’s biracial heritage, she and others seem prepared to argue that real black men only sleep with “sisters.” Truth be told, Tiger Woods was always viewed with suspicion by the black race police because he’d refused an orthodox racial identity and married a Swedish swimsuit model.
There’s no doubt Woods is a scoundrel, a fallen hero with a flawed character who deserves most of the scorn that’s been heaped upon him. However, other than a raised-eyebrow over the “hoochi-mama” aspect of it all, the skin or hair color of his women of choice have no rightful role in this sorry episode.
Forty-five years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, there is a great deal of irony in the fact that there are some who continue to uphold some of the worst aspects of pre-civil rights America – and laughably believe it to be some sort of “progressive black politics.”
December 11, 2009 | 4:52 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
In his usual thoughtful and illuminating way, David Brooks offers fresh insight in his New York Times column today.
The version of the Hanukkah story that will be recounted in millions of home tonight and has been taught in Sunday schools for eons—-doesn’t quite get it right.
The Maccabees weren’t the heroic, virtuous freedom fighters seeking to further religious freedom for all as so many of us were taught. The Hellenistic culture that had spread to the Holy Land wasn’t the incarnation of intolerance that is the stock and trade of every Hanukkah play that our kids were in. And the miracle of the oil lamp that burned for eight days—which has spawned a cottage industry of menorah makers—- was added years after the fact to include a divine dimension.
Brooks’ piece is delightful but has a more serious subtext. He concludes with what may be the most important message to be learned from Hanukah itself,
…. there is no erasing the complex ironies of the events, the way progress, heroism and brutality weave through all sides. The Maccabees heroically preserved the Jewish faith. But there is no honest way to tell their story as a self-congratulatory morality tale. The lesson of Hanukkah is that even the struggles that saved a people are dappled with tragic irony, complexity and unattractive choices.
It may be two thousand years later, but not much has changed. Virtually every issue and story we face is laced with “irony, complexity and unattractive choices.”
We should all beware of those who offer simple answers to complex problems—-clear cut unambiguous answers are few and far between.
George Gershwin had it right when he wrote about what you read in the Bible, “it ain’t necessarily so.”
December 4, 2009 | 7:37 pm
Posted by Joe R. Hicks
This past week, Congresswoman Maxine Waters and nine other members of the Congressional Black Caucus (“CBC”) attacked the Obama administration, claiming the president and those around him have not been sensitive to the plight of blacks, who they claim have suffered disproportionately due to the nation’s struggling economy.
The ten CBC members threatened that unless the administration moved to offer some programmatic solutions, they would mobilize all forty three members of the Caucus to sandbag the president’s economic agenda in the House. Waters argued that Caucus members had to “educate” those around Obama to the particular economic woes that blacks faced. This claim seems most directed at White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel – someone that Waters has previously clashed with directly.
The most pressing claim by Waters and the others is that Obama and his administration is ignoring urban unemployment. Always the vocal, and often strident, racial advocate, Waters said “”We can no longer be in denial that certain sectors of our population, including the African-American community, are feeling the recession to a greater extent.”
This may well be the case. And it is true that black unemployment has historically lagged behind that of the general population. However, despite heated rhetoric and ongoing claims from predictable voices like Congresswoman Waters, over the past few generations it has become increasingly difficult to directly correlate black unemployment with racism, discrimination or governmental neglect.
Further, claims by the ten CBC members that Obama should design racially-specific solutions to black suffering, is an insult. The nation is in the midst of a nationally-felt economic recession – something that has caused pain and suffering in virtually every sector and region of our society.
The arguments from Waters, and the other CBC members, indicate they may believe Obama’s charge is to carry their ideological water and fulfill an old-style black racial agenda. However, the president’s job is not to be “the black president.” His task, among all the other domestic and international issues on his plate, is to steer this nation back to economic prosperity, something all Americans, no matter their skin color, would benefit from.
Stung by Waters criticism, Obama fired back, telling his CBC critics that “the most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period, and that is get the economy going again and get people hiring again
Even more directly to the Waters’ claims, the President warned, “I think it is a mistake to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together and we are all going to get out of this together.
For this Obama deserves to be roundly applauded. He cannot allow the Black Caucus to push him toward piece-meal solutions to our problems. The idea that our nation is some sort of loose confederation of competing racial groups may have served as the vision for old-style multiculturalism, but is nothing less than a formula for ethnic and racial Balkanization.
I’m encouraged by Obama’s stance on this. It follows his key decision to give General McChrystal most of the troops he’d requested for the fight against Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan. And make no mistake; this was a courageous move – albeit a delayed one.
His decision has alienated and angered many in Obama’s base on the political left. Everyone from MoveOn.org and the Daily Kos, the foul-mouthed Jon Stewart, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, along with Keith Olberman (outside of Glenn Beck, two of the craziest men working in cable television) to the consistently left-oriented Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters have evidenced their “displeasure” over the impending troop deployments.
The right has contended that the Obama presidency has accomplished nothing of substance since the inauguration. Now some liberals have joined that chorus. Obama was recently skewered for his lack of accomplishments on a “Saturday Night Live” skit. What’s notable is that this show’s never been known for its even-handed treatment of conservative political views.
But now, the popular comedy show’s writers may have to go back to the drawing board. Obama has made what may be the most critical decision a president can ever be faced with – sending young Americans into harm’s way. Less critical, but not unimportant, is that he’s now taken on the racial complainers within the Congressional Black Caucus. Things are looking up at the White House.
December 1, 2009 | 8:13 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
Working in the civil rights field for nearly 35 years gives one a perspective on human behavior, both the good and the bad. People are exceptionally gracious when facing adversity, thoughtful when their problems are dealt with and generous in acknowledging assistance…..or not.
Even with this blog in the Jewish Journal, my partner, Joe Hicks, and I have been the recipients of some very laudatory responses, some articulate and thoughtful adversarial postings, and some downright nasty e-mails that didn’t even get posted.
The roughest attacks we get generally relate to our “having blinders on” that prevent us from seeing the innate bigotry and hate that lies just below the surface of otherwise tolerant seeming Americans. One inveterate critic suggests that our view of an improving and more tolerant America is paving the road to another Auschwitz, “ cause it looks like the same stupid game you morons played in Germany. We’re Germans first, Jews second, then they’ll accept us.”
Today’s New York Times’ Science section offers some important support for those of us who believe that human nature bends in the direction of tolerance and co-operation among peoples.
In an article entitled, We May Be Born With An Urge To Help, the author, Nicholas Wade, describes some fascinating studies which suggest that “babies are innately sociable and helpful to others. Of course every animal must to some extent be selfish to survive. But the biologists also see in humans a natural willingness to help…..The helping behavior seems to be innate because it appears so early and before many parents start teaching children the rules of polite behavior.”
And it isn’t just American kids who might be subject to the good feelings on Sesame Street who exhibit this behavior. “It seems to occur across cultures that have different timetables for teaching social rules. And helping behavior can even be seen in infant chimpanzees under the right experimental conditions.” The scientists cited conclude that “helping is a natural inclination, not something imposed by parents or culture….Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control…..Children are altruistic by nature,” though they are also naturally selfish. The author advises that parents should tip the balance toward social behavior.
Among the implications of the studies is that we should be mindful of our better natures as we fashion public policy, “Indeed, it is in our biological nature, not our political institutions, that we should put our trust, in his view. Our empathy is innate and cannot be changed or long suppressed. “ Dr. Frans de Waal writes, “I’d argue that biology constitutes our greatest hope. One can only shudder at the thought that the humaneness of our societies would depend on the whims of politics, culture or religion.”
Next nasty blog we get telling me how naïve our optimistic view of America’s future is we’ll send a link to today’s New York Times.
November 24, 2009 | 8:22 pm
Posted by Joe R. Hicks
The Anti-Defamation League’s national office recently mailed out a lengthy fund-raising appeal to its supporters, making the claim that “anti-Semitism has moved from the fringes into the mainstream.” The letter had not a word about the organization’s recently released poll taken among the American population which found the level of anti-Semitism in the country tied a historic low point of 12 percent (similar to that recorded in 1998).
If 12 percent still seems like a lot, let’s put this into perspective. There is the ongoing claim that approximately 10 percent of the American people think that Elvis is still alive—-an observation meant to make clear that there is a base of “outliers” that simply doesn’t respond as the other 90% of the public does on a whole host of issues——stereotyping of others being just one.
Why did the ADL send such a frightening message to its supporters? This organization has done exemplary work over past years in highlighting and combating bigotry and can rightly claim its share of credit for the low level of anti-Semitism that currently exists.
The ADL failed to make its case in support of its dire and dark message. To justify the argument that anti-Semitism is thriving the ADL strings together a series of anecdotes, anchored by this past June’s shooting at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The letter argues that America’s Jews face a “… wave of hate that threatens the sense of security Jews in America have come to trust …”
It’s of course all too true that in many places around the globe anti-Semitism is something as vicious as it is virulent – particularly in Western Europe where Islamic immigration, legal and otherwise, along with a host of neo-Nazi movements, have made the issues of Jewish safety and security questionable.
But regarding this nation, it stretches credulity to imagine a “wave of hate” by stringing together aberrant anti-Semitic acts, speculating that some Americans blamed the Wall Street economic crisis on Jews, or even by raising the horrific killing of Stephen Johns, the heroic guard at the Holocaust Museum by a lone, crazed, aged gunman.
The Washington Holocaust Museum shooter was James W. von Brunn, a near-prehistoric white supremacist with a long, violent and virulently anti-Semitic past. He was a classic example of the so-called “lone-wolf” figure, which according to law enforcement officials, has no known attachment to any organized hate organization.
In fact, it is not just the ADL that engages in scare tactics to “enhance” contributions and passion from its supporters. Groups and agencies as diverse as the National Organization for Women, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, to local human relations commissions have all done the same.
As attitudes have moved, often dramatically, in a positive direction regarding ethnic diversity and religious tolerance, some organizations that were on the front lines of these changes found themselves struggling to justify their existence. Staffs had to be paid, doors of offices needed to be kept open, and lobbying had to be done. Failing to adjust out-of-date organizational mandates, many groups resorted to exaggerating the size and scope of the threats posed by racism or bigotry.
In 2003, the NAACP issued a survey to its members and supporters on “Race, Gender and Equity in America.” The survey came with a cover memo from the chairman, Julian Bond, who painted a picture of an America in the grips of ongoing racial victimization at the hands of savage and unrelenting racism. It didn’t seem to matter for an instant that this analysis bore no resemblance to the reality that most African Americans lived.
This approach continues unabated. Never one to shy away from playing the race card, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, in an attempt to intimidate every member of the Black Congressional Caucus into supporting the administration’s healthcare bill, attacked one black lawmaker for straying from the fold. Artur Davis, a black Democratic Congressman from Alabama, voted against the House version of the bill. Raising the outrageous specter of racial authenticity, Jackson said “You can’t vote against healthcare and call yourself a black man.” The message delivered was that any deviation from racial orthodoxy would be punished by the self-entitled arbiters of racial authenticity.
However, there is no such thing as an “authentic” black person, just as there are no “authentic” whites, Jews, Asians, or Latinos. The argument that all blacks (or any other religious or racial group for that matter) must speak or act with a single voice is reminiscent of another era in America when the view prevailed that all “Negros,” or all “colored” people were alike.
No matter if it is an opportunistic fund-appeal letter, or appealing to some imagined need for racial solidarity, it all erodes what we have actually accomplished. Over past generations we have succeeded in ridding the nation of the most pernicious practices of bigotry and discrimination. This has allowed equality of opportunity to prevail nearly everywhere in the nation. Engaging in racial intimidation or attempting to frighten people into supporting advocacy organizations may have some immediate payoff, but in the end we all lose.
November 19, 2009 | 4:45 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
Yesterday, Ruth Seymour, the long-time general manager of, and the creative force behind NPR radio station KCRW, announced that she will retire next spring. Her retirement provides an opportunity to note what an important contribution she, KCRW and its sister NPR station, KPCC, make to our community and our sanity.
KCRW and Ruth are being lionized for the eclectic mix of programming that is the station’s hallmark—-cutting-edge music programs, public radio standards (Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, etc.) and locally generated broadcasts (Which Way LA?, Left, Right and Center, etc.) and rightfully so.
However, I think Ruth’s most significant contribution is the locally generated programs that offer a nearly extinct species of local broadcasting—-thoughtful discussion of important issues with an intelligent, articulate and informed host. KCRW’s two standout local efforts hosted by Warren Olney are Which Way LA? and To The Point. Both are Ruth creations.
I distinctly remember hosting an ADL leadership retreat in Palm Springs on the weekend of the Los Angeles riots in April, 1992; our scholar-in-residence was Warren Olney, known then as a thoughtful commentator on LA issues and a charming, erudite guy. He told us on the Saturday of the weekend that he had to leave a bit early because he had received a call from Ruth who had asked him to host a special “short term” broadcast later that week that was tentatively titled, “Which Way LA?” The rest is history.
The role of Which Way LA?, Warren Olney, Larry Mantle’s Airtalk on KPCC and Patt Morrison with her daily broadcasts (also at KPCC) can’t be over stated. They are what is left of public affairs broadcasting in LA.
At one time, two and three decades ago, every FCC licensee had a legal obligation to provide some form of “public affairs” programming. While these may have often been deadly dull interviews ghettoized on Sunday mornings, at least they existed and they occasionally did good, revealing work. I remember debating Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas (then the newly appointed head of the SCLC) on a freezing Sunday morning in 1977 at the Watts Towers for a KNBC program that devoted 15 minutes to a discussion of the
case and the issues surrounding affirmative action.
Today, no such legal obligation exists and public affairs programming on local stations has virtually disappeared; too often replaced, at least on radio, by talk show hosts who favor spinning, screaming and yelling over discussion and illumination.
That’s where Ruth, Warren, Larry and Patt come in—-they are the last, best hope for keeping politicians accountable, exploring important civic issues in a way that cuts through spin and BS, and allowing conflicting ideas to be discussed in civil and long-form settings. With the decline in influence of the Los Angeles Times, their roles are more important than ever.
We are all indebted to Ruth, Warren, Larry and Patt, and should take this occasion to think about how much we count on and need them. Ruth’s retirement is an appropriate time to be reminded of what a critically important role these four individuals have played and are playing in keeping Southern California from devolving into chaos and tilting into the sea—-at least four folks are watching and holding leaders accountable in a public and often revealing way.