The Absence of Illusion

Most of what the late Michael Jackson pumped out was seen by the jazz guys as rather useless crap – so simplistic there was nothing to work with – save for that one tune Human Nature. The changes were good and it had a nice mellow feel to it – you could do that modal stuff and spin out all sorts of soulful trance-like lines that would take you to lots of new places. You could be cool, intensely cool. And the underlying theme was right for mellow late-night lonely-city jazz. Sometimes people do things that mess up everything. And you ask why. But it’s just human nature. That’s the heartbreaking, inevitable answer. Yes, Michael Jackson had a sad and messed up life, and may have been hinting at things about that life. But that hardly matters – that was his life and no one else’s, and he’s quite dead now. But if you do that sort of clear-eyed dead-honest musing, musically, you have a first rate jazz tune. And if you do that in a novel you’re Raymond Chandler.

Things just aren’t the way they’re supposed to be, and they’re not going to be, ever. You learn to deal with it, or you don’t. But happy self-delusion produces shallow music and bad novels. You get the Bee Gees and Love Story – love is never having to say you’re sorry, whatever that means. Those were not cool. Cool is the absence of illusion.

But at present we are not a cool country. Everyone is white-hot angry – at Obama and gays and Hispanics and big government, or at Palin, Beck and the Tea Party Crowd, who think most government of any sort sucks, or at British Petroleum, or at Wall Street, or at those who would jail the BP guys, who just made an honest mistake, or those who want to regulate Wall Street and all those poor hedge fund managers just trying to make an honest living. Take your pick. It’s a war out there. Turn on your television, turn on your radio – someone is screaming at you that things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be, and everyone with a lick of common sense knows exactly how they should be, and some very bad people are standing in the way of… the way things were meant to be, damn it. It’s a bit exhausting.

And of course it’s all based on illusion, or self-delusion. Maybe it’s longing for some Ozzie and Harriet suburban America of the fifties, or the Peace and Love world that actually seemed possible, in spite of Vietnam, when shooting the shit with your friends in the college dorm room late at night back in 1968 while listening to the White Album. Or maybe you miss Barry Goldwater, or Bobby and Martin and Jack. Some very old folks miss Glenn Miller, and others wonder why Hollywood doesn’t make movies like The Sound of Music anymore. But the general consensus is that things just aren’t right – and that Obama is too damned cool about everything of course. Everyone agrees on that.

But things are as they are. A cool, calculating, dispassionate mind does not consider the seething self-reinforcing illusions. You deal with the facts of the matter, like Chandler’s seen-it-all detective, Phillip Marlowe, who has a code – you don’t lie to yourself.

But America has a free-market economy where, if people want something bad enough, someone, wanting to make a buck, will sell it to you – at a hefty premium if you want it bad enough. And if people want good stuff to feed their anger about how, if only reality matched how they just know things were meant to be, everything would be just fine, we have a for-profit news industry. That industry exists to provide people with the news they want. If they don’t do that they go broke and go under. If you want stories of sweet young blond women being abducted in nasty Aruba, or stories of shark attacks off the coast of San Diego, they’ll be happy to oblige, with wall-to-wall all-day coverage. If you want the facts on why Obama is really a socialist-fascist-Nazi-communist-Muslim-atheist, and the Tea Party folks who hate government are the only thing that can save America, Rupert Murdoch, who knows a thing or two about making a buck, offers you Glenn Beck, and if you find Beck a little weird, there’s O’Reilly and Hannity. If you want the facts on why that’s all nonsense, MSNBC offers you Olbermann and Ed Shultz and Rachel Maddow, the first two ranting about such foolishness, and the third calmly laying out facts that explain what nonsense we’re really dealing with. Poor CNN – the market for facts-based journalism where all sides get a say is quite small these days. Their Campbell Brown just up and quit:

I’m pretty sure the last time any anchor could honestly ignore ratings was well before I was born. Of course I pay attention to ratings. And simply put, the ratings for my program are not where I would like them to be. It is largely for this reason that I am stepping down…

She got it. There was not a market for what she did, and maybe there never was. But now things have come to a head. She had an average audience of 591,000 – Bill O’Reilly has averaged 3.34 million in the same timeslot, and Olbermann 1.03 million. There’s no market for the illusion of objectivity. It’s a minority illusion these days.

But the odd thing is that everyone says they’re just looking at the facts, the real facts – and viewing those facts objectively, they’re really, really angry. How can this be? It all depends on what facts you see, or in the case of Glenn Beck, what facts you imagine you see, even if no one else sees them. Beck’s big scoop on the communist frescos at Rockefeller Center is a case in point.

But facts do matter. And that is why it’s odd that the New York Times has announced this – the Times will now host FiveThirtyEight.com. This is the website from Nate Silver, the wizard of statistics who shot to fame, as they say, dissecting poll data during the 2008 election. He got most everything right. Things turned out just as he said they would. Sure you got lot of tables and charts, and discussion of various forms of regression analysis and that sort of thing – but he was right. It seems the statistical analysis of baseball records as a means of predicting future outcomes is good training for political analysis. The Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm is transferrable.

So let’s hear it out there for pure facts!

And Henry Farrell comments:

Newspapers have traditionally been highly allergic to statistics, charts and the like, in the belief that they turned readers off. FiveThirtyEight has demonstrated that there is a sort-of-mass readership for this kind of material, if it is presented in the right way. That the New York Times has bought the site – and is seeking to integrate Silver into its broader operations – suggests that it wants to tap into that market.

So there’s a mass market for pure facts, or sort of one. But Kevin Drum isn’t so sure:

I guess “sort-of-mass” covers a lot of territory, but I have my doubts that the readership for heavy duty number crunching is any bigger than it’s ever been. Instead, I’d guess that “presented in the right way” is really the operative phrase here. And that doesn’t so much refer to the way Nate displays his results (though he does a very good job of it), but the fact that he’s pretty clearly a liberal partisan. I don’t mean that in the sense that he distorts his results to favor a liberal point of view – as far as I can tell, he doesn’t – just that he’s very good at addressing the topics that liberal readers are most interested in hearing about.

So he’s a liberal partisan but sticks to the facts, wherever they lead him. Can this be? Actually Drum says this may be the future of political journalism:

Readers of political reporting pretty clearly prefer a point of view, but in its more rarefied precincts that doesn’t mean they want the obvious agit-prop of a Fox News or conservative talk radio. They want their facts more or less straight, which is what Nate provides, but they don’t want to wade through thousands of words of junk to find the bits and pieces they’re interested in. Rather, they want a guide who already knows what’s important to them and puts it front and center. That’s what FiveThirty-Eight.com provides. The fact that it’s all number-centric is secondary.

But Greg Sargent in this item sees the Times announcement as “another sign that dreaded ‘ideological’ reporters and analysts are increasingly finding a home at stodgy old non-ideological news outlets.”

And Sargent says Ben Smith makes a good point in Politico that the Times seemed unwilling to acknowledge that Silver is liberal or progressive, only describing him as someone with a “unique perspective”- and that means little:

That strikes me as odd. Silver, like the [Washington] Post’s bloggers, is one of a new group of journalists who aim to replace the studied neutrality old MSM types like me practice with an openness about their political views. He examined his own in an item defining himself as a “rational progressive” and wrote elsewhere that he’s not registered to a political party but supported Obama in 2008.

I’m not sure why the Times would avoid saying that they’ve hired a respected online liberal voice, rather than just some kind of numbers guru with a “unique perspective.”

Sargent:

I don’t know why The Times neglected to advertise Silver’s liberalism. But this goes to a larger point: The fear big news orgs have of letting fact-based and ideologically-motivated journalism mix and mingle with one another. Silver is not easy to categorize – he is saturated in factual information, but he has clear ideological leanings, and more to the point, advertises them. And beyond Silver, fear of letting ideology taint the act of fact-gathering is widespread in old-guard media precincts.

Well yes, and that’s why most journalists find Glenn Beck appalling. Beck’s fact-gathering is a bit idiosyncratic, if not delusional. If you’re a political partisan you can fall into that trap, where you gather really odd facts, or see facts where there are none. You fall into an odd self-delusion, believing you’ve found The One Big truth or something. Maybe the only way to avoid that trap is to have a solid foundation in statistics and statistical modeling, and to be honest with yourself about what you see. Silver may be a very rare sort of person.

Sargent adds this:

Even Ben’s bosses at Politico, who have fully embraced a Web-based journalism model, still adhere scrupulously to the old-school “non-ideological” approach to gathering and purveying information.

So it’s worth restating the premise of this new model, at least when it’s practiced at its best: It’s possible to care about what happens in politics – you can prefer one outcome to another – while simultaneously doing fact-based journalism that’s fair, professional, and has integrity.

That’s working without illusions. That’s cool. That’s very Phillip Marlowe or Miles Davis in Dorian mode or whatever. And Sargent suggests the Times hiring Silver represents a quiet capitulation to this model of cool:

Indeed, news orgs are adjusting to an uncomfortable reality: More and more readers want to get political news from sources that don’t disguise their sympathies, rather than through more traditionally “objective” filters that too often place a premium on fake even-handedness at the expense of taking a stand on what’s right and true.

But is that giving people what they want? For some of us it is. Facts are cool, and while often damned disappointing, far more useful than feel-good make-believe about Ozzie and Harriet or the wonders of Woodstock in the rain long, long ago – better to be a Raymond Chandler detective, sorely disappointed by all of life, but refusing to lie to yourself about it, as a matter of personal pride. That’s Nate Silver.

But we love to lie to ourselves. For a giggle, read Johann Hari in Slate with The Parable of Prohibition. This is a discussion of the new Daniel Okrent book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. And Hari opens with this:

Since we first prowled the savannahs of Africa, human beings have displayed a few overpowering and ineradicable impulses – for food, for sex, and for drugs. Every human society has hunted for its short cuts to an altered state: The hunger for a chemical high, low, or pleasingly new shuffle sideways is universal. Peer back through history, and it’s everywhere. Ovid said drug-induced ecstasy was a divine gift. The Chinese were brewing alcohol in prehistory and cultivating opium by 700 A.D. Cocaine was found in clay-pipe fragments from William Shakespeare’s house. George Washington insisted American soldiers be given whiskey every day as part of their rations. Human history is filled with chemicals, come-downs, and hangovers.

And in every generation, there are moralists who try to douse this natural impulse in moral condemnation and burn it away. They believe that humans, stripped of their intoxicants, will become more rational or ethical or good. They point to the addicts and the overdoses and believe they reveal the true face – and the logical endpoint – of your order at the bar or your roll-up. And they believe we can be saved from ourselves, if only we choose to do it. Their vision holds an intoxicating promise of its own.

Their most famous achievement – the criminalization of alcohol in the United States between 1921 and 1933 – is one of the great parables of modern history.

What follows that is a discussion of how Prohibition went. It did not go well. And Hari ties it to our current War on Drugs, as you might expect, and ends with this:

Who now defends alcohol prohibition? Is there a single person left? This echoing silence should suggest something to us. Ending drug prohibition seems like a huge heave, just as ending alcohol prohibition did. But when it is gone, when the drug gangs are a bankrupted memory, when drug addicts are treated not as immoral criminals but as ill people needing health care, who will grieve?

American history is pocked by utopian movements that prefer glib wishful thinking over a hard scrutiny of reality, but they inevitably crest and crash in the end.

Yep, and you remember what happens in the Chandler novels to those who prefer glib wishful thinking over a hard scrutiny of reality – they end up in jail or get shot. But that’s human nature, the sad stuff Michael Jackson was singing about. It’s far better to be disillusioned and cool.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The Absence of Illusion

  1. Motorod says:

    “Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever.” Cicero

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