Sometimes there is just nothing to say. Sure, big things are afoot. As Sherlock Holmes used to say – Come, Watson, the game is afoot! And off they’d go. And Watson never said just stuff it, Sherlock. But what with that bullet he was carrying, an old war wound from Afghanistan of all places, Watson must have been tempted. Okay, the Noble Bachelor seems to have lost his new bride, and Irene Adler is being sneaky, and there are Five Orange Pips and a Speckled Band and a Red-Headed League and an Engineer’s Thumb – all fascinating, but one gets tired. Watson never got around to telling us about the Giant Rat of Sumatra. He ran out of gas. Not everything is endlessly fascinating. And one can guess that Sherlock Holmes could be a real pain in the ass. Endless enthusiasm and keen original insight can get on your nerves.
And of course a good number of those stories take place in a cold and rainy London – deep yellow fog and sometimes snow in the streets, and Holmes smoking his pipe. They are not summer stories. In the summer gentlemen sit quietly. They don’t scurry about and look for clues to this or that mystery and then carefully reason out all possibilities. That can wait.
And it’s August, the dog days of summer, so it’s not the time to be too serious. Or is that Sirius? In case you don’t remember, in the summer, Sirius, the “dog star,” rises and sets with the sun. You see, during late July Sirius is in conjunction with the sun, and ancient astronomers, if you care to call them that, believed that its heat added to the heat of the sun, creating a stretch of hot and rather miserable weather. They named this period of time, from twenty days before the conjunction to twenty days after, the “dog days” – after the Dog Star. It’s that time of year when no one with even a lick of sense does much.
So here, where the routine is to pop out an in-depth three-thousand word column on the big issues of the day each and every evening, it’s August and perhaps it’s time to play the gentleman and sit quietly. Sometimes there is just nothing to say – or if there is something to say, someone else can say it. And anyway, at present, the nation seems consumed with discussion of whether to rid ourselves of all Muslims and all Hispanics and all gay folks and any black person not involved in professional sports, and with whether we should shut down the economy to save it, or get rid of all the rules and all taxes to save it, or something. And Glenn Beck is about to have his giant rally in DC on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, on the very spot, claiming the blacks don’t own King and he is the new Martin Luther King, about to free the oppressed older white males from their bondage – no more of this socialism from people who have a deep-seated hatred of white people. Enough is enough. He says a miracle will happen, or several. This will be a turning point in American history.
What is there to say? How many ways can you say, look, people are being stupid – consider this, and this, and this other thing? One can scurry about and look for clues to this or that mystery and then carefully reason out all possibilities, but one runs the risk of someone saying stuff it, Sherlock. You may be right, and insightful and on onto something important. But enough is enough. Not everyone is as plodding and thus continuously surprised and amazed as Watson. And it’s August.
And you need to know when to step back and stop. There’s a history of that. With The Rambler (1750–52), a twice-weekly periodical, Samuel Johnson began the most successful decade of his career. He wrote over two-hundred essays, and there are the stories about his finishing an essay while the printer’s boy waited at the door. But he just stopped. See Rambler 208, Saturday, March 14, 1752 – “Having supported, for two years, the anxious employment of a periodical writer, and multiplied my essays to upwards of two hundred, I have now determined to desist.” He tired of observing how stupid people could be, even if he had pointed that out in the most elegant prose ever written in English.
Johnson hit the wall at upwards of two hundred essays. And here this is item number twelve hundred in the current format. Yikes! And since there have been other formats stretching back to 2003, there may be three times that number sitting out there in cyberspace. Johnson would be appalled.
But in the dog days of August it is exasperation-time. And that exasperation with foolishness is pervasive. For example, in the New York Times, Timothy Egan doesn’t just write about the “willful ignorance” of much of the conservative electorate, he takes on the issue of Building a Nation of Know-Nothings:
Having shed much of his dignity, core convictions and reputation for straight talk, Senator John McCain won his primary on Tuesday against the flat-earth wing of his party. Now McCain can go search for his lost character, which was last on display late in his 2008 campaign for president.
Remember the moment: a woman with matted hair and a shaky voice rose to express her doubts about Barack Obama. “I have read about him,” she said, “and he’s not – he’s an Arab.”
McCain was quick to knock down the lie. “No, ma’am,” he said, “he’s a decent family man, a citizen.”
That ill-informed woman – her head stuffed with fabrications that could be disproved by a preschooler – now makes up a representative third or more of the Republican Party.
Egan goes on to examine the depth of the nonsense – forty-six percent of Republicans believe that Obama is a Muslim and twenty-seven percent in the party doubt that the President of the United States is a citizen. And the curious thing is that at least half of them believe that the big bailout of banks and insurance companies under TARP was enacted by Obama, and not by President Bush.
What is there to say? Even Samuel Johnson would be flummoxed. And Egan points out that the issue is reality itself:
Take a look at Tuesday night’s box score in the baseball game between New York and Toronto. The Yankees won, 11-5. Now look at the weather summary, showing a high of 71 for New York. The score and temperature are not subject to debate.
Yet a president’s birthday or whether he was even in the White House on the day TARP was passed are apparently open questions.
Yes, that’s nuts. But we have a press that must report all sides of an issue. You know the lede of the story. Growing numbers of people are now arguing that the moon is made of green cheese….
It’s news. You report it. And Egan puts it this way:
A growing segment of the party poised to take control of Congress has bought into denial of the basic truths of Barack Obama’s life. What’s more, this astonishing level of willful ignorance has come about largely by design, and has been aided by a press afraid to call out the primary architects of the lies.
The Democrats may deserve to lose in November. They have been terrible at trying to explain who they stand for and the larger goal of their governance. But if they lose, it should be because their policies are unpopular or ill-conceived – not because millions of people believe a lie.
And Egan points to the much-discussed Pew poll reporting the spike in silliness – it seems those who believe Obama to be Muslim say they got their information from the media. And Egan finds that curious:
But no reputable news agency – that is, fact-based, one that corrects its errors quickly – has spread such inaccuracies. So where is this “media?”
But everyone knows the answer to that question. It’s the same two sources:
The first, of course, is Rush Limbaugh, who claims the largest radio audience in the land among the microphone demagogues, and his word is Biblical among Republicans. A few quick examples of the Limbaugh method:
“Tomorrow is Obama’s birthday – not that we’ve seen any proof of that,” he said on Aug. 3. “They tell us Aug. 4 is the birthday; we haven’t seen any proof of that.”
Of course, there is proof as clear as that baseball box score. Look here, http://www.factcheck.org, for starters, one of many places posting Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate.
On the Muslim deception, Limbaugh has sprinkled lie dust all over the place. “Obama says he’s a Christian, but where’s the evidence?” he said on Aug. 19. He has repeatedly called the president “imam Obama,” and said, “I’m just throwing things out there, folks, because people are questioning his Christianity.”
Yep, Limbaugh claims innocence:
You see how he works. He drops in suggestions, hints, notes that “people are questioning” things. The design is to make Obama un-American. Then he says it’s a tweak, a provocation. He says this as a preemptive way to keep the press from calling him out. And it works; long profiles of Limbaugh have largely gone easy on him.
Once Limbaugh has planted a lie, a prominent politician can pick it up, with little nuance. So, over the weekend, Kim Lehman, one of Iowa’s two Republican National Committee members, went public with doubts on Obama’s Christianity. Of course, she was not condemned by party leaders.
And it is nuts:
It’s curious, also, that any felon, drug addict, or recovering hedonist can loudly proclaim a sudden embrace of Jesus and be welcomed without doubt by leaders of the religious right. But a thoughtful Christian like Obama is still distrusted.
“I am a devout Christian,” Obama told Christianity Today in 2008. “I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” That’s not enough, apparently, for Rev. Franklin Graham, the partisan son of the great evangelical leader, who said last week that Obama was “born a Muslim because of the religious seed passed on from his father.”
What is there to say? People will believe what they want to believe. And evidence that they’re wrong is evidence of conspiracy to cover up the truth, proving that they are not wrong at all. And so on and so forth. It’s been said before.
And of course there is Fox News:
Their chat and opinion programs spread innuendo daily. The founder of Politifact, another nonpartisan referee to the daily rumble, said two of the site’s five most popular items on its Truth-o-meter are corrections of Glenn Beck.
Beck tosses off enough half-truths in a month to keep Politifact working overtime. Of late, he has gone after Michelle Obama, whose vacation in Spain was “just for her and approximately 40 of her friends.” Limbaugh had a similar line, saying the First Lady “is taking 40 of her best friends and leasing 60 rooms at a five-star hotel – paid for by you.”
The White House said Michelle Obama and her daughter Sasha were accompanied by just a few friends – and they paid their own costs. But, wink, wink, the damage is done. He’s Muslim and foreign. She’s living the luxe-life on your dime. They don’t even have to mention race. The code words do it for them.
And there is climate-change denial – Limbaugh and Fox pretty much claiming that virtually complete scientific consensus about the data – we’re in trouble – is clear evidence of conspiracy to cover up the truth, proving that there is no climate change at all. It gets tiresome. No one needs another column on that.
Egan wraps up with this:
It would be nice to dismiss the stupid things that Americans believe as harmless, the price of having such a large, messy democracy. Plenty of hate-filled partisans swore that Abraham Lincoln was a Catholic and Franklin Roosevelt was a Jew. So what if one-in-five believe the sun revolves around the earth, or aren’t sure from which country the United States gained its independence?
But false belief in weapons of mass-destruction led the United States to a trillion-dollar war. And trust in rising home value as a truism as reliable as a sunrise was a major contributor to the catastrophic collapse of the economy. At its worst extreme, a culture of misinformation can produce something like Iran, which is run by a Holocaust denier.
It is one thing to forget the past, with predictable consequences, as the favorite aphorism goes. But what about those who refuse to comprehend the present?
Kevin Drum comments:
At some point, the much maligned mainstream media is simply going to have to stop reacting to every outrage ginned up by the likes of Limbaugh and Fox as if it’s a straight news story. They don’t react that way to Keith Olbermann or Michael Moore, after all. But I’m not sure how to make that happen. There’s really no excuse for repeatedly getting sucked down the same rabbit hole over and over and over – Megyn Kelly on the New Black Panthers, Breitbart on Shirley Sherrod, Limbaugh on Obama the Muslim, Hannity on the Park51 mosque – but they do anyway. They just can’t seem to help themselves.
What’s the answer? As long as they play the game, is it any wonder that so many Americans are misinformed?
And on Obama being a Muslim, Drum says this:
There have been, by my unofficial count, approximately 5,487 stories written about the Pew poll showing that 18% of the country believes that Barack Obama is a Muslim, up from 11% a year ago. But why has this number gone up so much? Because Americans are dumb? Don’t be silly. They aren’t any dumber now than they were in March 2009.
The answer, of course, is obvious to anyone with a pulse, but since we no longer live in a country where obvious answers are good enough, we need a political scientist to provide us with some hard data.
And it seems that John Sides is just the man:
The growth in this perception among Republicans is more notable among those with some college education (a 19-point increase) or a college degree (15 points) than among those with a high school degree or less (9 points). In other words, better educated Republicans have changed more than the less educated Republicans. …
Obviously, we cannot draw definitive conclusions from this analysis. It does not prove that some media personalities and political leaders are responsible for the increasing perception that Obama is a Muslim. But it points in that direction.
Drum is not impressed:
Well, yes, the data does point in the direction of media personalities feeding the perception that Obama is a Muslim. In fact, it points to it with a gigantic, blinking red neon arrow.
Of course the reason more people think Obama is a Muslim is because Fox and Rush and Drudge and all the rest keep insinuating it. And the more educated demographics, who ingest more political news, are therefore the ones most likely to change their views.
Really, it’s remarkable that we all pretend to be idiots on this score. The conservative media promotes a variety of wacky memes on a 24/7 loop, their viewers eventually buy into them and pass them along to their friends, and this eventually shows up in poll results. No other explanation is even marginally credible, but in our current fantasy world we’re all expected to stroke our chins and pretend that the source of these wacky memes is an open question worthy of extended discussion and multiple interpretations. Jesus.
Exactly, and what is there to say? And it’s August and perhaps time to play the gentleman and sit quietly, and not scurry about and look for clues to this or that mystery and then carefully reason out all possibilities. It is what it is. Sometimes Sherlock Holmes should give it a rest. And Samuel Johnson simply stopped rambling. And this stops at 2,701 words.