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Barack Obama is a CIA Plant!

One of the things I find really irritating about wingnuts is that they don't appear to think very clearly, and their writing shows it. Here's a typical passage from a typical "run your underwear up the flagpole" bit of conspiracy-baiting from Jim Lindgren at The Volokh Conspiracy:

As part of a joint “project” with SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] (p. 170), Oglesby arranged meetings with Haynes and Business International clients as part of their “round-table meetings,” allowing SDS to explain their opposition to the war (p. 171). New York SDS members continued to meet regularly with Business International even after Oglesby left New York.

Haynes “had come to agree with SDS about the war, racism, and urban poverty.” (Id.) Haynes, who died in 1976, told Oglesby that if he had been in the same generation as Oglesby, he might have joined SDS. (p. 170) After Robert Kennedy died, Haynes even called up Oglesby and urged SDS to riot: “Get your people out and tear the goddamn place into pieces.” (Oglesby, p. 188)

According to Oglesby, the Dohrn/Klonsky wing [of the SDS] was highly suspicious of SDS’s joining in any programs with Business International. Oglesby’s memoir recounts long discussions and interrogations of Oglesby — led by Dohrn, Klonsky, and Arlene Bergman — over Oglesby’s development of SDS links with Business International. [emphasis added]

Of all the firms in all the world, Obama had to walk into the one that years before had closer ties to SDS than any other mainstream business in the world. What luck!

(It's so cute the way scare-quoting "project" turns it into a wingnut dog-whistle.)

The point, I think, is that because Obama worked for a company that eight (or more) years previously had a President who was sympathetic to the aims of the Students for a Democratic Society, we're supposed to be suspicious of Obama's aims, now. As though just having one official who made contacts with the SDS was enough to taint an entire company such that not only would the taint still be there ten to fifteen years later, it would be strong enough to taint in turn everyone who ever worked there for a brief time, or perhaps everyone who was ever associated with them -- and that now, we're supposed to suspect that any of those people might be a sleeper-agent for the ComIntern.

But that's not what's wrong with this passage.

It's not even the dog-whistle invocation of "SDS" as code for "communist", harkening back as it does to the cold war and the days of "useful idiots." (By the way, the Right has useful idiots, too -- they just all think the idiot is someone else.)

What's really wrong with this passage is that Lindgren screws up telling the story.

He wants to establish "ties" between SDS and Business International. Clearly he wants to imply that those ties are somehow active, that they have sufficient vitality to make us legitimately worried about Obama as a result. Yet he takes great care (probably because, like any writer, he's loathe to edit) to keep a passage that expresses great ambivalence ont he part of SDS over being involved with Business International. He doesn't say why, but suspicion of Business International's motives seems like a plausible reason. Apparently there have been rumors off and on that Business International was a CIA front, like Coca-Cola (though it's as easy to imagine SDS's suspicion starting those rumors as being in response to them).

Here's where it gets sloppy: Lindgren seques from that into trying to draw the connection between scary-SDS and scary-Obama by way of (possibly spooky) business research firm Business International, right after clearly establishing that some influential elements of scary-SDS were scared of Business International.

So that's how Lindgren screws uptelling the story: He precedes his closer with evidence that undermines (if not negates) it. And because of his own confirmation bias, he probably doesn't even realize he did it.

At another level, though, this is merely typical conspiracy wanking. He's taking a random connection and tossing it against the wall. It's as though I were to point out that John McCain consorted with Democrats as a Naval attache to Congress in the 1970s. Some lunatic might make the leap to associate him with Democrats and by extension with the anti-war movement. Voila: John McCain is now a secret Commie, in the mind of one lunatic. It's a dog whistle. The great holy grail of conspiracy baiting is to find the dog whistle that calls the most dogs. Sometimes it's best to leave the crap in, because you can just never know what will resonate with a lunatic. 

The juciest irony, though, is that based on Lindgren's story, it's just as easy to create a nutjob conspiracy narrative where Barack Obama is a CIA plant as it is to create one where he's a secret Commie.

It does encourage the development of poor rhetorical skills, though.

Yes, They Really Are That Crazy, Redux (Or: Intellectual Penis Envy)

If any doubt remained that the giants of intellectual conservatism who staff National Review Online were a bunch of raving lunatics severely handicapped by intellectual equivalent of penis envy, Andy McCarthy is now making a non-endorsement endorsement of the deeply paranoid and strange notion that Dreams from my Father was ghost-written by Bill Ayers:

There has been speculation about this which I've ignored, no doubt because there are enough policy reasons to oppose Barack Obama and I don't want to feed into what sounds, at first blush, like Vince Fosteresque paranoia.  But I've finally read Jack Cashill's lengthy analysis in The American Thinker.  It is thorough, thoughtful, and alarming — particularly his deconstruction of the text in Obama's memoir and comparison to the themes, sophistication and signature phraseology of Bill Ayers' memoir.

There is nothing in Obama's scant paper trail prior to 1995 that would suggest something as stylish and penetrating as, at times, Dreams from My Father is.  And when Obama speaks extemporaneously, one doesn't hear the same voice one encounters in the book.  Now maybe Obama has a backlog of writing fom Columbia or Harvard that signal great literary promise, but he not only hasn't shared it, he's assiduously hidden traces of it.  And, to be sure, writing is different from speaking — in fairness, some of Obama's off-the-cuff bumbling when he speaks is certainly due to the rigors of the campaign which would cause even the most gifted communicator to faulter from time to time.  But it's not unreasonable to expect more similarity between Obama the writer and Obama the orator.

It really shouldn't be necessary to debunk this, and in fact, it won't do any good for anyone to bother, it's just so god damned loony of an idea. But dammit, it offends me as a writer. And I find it obscene, frankly, that someone who makes a pretense to intellectualism can put such crap out there and try to pass it off as reasoning.

Here's how Jack Cashill starts out his "thorough, thoughful" "analysis":

Prior [strange broken link preserved as a slap at Jack Cashill and American "Thinker"] to 1990, when Barack Obama contracted to write Dreams From My Father, he had written very close to nothing.  Then, five years later, this untested 33 year-old produced what Time Magazine has called -- with a straight face -- "the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician."

The public is asked to believe Obama wrote Dreams From My Father on his own, almost as though he were some sort of literary idiot savant.  I do not buy this canard for a minute, not at all.  Writing is as much a craft as, say, golf.  To put this in perspective, imagine if a friend played a few rounds in the high 90s and then a few years later, without further practice, made the PGA Tour.  It doesn't happen.

Right from the outset is remarkably sloppy thinking, and it's really kind of comical that it's the lede for a story in a publication called "American Thinker." My wife, who teaches composition to college freshmen, would have sent back the draft that included this with a note that indicating it would seriously hurt the grade of the final paper. I really shouldn't have to point out the amazingly obvious logical errors (and there are two howlers, either of which renders the lede worthy of ridicule by any reasonably intelligent junior high school student), but the ostensibly intellectual Jack Cashill didn't spot 'em so I guess I should assume NRO-clique conservative intellectualoids are just not sharp enough to get them.

  1. The fact that Cashill isn't aware of Obama's writing during that time period doesn't mean there wasn't any. There was probably a lot. He was a law student for much of that time, a community organizer giving frequent talks and speeches for much of it as well. And he was talking day after day with black preachers, who train in narrative reasoning at the feet of their family and neighbors from a very young age. This is stuff Cashill should be bright and educated enough to know. That he's not accounting for it strikes me as willful ignorance.

  2. As importantly, writing (something Cashill's clearly not that good at, since he seems unable to form coherent arguments) is actually not even remotely like golf in one very important regard: Golf is comprised of a set of specific cognitive and motor activities that aren't really very mappable to real life, whereas writing (and particularly in African-American communities) corresponds to cognitive and social-interaction activities that an intelligent and conversant person uses all the time in his/her daily life. If you're a thoughtful person, you're always "writing", and always learning about language. So if someone writes a crappy essay that's published when he's 14, and the next thing he publishes is a masterful novel that hits the shelves when he's 30, it's actually not very surprising.

So, what's going on here? It's obviously not that Cashill actually has objectively creditable reasons for believing that Bill Ayers (or anybody else) ghost-wrote Obama's memoirs and speeches (and no, he doesn't stop at the memoirs). There's got to be more to it. I actually don't believe it's purely race, either. I think David Brooks (whose name is probably less than mud at NRO) is onto something with his critique of the (lack of) intellectual foundations of the modern American Right. Now, I don't think David Brooks is an intellectual giant, but dammit, he actually makes a credible effort and he's willing to deal with reality. I don't necessarily agree with his ideas about demographics, for example, but he's done the work of thinking through the problems and I can actually believe he knows more about the details than me.

So is it the standard white male's fear of a black man? Or is it the more profound standard conservative male's fear of an intelligent "leftist"?

So, let's be fair: There are some "leftists" intellectuals who are as frightened to the point of irrationality of intelligent conservatives as Cashill clearly is of Obama. And there are some conservatives -- even some occasionally hot-headed ones, like Andrew Sullivan* -- who are capable of having intellectually honest discussions with people who don't agree with them on doctrinaire matters. Cashill, though, is clearly an intellectual fraud. So's McCarthy. They're so terrified of the idea that someone they don't agree with might be better than them at the one thing that makes them special, that they have to expend this much effort rationalizing away that person's success. 

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*Sullivan's at least intelllectually honest, though, inasmuch as when he does get carried away -- as he sometimes does -- he's generally able to recognize it and willing to call himself out. Buckleyites, in my experience, are rarely willing to do that, and never in deference to anyone they've identified as "leftist."

Male people are all, like, .... And female people are all, like, ....

Most comedy is bullshit, at some level. That is, it doesn't matter whether it's true, so long as it's funny. "If it ain't the truth, it oughta be." The point of comedy isn't to be honest -- the point of comedy is to make people laugh (at you).

Or, in the words of Peter "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" Sagal, some stories are just "too good to check." Like the one about how women talk twice as fast and three times as much as men, and men think about sex 300 to 1000 times as often as women.* It's only funny if we don't point out that, as far as any actual evidence has ever shown, it's just not true. And it really stops being funny as soon as we point out that the main reason people think it's so funny is that it's a convenient reinforcement of existing stereotypes.

And it really, really stops being funny when you put those two facts together and come up with the realization our stereotypes aren't actually based on evidence. How inconvenient. And we were having such fun with this new wave of reactionary "innate differences" nonsense.

I guess when all is said and done, it really is "just a story, dude." And it's not as though anybody ever did anything bad by making up stories. Right? Right? But still, I was fairly disappointed when I learned that Peter Sagal and his crew had swallowed the load of crap that Dr. Brizendine is dishing out in her new-ish book The Female Brain. I guess it was a bit much to expect, that they might, you know, have a view that wasn't a lockstep endorsement of the same old bullshit.

But then, that probably wouldn't be funny.

*According to Dr. Brizendine, men think about sex about every 52 seconds, while women think about sex one to three times per day; I extrapolated based on a 16 hour day, assuming that at least some men don't dream about sex every 52 seconds....

A Random Walk At Travel Writing

I attended the first session of a class in travel writing last night. As I got home, I started poring over my shelves to find examples of the genre. Some leapt out at me. So here's a random-walk, dartboard-at-the-page first quick pass. I sort them here from the most unequivocal examples, to examples I have to justify.

Unequivocal examples:

Lost In The Arctic (Lawrence Millman) [buy]
This is what i think of when I think of "travel writing." The articles are mostly short -- this was great bathroom reading -- and they often fall somewhere between "To Build A Fire" and a less-pejorative version of "Shooting An Elephant" in their focus on the fool-hardiness of a civilized western traveller in the wild. A lot of it is very funny; Millman is far more often a fool than the natives are, but he always strives to be gracious.
Waking Up In Iceland (Paul Sullivan) [buy]
All the travel literature I read before going to Iceland did less to prepare me for the place than this book did. I heard people speaking in their own voices; to be sure, it tells the story that Sullivan wants to tell, and I'm sure he idealizes the scene -- but from what I could see, not much.
Some Orwell selections, especially: "Shooting and Elephant", "Marrakech", and "Looking Back on the Spanish War" (both in A Collection of Essays by George Orwell [buy / Orwell])

I read all of these years ago; I remember that I picked up the book somewhere unexpected, like a Salvation Army or at some church book sale, and read nothing in it for a long time, carrying it from place to place. As I remember it, I then picked it up one day to read "Shooting an Elephant" on someone's recommendation, and then devoured the whole thing. He's an engaging essayist with a penetrating, if jaundiced view. Viz the opening to his essay on Kipling, when he observes that in definding Kipling against the charge of being a fascist, he writes that:

... [T. S. Eliot] falls into the opposite error of defending that which is indefensible. .... Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly.

Which is to say, Eric Blair was a tough-minded "T", like me; an INTP, to be specific, or at least, that would be my guess. If he was going to understand the situation, it was important not to mystify it. This is perhaps why he got on so poorly with other socialists....


Democracy in America (Alexis de Tocqueville) [buy]
It's a traveller's tale, to be sure, but a highly conceptual one. Early ethnography, if you will. I've only ever skimmed it; I should really read it, someday, I suppose...


The Assembly Line (Robert Linhart) [buy]
Linhart "travels" from comfortable bohemian Marxism to the world of the (primarily) Algerian workers in a circa-1967 Citroen plant. This is real-world existentialism; it's a reminder that you don't really understand a place until you think you can't get out of it.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (Oliver Sachs) [buy]
It struck me as I was shelf-reading that one of the main criteria that I use to identify something as "travel writing" is that it reads like a visit. And it struck me as my eye hit the spine of this book that Sachs writes like a visitor, to the worlds of his patients. It's like a travelogue into the world of neurological disorder.

That will do for now, I suppose.

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