James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

My 9/11 story

Posted by James McPherson on September 11, 2016

9-11

On Sept. 11, 2001, the first day of a new school year at Whitworth, I was getting ready to teach my first freshman seminar about media & society when the attacks came. Whitworth gave faculty the option of cancelling classes, but I decided that having an afternoon forum for discussion would be good for my freshmen and me.
Like most Americans, I spent the morning following the events of 9/11 on both television and my computer. Yet I remained strangely unmoved — perhaps partly because of my former training and experience as a reporter, but even more, I think, because of the unreality of it all.
Part of my brain just couldn’t process the pictures of a jetliner full of people slamming into a massive tower full of people, let alone the pictures of those two giant towers crumbling to the ground. And maybe the numbness of shock explains my relative lack of emotion.
Yet as a media scholar I suspect that part of my brain recognized what people at the scene kept saying: “It’s like something out of a movie.” Yet in the movies, we had often seen the sound and visuals “done better” than what live television had to offer — more “realistic”-looking explosions, from multiple angles, with music helping tell our brains how to feel.
So, though I am not proud of the fact, on that morning I couldn’t seem to make myself feel the emotions that I thought I should. Frustrated with the media coverage and myself, I walked outside into a beautiful fall day, though a door near which an American flag already flew at half staff. At the base of the flag were bright yellow flowers, planted to greet returning students and their parents. And there, a bee flitted among the blossoms. I stood and watched that lone bee, a tiny creature unaware of the events that would forever change all of our lives, doing what it was born to do.
“Well,” I thought. “Life goes on.” And then, standing there alone in the middle of campus, away from the media deluge and 3,000 miles away from New York or Washington, D.C., I began to cry.
Those tears weren’t the last I shed tears related to 9/11 — those came a little while ago when I read this story aloud to my wife. Insects play a role in Adam Langer’s story, too, and my wife and I have outlived a couple of dogs that looked like the author’s.
We all are witnesses to things we cannot fathom. And sometimes inexplicably, life goes on.

Posted in Education, History, Media literacy, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

The VaGUYna Monologues

Posted by James McPherson on February 20, 2015

angry man sad womanMy Facebook feed this morning provided a link to a Washington Post opinion piece by Michelle Goldberg that laments the fact that “while digital media has amplified feminist voices, it has also extracted a steep psychic price. Women, urged to tell their stories, are being ferociously punished when they do.”

That punishment, for feminist women writers, regularly includes threats of rape and/or murder. Not surprisingly, much of the criticism they get is for how they look, rather than for their ideas. “Some,” Goldberg notes, “particularly women who have the audacity to criticize sexism in the video-game world — have been driven from their homes or forced to cancel public appearances. Fake ads soliciting rough sex have been placed in their names. And, of course, the Twitter harassment never stops.”

Many people seemingly can’t resist proving the very point they oppose, so about half of the first several Facebook comments simply reinforced — often with sexist, obnoxious language — the idea that many men can’t deal with feminism. (Many of those same guys seem incapable of coherent thoughts, let alone coherent sentences).

I then commented, “And… the comment parade of sexist male idiots has begun. Guys, you’re not helping.” The negative responses to my comment (tempered by many positive comments and more than 120 “likes,” thus far), were as predictable as they were pitiful. I’ve copied and pasted some if them below (as written, to avoid have to use “sic” repeatedly to signify that the error was in the original).

James, have a vaGUYna much?” [Thanks for the title, Eric, though I’ll twist the meaning a bit below.]

Who want’s to help anyway? Sexist feminists?

Go sit on the toilet when you pee, okay?

A tamed white knight appears.”

I’m for women’s rights I just don’t like women whining about how tough it is. Really?! I thought you could roar? I guess not.

Most men do not spend a lot of time worrying about feminism, but when they do they realize that feminist extremists have taken feminism beyond reasonable expectations.

feminism makes women look like mentally unstable lesbians and you even have feminist leaders talking about a male holocaust… and these people who talked about the male holocaust teach their literature in gender studies classes…

“‘Feminism’ is sponsored by the ones oppressing women. Boom” [Whatever the hell that means.]

Go wear a burka, get a forced marriage and get some real problems.

These idiots over here that pass for strong women couldn’t handle a days hardship that most third world women have to face on a daily basis. These feminists first world problems pale in comparison to the real problems of women the world over.” Because apparently death threats aren’t “real problems” for

Feminist be like ‘I got PTSD from someone disagreeing with me!!'”

You assume all anti feminists are male. James, YOUR not helping you sexist male idiot.

feminist concept of a man helping women achieving social justice = ‘whatever you say is right my feminist goddess. I am ashamed of being a man and display natural manly behaviours.  I’ll be your personal dog and attack every primitive barbaric male who dares doing or saying something that bothers your highness, meanwhile losing touch with manly friendships, my masculinity and those women out there who are actually looking for a man, and not a castrated politically brainwashed creature.’ NO THANKS”

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t support equality, but I do know many people tired of benevolent (what these ‘guys who speak in support of equality’ are) sexism, as well as the malevolent sexism that is waning towards woman and increasing towards men.

Male feminists may actually be the worse, because in their benevolent sexism, they start threatening men and women who disagree with the constant demonization of men.”

how can you say that being sexist makes you an idiot? are you the ideological fountain of the universe you male betrayer” For that one, I responded simply, “I said nothing about causation, Jimmy — simply pointing out what is in this case correlation.

The comments directed at me, of course, are very mild compared to some of those aimed at women on both the Facebook page and on the article:

If a threat has no bearing on reality then it doesnt matter what the threat is. Sorry, but you feminists are just so fragile. Words can’t hurt you.”[For the record, that comment did not come from Anthony Elonis.]

Feminist writers only care about themselves and making money off of womens issues but don’t help women at all! Feminist have done more damage than good!  Look at the U.S. military they have allowed sexual assaults to go on for decades and have ignored it!” [And no, I can’t figure out what the last sentence had to do with either the first two sentences in the comment or the article.]

If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” [But of course many of these folks think women should stay in the kitchen, except when they’re in the bedroom, shopping for groceries, or cleaning other rooms in the house.]

They sound like quitters that can’t handle criticism. I have also noticed that a lot of what falls under feminism isn’t really feminism at all, but comes off more as a defensive, man-hating agenda.”

Well, some feminist deserve it. The elitist ones, but the ones who genuinely want equality, dont deserve it” [Remember, this is about threats of rape and murder.]

Here i thought the message of feminism was ‘look at how awesome and powerful i am sans men….’ but a few internet comments are giving them emotional distress?? Sounds like gas. Take some Maalox and deal with your actions, sweetheart.

….and they have only themselves to blame.” [Again, this is about threats of rape and murder.]

For me, one of the most noteworthy aspects of the attacks is that almost all of them come from men engaging in “mansplaining” — or what might justifiably be termed “VaGUYna monologues.” Speaking of women’s bodies, of course, most of those who make laws regarding abortion also are men.

Naturally some folks pointed out that many women also oppose what they understand to be feminism (and many oppose abortion, as well), while also arguing that men are also threatened. (Hey, I get that.)

But even if the abuse were anywhere close to equal, I fail to see how abuse of one group justifies abuse of another. And as for the argument about how “some women” feel, so what? Just as no feminist I know would argue that every man is evil, none would argue that women can’t also be ignorant. For example, here’s how “Jeanne” responded to my Facebook comment:

Sad that I stood picket with my Mom at age 11, I am now 58, for equal pay at a factory where she worked. I wouldn’t wipe my butt on so-called feminists of today. Make me sick. Equal rights does not mean more rights. Grow up. Not all men are predators. Funny how loudly many of these women protest, however, I’ll wager most of them have read those abusive books, ’50 Shades of Gray,’ and are now either breathlessly watching the stupid movie or planning a ’50 Shades of Gray,’ party, or planning a ‘Girl’s’ night out to go see the crap. Shut up.”

First, while the abominable 50 Shades of Grey was weirdly popular, I suspect Jeanne would lose her bet about how many feminists chose to read/watch it. Second, there was nothing in the Post article or my comment asking for “more rights” vs. “equal rights.” Third, no one claimed that “all men are predators.” And finally, though “Mom” may have picketed for equal pay almost 50 years ago, she probably didn’t get it — despite the best efforts of feminists whom her daughter now denigrates.

 

Posted in Education, History, Personal, Politics, Women, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Riding, writing and resting

Posted by James McPherson on November 25, 2013

For the past six months, politics has been relatively low on my list of concerns. Call it burnout, or simple disgust with almost everyone in politics (including those in the media who cover it), but after my sabbatical began at the end of May I probably watched and read less about contemporary politics (especially from cable news) for the next several months than during any similar period in perhaps a decade. I have to admit that I didn’t miss it.

Nor have I missed most things about my “real job” as a professor. Someone asked me a while back the most important thing I’d learned during my sabbatical. My answer: “That I probably won’t have any trouble adjusting to retirement in 12 to 15 years.” I love being in the classroom and interacting with students, but certainly haven’t missed grading, course prep or meetings.

During my sabbatical I added a regular Wednesday “guys’ breakfast” and a regular Thursday golf game to my Tuesday and Friday morning basketball games. I’ve read more — and more for fun — than usual. I worked in the yard and garden. I spent time with parents, siblings, kids and a grandchild.

Most importantly, I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with my wife of almost 33 years, especially during a 25-day 5,700-mile drive that included visits to various family members and the cities of Boise, Tucson, Santa Fe, New Orleans and Natchez — the lovely Mississippi city (with the troubling history) in which my wife was born. The cities of Las Vegas, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and Salt Lake City we passed through quickly, but not too quickly to be reminded of the sprawling corporate sameness that scars the Great American Landscape (though perhaps not for much longer, if my brother and other “doomers” are correct about the fate of the world).

More directly related to my profession, while in New Orleans I attended the annual convention of the American Journalism Historians Association. The convention was held in the beautiful historic Hotel Monteleone, where, despite a steep discount, the nightly rate was more than I paid for my first car, and where it cost more to park my pickup each night than I’ve paid for a room in some motels.

Back home, I attended a breakfast at which I chatted with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and then (at her request) sent her a copy a book I wrote. (Unlike a similar event with George Will a year earlier, I didn’t notice any errors worthy of correction here.) Later that month I helped out with a high school journalism workshop.

In terms of writing, I have revised a book chapter, chipped away at a novel, compiled notes and done research for a new academic book, and written more than 90 posts for an ongoing blog project. Today I even started our annual Christmas letter, having put up and decorated the tree a couple of days ago. And naturally I’ve been writing on the most pervasive medium in America today: Facebook.

Yes, I’ve devoted too much time to one form of anti-social media, though I’ve managed to forego Twitter, Instagram, Tumbler, Pinterest and Alltherest. I don’t tweet, or even text, and I definitely don’t twerk, Thanks to modern media, sometimes I twitch.

What I’ve written on Facebook  was typically far less important than what I “shared” from elsewhere (the same sorts of things that have no doubt prompted some “friends” to hide me from their feeds). And in retrospect, at least some of what I took the time to share via Facebook also seems worth sharing here. Some examples follow, though for space reasons I obviously can’t include oh-s0-witty-and/or-insightful comments I offered with each post.

The eclectic mix includes: an 1812 test for eighth-graders that few of us today could pass; a professional football coach (who knocked me out in practice when we were on the same college team);  the discovery of a new dinosaur; police brutality in New Mexico; empathetic high school football players; a revised “U.S. map” based on watersheds; Boeing’s anti-union efforts; Richard Cohen’s racism and sexism; how some of Apple’s overseas employees end up as virtual slaves; “15 Ways The United States Is The Best (At Being The Worst)”; the highest-paid employees in each state; a lesson on being quick to judge; some bragging about my workplace; and “the incredible story of Marion Stokes,” an obsessive librarian who taped — on VHS videocassettes — 35 years of television news.

Related to media, I posted items about the dangers of texting while driving and  sexist cyber-bullying by football fans. I explained why my local newspaper screwed up, placing a beautiful photo of a Native American mother and child next to an unrelated headline stating, “Child porn cases result in prison.” I pointed out that a widely quoted ESPN piece about NFL hazing used faulty math and therefore probably drew erroneous conclusions. I made fun of a local television station for misusing a word during a hostage crisis. And I shared a funny piece about a newspaper that retracted its criticism of the Gettysburg Address as “silly remarks” worthy of “a veil of oblivion.”

As a feminist who sometimes teaches a class on women and media (while serving on the board for a local nonprofit devoted to media literacy), I shared various items related to women’s issues: a story about “how we teach our kids that women are liars“;  a piece about sexist treatment of Janet Yellen; how women like working for women; and one about the Bechtel test for movies. I also addressed males, sharing “Five Things Every Self-Respecting Man Over 30 Needs.”

I shared some items about religion, including mega-churches and the fact that the region of the country most opposed to government health care is the Bible Belt. Naturally I couldn’t avoid mention of the Affordable Care Act. Posts compared: Al Jazeera America’s coverage of Typhoon Haiyan and Obamacare with the coverage by CNN, Fox News and MSNBC; how journalists were fact-checking other journalists; Sean Hannity’s lies;

I didn’t managed to ignore other politics entirely, either, discussing such issues as Barack Obama’s judicial nominations; Senate filibusters and the “nuclear option”; nutjobs who advocate killing Obama; National Security Agency wiretapping; Texas textbooks and evolution (a subject of this blog in 2009 and 2010); George W. Bush addressing the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute; some loony Sarah Palin fiscal hypocrisy; Chris Christie’s flip-flop on immigration; and Rand Paul’s plagiarism. What, you expected me to go six months without criticizing a few conservatives?

Most of those Facebook comments came during the past month and a half, suggesting that I’m being sucked back into caring more about politics than may be healthy. Too bad; I’ll have to keep working on that for the couple of months that remain on my sabbatical. Perhaps I’ll report back after that.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Legal issues, Media literacy, Personal, Politics, Religion, Women, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , | 14 Comments »

On sabbatical

Posted by James McPherson on June 18, 2013

I’m on sabbatical from my “regular job” until the spring semester. Among other things, I’ll revise my small chapter of the the most popular media history text in the U.S., work on a new academic book, and perhaps finish writing a novel that I began some time back. That means I won’t be doing much, if any, writing here.

And however much as I may need a sabbatical break from teaching, I need one even more from the nonsense that now passes for political discourse in this country. I will be doing a bit of fun and easy blogging with a new project (which for the next few months will also become my primary WordPress blog).

And perhaps I’ll write something here once in a while. I can’t seem to help myself, despite my best intentions.

Posted in Education, History, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | 42 Comments »

Should football players be raped more often?

Posted by James McPherson on March 20, 2013

rape cultureObviously the question in the headline above is a stupid one. No one should be raped.

Repeat: NO ONE should be raped. Ever. It doesn’t matter what s/he was wearing or drinking or smoking or saying. Or where. Or when. Or how old or “experienced” s/he is. I use the “s/he” advisedly until now, as victims include men and boys. But of course most are women.

And yet we now live in a rape culture. We don’t just objectify and ridicule women, we revel in that objectification, with all sorts of media (including those pretending to complain about the objectification) using it to draw an audience — as if that doesn’t cheapen whatever else the publication or site has to offer.

The degree to which we have become a rape culture meant that my planned media criticism class for the day went out the window. Instead, we critiqued some news coverage of the Steubenville rape convictions and of rape in the military. And being immersed in the issue — and thinking about the tangentially related issue of how much we value athletes and athletics over many, many more important aspects of life — has prompted me to avoid filling out a March Madness bracket for the first time in years.

Rape occurs seemingly everywhere, not just in those scary foreign places where it has become a weapon of choice for intimidation and social control. Incidentally, even in those places, at least one study suggests “that the most common perpetrators of sexual violence in wartime are husbands, partners or other family members — reminding us to wonder again why spousal rape wasn’t outlawed in all 50 states until 1993 (yes, 20 years ago, probably after you were born) and why some conservatives think we should return to those “good ol’ days.

Rape happens here. On college campuses, even Christian college campuses. At high schools, in churches, and sometimes even on the street (though not as often there as the media might lead you to believe).

And rape happens in incredibly alarming numbers among those whom we trust to defend us in the U.S. military — where one in four women can expect to be raped by her male colleagues, and where a victim is more likely to be raped multiple times than is a non-military rape victim — and among those we idolize for their faux war skills on a football field (also here and here) or basketball court. Some statistics suggest that one-third of campus rapes are committed by athletes. (And regardless of the exact numbers, we never seem to see the band geeks or the academic scholarship winners accused of such crimes).

And what do we do about it? Too often we look to blame people other than the perpetrators. Interesting context comes from an academic report from about five years ago, citing a University of Nebraska policy manual for student athletes:

The paragraph dealing with rape appeared to not so subtly place blame on the potential victim:
“Be careful, especially if you have been drinking, (sic) that you do not misread signals. Trouble has often occurred when a woman has remained alone with several men after a drinking party. While some may feel that this shows poor judgment on the woman’s part, it certainly does not justify rape (The University of Nebraska, 2000, pg.2.)”
The handbook author may not have officially intended to endorse drinking and blame the woman who might be raped, but athletes may have seen this paragraph as containing a hidden message. This message reflects the process of objectification of groupies as deceivers who deserve the rape. In addition, an athlete, in rationalizing his behavior, may feel unfairly persecuted by individuals outside the athletic culture.

Of course it’s not hard to figure out why athletes might feel “unfairly persecuted,” considering that their fans are all too willing to blame the accusers, both before and after the facts of a case become known. The Steubenville rape case showed us that (along with some of the best and worst of what social media have to offer), but so have many other cases — including another one, reported just one day after the Steubenville verdict, this one involving a 13-year-old alleged victim.

But then we already knew years ago that fans were willing to attack alleged victims, from the cases involving Ben Roethlisberger, Kobe Bryant and Jake Plummer (the first two of whom exemplify why I will likely cheer against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Los Angeles Lakers for the rest of my life).

But we expect fans to be morons. More troubling to me is the fact that if athletes are involved, too often media concern seems to be on the athlete — the famous or semi-famous or seemingly pitiful person that for some reason we want to believe the best about — and too few news people ask the question posed this week by Time: “What about the victim?” An leading example this week was provided by CNN, with the video below. Another troubling example from the same case is that all three of the major cable news networks saw fit to air the name of the 16-year-old rape victim.

A Jezebel article last November concluded with: “Can legendary college athletes also be rapists? Of course they can. Can they be ever be convicted rapists? That’s less clear.” Maybe now they will be, more often, after Steubenville (or maybe on-campus rapes will decrease). Maybe this will be “rape culture’s Abu Ghraib moment,” but I’m no more confident of that than I am that another gun massacre will lead to meaningful firearm regulations.

In fact, the only thing that I’m convinced would make most of America care about the frequency with which its young men commit rape would be if star athletes themselves were the victims — if some star football player or basketball player were held down, brutalized, urinated on, videotaped and cast aside.

And, sadly, even that might matter only if it were star male athletes.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Legal issues, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 44 Comments »

Inane confessions of the anonymous kind

Posted by James McPherson on February 23, 2013

When I was a kid, a friend’s mother always seemed to have copies of “confessional” magazines such as True Confessions or True Romance lying around. They seemed pretty silly and I didn’t understand their appeal, though of course I wasn’t among the target audience.

Such publications do have a long history (the issue pictured here is as old as I am). As a media scholar, I now have a better understanding of why those magazines became popular — why people choose the media they do — though at a personal level I still have trouble understanding the attraction of those particular publications.

And like some other forms of other print media, those magazines have largely disappeared. But of course the inane “true confession” style of media has only spread, from Oprah and Jerry Springer to reality television to the “anonymous” Facebook sites that have now become popular with the college crowd — including, sadly, among the generally more sensible students where I teach. Though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised or too disappointed by that; such sites can also be found for the likes of Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Princeton.

In fact, if you want to depress yourself, the next time you’re on Facebook do a search for “university confessions.” Or put in the name of your own university — there’s probably at least one “confessions” page there (some have two or more), with dozens or hundreds of undergrads sharing their supposed insecurities, misdeeds, fantasies, sexual escapades, etc., so that other students can then provide a running commentary.

I wonder: Does the “confessor” who gets the mosts comments feel as if s/he has “won” something?

The Facebook confessions craze is relatively new, but seemingly nearly as ubiquitous as renditions of the “Harlem Shake.” “Confessions” pages have caused problems at a few schools, including the National University of Singapore, the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse and Sam Houston State University. Mostly they just reflect poorly on the students involved and their universities.[Update: At the high school level, perhaps cause more problems have come from both confessions pages and the “Harlem Shake.”]

As a writer and former college student who now spends most of his time around students, I suspect that many of the supposed “confessions” are fiction. Most seem to be trivial. A fair number are simply stupid. A few of the most troubling, whether true or not, seem to reflect a need for their writers to take advantage of the counseling services available (probably for free) at their institutions.

In part because media around the world have chosen to treat them as news, I decided to contribute my small bit here. Still, as far as making a meaningful contribution to the media world at large, the “confessions” might as well have been scribbled in crayon on notebook paper, folded into paper airplanes, and then launched into the wind.

I also suspect that the trend and the sites themselves will be fleeting, disappearing even before their student moderators graduate and go on to other things. In the meantime, the sites will worry some university administrators, titillate some juvenile readers, offend some people, and be ignored by most — pretty much like every other form of student media throughout history.

One thing I do somewhat appreciate about these Facebook sites, particulary compared to blogs: While the original posts may be anonymous, the commenters are not. That undoubtedly reduces some of the vitriol so often found among bloggers and among those who can comment anonymously on blogs — people who obviously should have no more credibility or popularity than the anonymous “true confessions” on Facebook and in once-popular magazines.

Oh, and if you’ve somehow managed to miss the whole “Harlem Shake” phenomenon (which may have absolutely nothing to do with the original “Harlem Shake”), here is a compilation of examples:

Posted in Education, History, Media literacy, Personal, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Lost in America–or at least in two cities

Posted by James McPherson on January 30, 2013

Though at least one major political party seem to be wandering aimlessly, I wasn’t ever actually completely “lost” during a just-completed 18-day trip to New York and Washington, D.C., with a dozen students (see the class blog here). But do I lack a great sense of direction and don’t use a smart phone, and so rely heavily (if not always well) on maps–as some of my students humorously chronicled in the video below.

I will note that we visited approximately 20 media-related sites in the two cities, and found our way to each meeting with time to spare. On the other  hand, I guess the video may provide some support for the common but nutty claim that liberal professors are leading students astray.

I’m fortunate to work in a university that values off-campus study, and have been lucky enough to coordinate two of my last three every-other-year study programs with presidential inaugurations. To be sure, there were a lot fewer people in Washington this year than four years ago–but it was interesting to see the shift in crowds from the Obama supporters there for the Inauguration at the beginning of the week to the people who came for the annual “March for Life” at the end of the week.

Demonstrating that political views are not black and white in America, at least one of my students attended both the inauguration and the march. I avoided both, and though I may disagree with the student’s politics, as a fan of peaceful political activism I commend her decision. Though students sometimes disappoint me, they far more often make me proud to be associated with them.

This year’s group had the added benefit of sharing a hostel with Wiley Drake, a somewhat pitiful “pastor” who earned some degree of notoriety a few years ago by praying for President Obama’s death. A birther who claims Osama bin Laden died in 2007 and who ran for president himself last year, Wiley has an Internet radio/TV show that he broadcasts (poorly) from wherever he happens to be–including from the hostel dining room.

Frankly, my students would do a better job of broadcasting than Drake does, and would generally make more sense. Even if they keep making the mistake of thinking I know where we are going.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Personal, Politics, Religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

My breakfast with George Will, and correcting his errors

Posted by James McPherson on October 16, 2012

Today I had the opportunity to have breakfast with noted conservative political commentator and baseball fan George Will, someone I’ve both admired and criticized at times in the past. OK, saying I had breakfast with him is stretching things: In truth, it was me and several hundred other people eating breakfast, while Will addressed the crowd and then answered a few questions as part of an event hosted by my university.

I wore my best suit and sat at a table sponsored by my local newspaper, chatting before and after the speech with the publisher, the business manager, and and a few editors of the Spokesman-Review. I met Will during a reception after the event, and I’m sure he didn’t remember my name 15 seconds later. Nor should he have.

As would be expected from someone as intellectual, witty and well-paid (typically $40,000+ per speech) as Will, he gave an interesting speech about politics, well-illustrated by baseball anecdotes. Several of the lines I’d heard before, but they were well-delivered, often funny and greeted with appreciation. He didn’t come across as a big fan of Mitt Romney, which might not be surprising considering Romney’s inconsistencies and the fact that Will’s wife has worked for Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry during this campaign.

Still, Will got some things wrong in his speech. For one thing, Will offered the common conservative complaint about inheritance taxes. You can take all your money and blow it in Las Vegas, and that’s fine with government–but you can’t give it to your kids, he said. And of course that’s a blatant mischaracterization long promoted by “death tax” folks. In fact, if you choose to toss away all your money in a casino, the casino will pay taxes. Likewise, you can give away anything you want, to anyone–but the recipient should expect to pay taxes on the gift. Despite what Will and others would have you believe, it’s not the giver who is taxed; it’s the receiver.

And most of the time, if we’re talking about inheritance taxes, even the recipient isn’t significantly affected. Only the estates of millionaires like Will actually get taxed at all by the federal government–a fact that would Founding Father and “Common Sense” author Thomas Paine would find appalling. It is ironic that so many Will-style conservatives who promote “equality of opportunity” have no problem with the children of millionaires starting out with little chance of having personal stupidity bringing them down to the economic level of the smartest and hardest-working children born into poverty.

Will also criticized the format of the presidential debates, and I happen to agree with him in that regard. These tightly regulated political events are not “debates,” and (like me and many others) Will suggested he would like to see Lincoln-Douglas-style debates in which each candidate talks, uninterrupted, at length. But then Will added something like, “Can you imagine either of these guys being able to string together coherent paragraphs for an hour?” Many in the audience chuckled at the implication that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney would be smart enough to keep up with someone like, say, George Will.

But in fact, I can imagine it. In fact, though it will never happen because of cowardly party handlers, I love to imagine such a scenario. Neither of the presidential candidates got where he is by being an idiot, and having the opportunity to speak for an hour or so at a time–which both men have undoubtedly done numerous times in their noteworthy pasts–and then to answer an opponent’s comments might actually force each to stray from pre-scripted jokes and talking points. Obama might even prepare (though after his first debate performance this year, I assume he’s done a bit more prep for tonight’s version).

Will’s mischaracterizations of inheritance taxes and of the intellects of Obama and Romney are common ones, of course, and today’s errors were pretty minor compared to some in his past. And to be fair, someone who spends as much time in the public eye as Will does is bound to be wrong or to speak too flippantly some of the time. I’ve criticized him in a book (something I didn’t bring up today) for a couple of things: helping Ronald Reagan practice for a debate with Jimmy Carter (using a stolen Carter briefing book) and then praising Reagan for his performance after the debate, and for repeating a myth that Al Gore (rather than a supporter of George H.W. Bush) was the first to “use Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis” in 1988.

I started reading Will’s column when I was a kid, and have always admired his intellect, his use of the language and his love and understanding of baseball–but frankly I thought he went a bit nuts during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, letting his disgust over Clinton’s personal behavior color his perspective on more political issues. Since then he seems to have reverted to his more rational self, and I do enjoy reading his column and listening to him on Sunday mornings. But I never forget that he’s every bit as biased as I am, and therefore prone to errors that support his own side.

And even when we’re not factually wrong, sometimes we’ll just disagree. For example, Will criticized early voting, because he misses the civic exercise of going to a polling place on election day. I miss it, too–but I’d rather have more people voting while diminishing the prospect of having an “October surprise” swing an election. The old system favors financially secure conservatives, while early voting aids those who work long hours. I wish Will–a lifelong fan of perhaps the ultimate working-class team, the Chicago Cubs–had more empathy for their struggles.

Next day: After the breakfast Will went on to San Francisco to provide debate commentary for ABC. Afterward he declared Obama the winner and indicated that the debate was far, far better than what his words of that morning indicated he expected: “It was a very good fight. I have seen every presidential debate in American  history since the floor of Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. This was immeasurably the  best.”

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Personal, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Romney mountain-high in Colorado

Posted by James McPherson on October 4, 2012

Colorado may be a swing state, but Barack Obama may have developed a new dislike for the Centennial State this week. First came his dismal debate performance, in which Obama demonstrated that he didn’t learn from Clint Eastwood not to walk onto a stage unless you know what you want to say. Now two Colorado professors–using a model they say has correctly predicted the winner of the past eight presidential elections–say that Mitt Romney will win the presidential election.

Actually they originally said so back in August for a peer-reviewed study, and conservative blogs have been touting the study ever since. But since the researchers noted that their data was from data gathered in June and would later be updated, I essentially ignored it–other than to send political science professors Kenneth Bickers and Michael Berry an email requesting an update when they were ready to release it. Today, professor Berry kindly sent me a link to the press release announcing the new results.

As far as I know, only the Denver Post has beaten me to the announcement that, according to the new data, “President Barack Obama is expected to receive 208 votes — down five votes from their initial prediction — and short of the 270 needed to win.”

Perhaps Bickers and Berry are right. But the conservative professor that I had lunch with today and I think otherwise. Neither of us happens to be a political scientist, just political junkies, but a host of electoral maps from the likes of Real Clear Politics, CNN, polltrack.com, electoral-vote.com, Intrade, Nate Silver, the Washington Post, the Princeton Election Consortium, 270towin, and even the conservative Rasmussen Reports also show Romney to be in serious trouble.

One thing about it though: If Berry and Bickers are somehow proven right, they ought to auction off their services for 2016. And now conservatives will have one more reason to be enthused, while Romney has another reason to appreciate the Colorado state motto: Nil Sine Numine, or “Nothing without Providence” (sometimes translated as “Nothing without the Deity”).

P.S.: Reading the press release a bit more closely, we see, “The model foresees Romney carrying New Mexico, North Carolina, Virginia, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.” But even Rasmussen is calling Pennsylvania “safe (for) Obama,” and most maps have him leading in almost all of the swing states. Romney could win. But most of us who follow politics closely don’t find it likely.

Post-election update: Of the eleven states mentioned above, Romney actually carried ONE–North Carolina–demonstrating the difference between political science modeling and actual polling.

Posted in Education, History, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 24 Comments »

Happy Thanksgiving–even if you’re not a white middle-class American

Posted by James McPherson on November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving.

Above is a classic 1951 expression of what some of the things we have to be thankful for today as Americans (assuming we’re not those Native Americans typically cast as Pilgrim Squanto/Tonto helpmates in the traditional Thanksgiving saga, before William Bradford and other Colonial forefathers were expressing thanks that they could kill so many Indians.

Below are some highlights of the video, along with my related comments:

Expressing thanks for the “free public library,” public education and “hot water out of the tap”?

Sounds like socialism to me.

Thankful to “be able to go to any church I want”? Even one that’s not Christian? Hmm.

“For living where schools–all schools–open their doors to a guy who wants to learn”?

Well, a white guy, anyway, here in 1951.

“Thankful that my children have the privilege of being born safely, and of growing up healthy and strong”?

Not as privileged as kids in Canada or Australia or New Zealand or virtually any European nation, but much better than if they were poor or non-white Americans.

“Glad Dad doesn’t have to work slave hours, that there are evenings and Sundays and vacations when we can all be together”?

And so thank God for the unions that brought us those things?

Thankful for “a place we can be together in privacy” and “knowing the knock on our door is nothing to fear”?

At least for most white middle-class Americans, before the Patriot Act.

“And I’m thankful for my newspaper … more valuable than any amount of money, because in it the editor’s got the privilege of printing what he thinks, and I’ve got the privilege of agreeing with him or not, however the facts strike me.”

Hallelujah.

“And finally, I’m thankful for being able to believe, in spite of everything, that somehow, some way, the unity we’ve got here in the Johnson family will someday spread to men and nations throughout the world.”

However delusional the thought: Amen.

Posted in Education, History, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »