The Visualization Test

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When I was a kid, a few million years ago, my parents subscribed to the Sunday edition of the Detroit Times (now defunct). The part of the paper that interested me was the eight pages of color cartoons, gathered in a section called “Puck: The Comic Weekly.” It was headed by a tiny figure of Puck and a quotation from one of his remarks in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “What fools these mortals be!”

The message appealed to me almost as much as the beautifully drawn, intricately plotted, glacially moving episodes of Prince Valiant. I was too young to read Shakespeare, but I was starting to get the point: mortal life is one hell of a crazy thing.

You know you live in a crazy world when its reputedly big people do things for no reason at all — or, to put this in a more pedantically accurate way, do things that no one asked them to do, things that no one wants them to do, things that can accomplish nothing except to get them into trouble. I need only mention Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

It’s crazy for someone who wants to go down in history as an ultra-discreet manager of America’s super-sleuths to go around blurting things out with no show of evidence.

A crazy world, however, is not just a world of elephantine insanity. It’s a world in which every little opportunity for craziness is promptly identified and eagerly exploited. It’s a world of micro-craziness.

On November 12, John Brennan, who thank God is a former head of the CIA, opined to CNN that President Trump “for whatever reason is either intimidated by Mr. Putin, afraid of what he could do or what might come out as a result of these investigations.” He said that Trump sends “a very disturbing signal to our allies and partners who are concerned about Russian interference in their democratic processes as well.”

There was a reason for Brennan to say such things: he wants to continue to be seen on TV. But it’s crazy for someone who wants to go down in history as an ultra-discreet manager of America’s super-sleuths to go around blurting things out with no show of evidence. This man wants to be known as a deep thinker (something that, by the way, his CIA X-ray vision should have told him was not what deep thinkers ever want, or reveal that they want). So he pontificated about disturbing signals and democratic processes — which, for no reason except pomposity, he pronounces “processEEs.” Try as I may, I can’t visualize what he’s talking about. What processEEs?

I tried picturing Angela Merkel (a person whom I do not delight to picture, but I’ll rise to the call of duty) phoning Emmanuel Macron (ditto) to say:

“Whaddup, Manny. Listen, I’m very disturbed this afternoon.”

“Oh, why?”

“I’ve received a disturbing signal from President Trump.”

“Oh, he’s an idiot. So what?”

“No, I am very disturbed. I am concerned about Russian interference in the democratic processes of our countries. I fear that Trump is either intimidated by Mr. Putin or afraid of what he could do or what might come out as a result of these investigations.”

“What investigations?”

Investigations into the influence of Russia on the November 2016 election in the United States.”

“Well, if you put it that way, I am concerned as well.”

Try as I may, however, I can’t visualize any real person saying anything to the announcement of such concerns except, “What the hell are you talking about?” And try as I may, I can’t keep myself from believing that the attempt to visualize what a statement means, to get a clear and sensible image out of it, is a test of its validity as an act of communication.

If you want another example of words that fail the test, I have one ready, this time from the Right side of the political spectrum. It’s in an article in PJ Media excoriating Senator Tim (Smilin’ Jack) Kaine for his refusal to return money donated to him by disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. I confess that I’m amused by Kaine’s idea that he can’t give the money back, because (dramatic pause) he’s already spent it! Yeah, and so what? But I also confess that I am skeptical about the idea that money derived from immoral sources has to be returned to the sources themselves, thus rewarding them for their immorality, or else handed off to some charity, so that its holiness will miraculously remove the moral contagion.

America’s tendency, throughout its history, has been to designate certain offenders as people about whom one can say anything, anything at all, and expect one’s listeners to nod in agreement.

Yet passing beyond all that, it’s hard to make sense of PJM’s critique of Senator Kaine: “He's not prepared to give Weinstein's blood-money back or try to donate it. He just got to profit off of a sexual assaulter.” Again the question: “What are you talking about?” I know some of the things that Weinstein is supposed to have done, and they are all bad things, but sexual assault has now been given so many meanings, from bothering people to raping them, that the phrase, seen by itself, no longer has meaning. It evokes no picture. We are also, it is true, offered the more pungent image of blood-money, but this image, though clear, is false. Weinstein didn’t make money from assaulting people; he lost it that way, by the bushel. Also, the man is an ape, but he is not a murderous ape — and what else could “blood-money” mean?

America’s tendency, throughout its history, has been to designate certain offenders as people about whom one can say anything, anything at all, and expect one’s listeners to nod in agreement. This is a bad tendency, and it makes no difference whether the offenses are real or whether they are such old-time, say-anything-you-want-against-it offenses as witchcraft, homosexuality, and questioning whether the Great War was a good idea. Mobspeak is mobspeak, no matter what the subject is; and that’s what we’re hearing with regard to Weinstein and his ilk.

Morally excited people often make their point so emphatically that all one can see in their statements is a preposterous image of themselves. Here’s something along that line. It’s a statement by Mika Brzezinski, reputed star of cable TV, about the Weinstein affair. (Cries of “Enough already! Find another topic!” But to proceed . . . ) Brzezinski tweeted: “I have a three-book deal with Weinstein Books. . . . I can’t go forward with those books unless Harvey resigns.” She can’t? Picture a woman so stunned by the revelation of Weinstein’s flaws that she can no longer make her mouse run about her screen. You can’t picture that; you start laughing too hard. But the really difficult thing to visualize is someone, even Harvey Weinstein, patron of the arts, thinking hard and long and then declaring, “What this world needs is not one book by Mika Brzezinski, but three!” Evidently Ms. B has no trouble visualizing that; she is certain that not going forward with those books is a threat that will make the world tremble. The world, however, may not have such a daring imagination.

Mobspeak is mobspeak, no matter what the subject is.

The rule is: If you can’t visualize it, don’t write it; and even if you can visualize it, ask yourself what, if anything, your readers will see. It isn’t enough to gesture toward some possible meaning.

For an exhibit of such a gesture, I turn to the venerable British Broadcasting Corporation. There used to be an idea that the BBC was a standard of good, though precious, English. If you still have that idea, forget it. Consider a current sample of high-class British lingo: subject, Africa; date, November 18. Reporting on the political liquidation of Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe and his spouse, the BBC referred to “Grace Mugabe, who is four decades younger than him.” Oh, that much younger than him is?

I’m not mentioning this report just to be unkind about its grammar (although that’s fun). My real concern is a passage that illustrates how easy it is to destroy your meaning if you don’t try to visualize it. According to the BBC,

Our correspondent says the situation may appear to be getting out of [the Zimbabwean ruling party’s] control and there could be a broad push to introduce a transitional government that includes the opposition.

OK, I’m picturing a person who says something. So far, so good. He or she says that there is a situation. All right; “situation” is pretty abstract, but I know it means political events in Zimbabwe — mobs in the streets, that sort of thing. I have some kind of picture in my mind. Now, this situation appears to be out of control. . . . But no, that’s not quite right. It may appear to be getting out of control. . . . Picture that. Go ahead. Try.

Sometimes we can’t blame writers and speakers. Sometimes the audience is at fault.

The depressing thing is that people are actually getting paid to write stuff like this. I suppose someone also got paid to write a news item for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the appointment of a new president at Morehouse College. He is David A. Thomas, and he

said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution his goals include increasing enrollment from its current 2,200 students to 2,500 students, providing more scholarships, finding opportunities for every student to study abroad, supporting faculty research and engaging in issues that improve outcomes for African-American men, noting Morehouse “is a place where we can offer solutions to those issues.”

I’m not sure what Mr. Thomas provided as a referent for “those issues,” so I’m not sure whether he thinks that finding opportunities for students, supporting research, and increasing enrollments are things that need to be solved. But by the time his interview was written up by the AJC, he was proposing to offer solutions even to issues that improve outcomes. And if you think this is hard to visualize, first try to visualize engaging in issues. If “issues” means “problems,” as it usually does these days, I hope that the new college president doesn’t engage himself too deeply. But even if it just means “matters,” how do you picture that? And how do matters “improve outcomes”? And if they do that, why, again, should Mr. Thomas solve them?

In statements of this kind, a resistance to being visualized is considered an asset.

No one can visualize any of this; it’s all just words, with no pictures attached. But sometimes we can’t blame writers and speakers for engaging in issues that don’t improve outcomes. Sometimes the audience is at fault.

Denise Young Smith, Apple’s (former) Vice President of Inclusion and Diversity, found this out when she told a conference of diversity mavens that

there can be 12 white blue-eyed blonde men in a room and they are going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.

The words are clear and self-evidently true. Yet they were understood as meaning, among many other things, “that there really is no need to look beyond any sort of seeming homogeneity within Silicon Valley’s tech workforce (which is mostly white and overwhelmingly male).” Smith, who is African American, was forced to apologize for her “choice of words” and then to step down from her job — a position she had held for only six months, in a company at which she had worked for 20 years. Apple has proclaimed that 50% of its “new hires are from historically underrepresented groups in tech.” I’m trying to visualize what that means, and unfortunately I can’t, except that it does not include Ms. Smith. I assume that in statements of this kind a resistance to being visualized is considered an asset.




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Check Your Premises!

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Ah, NPR — how we love to hate you . . . and guardedly to love you. Love you for such gems as “Car Talk," “A Prairie Home Companion,” and “Freakonomics.” Hate you for the smug sanctimoniousness that passes for “objective” reporting, riddled with questionable premises axiomatically postulated.

It’s not that interviews with the likes of David Axelrod or public sector union bosses are slanted — after all, we expect left-wing boilerplate from them. It’s the public affairs programs, such as “Talk of the Nation” and the “Diane Rehm Show,” which, while pretending to be objective, are blinded by their own unquestioned assumptions. This is particularly evident when the host — be it Rehm or Neal Conan — in an effort to be balanced during roundtable discussions with a potpourri of commentators, plays devil’s advocate. The questions of these devil’s advocates often lack conviction or show a gross misunderstanding of the opposing viewpoint. And they are seldom followed up — after what are invariably short, pro-forma answers.

On Fridays, Rehm hosts a roundup discussion of the week’s news. Recently, the subject was the presidential campaign. At one point she asked the panel whether Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital was “fair game” — for an attack by the opposition, I suppose. Instantly, my BS radar quivered, since it’s a given that a candidate’s record should be analyzed and critiqued. The question turned out to be the opening salvo for a nitpicking attack on Romney’s Bain record, private equity in general, obscene profits, and “excessive” wealth. There was no parallel inquiry into whether Barack Obama’s record as a community organizer was “fair game.”

Examine the hidden premises.

In the first instance, the assumption is that work in venture capital and leveraged debt — making a profit by dismembering noncompetitive industries, extracting their residual value, and eliminating the jobs they provide — is problematic, perhaps nefarious. Never mind that failing companies might be better off dissolved, and their assets better employed in a different sector of the economy. Never mind that the benefits to the economy would likely increase employment by making business in a given sector more competitive, despite the short-term loss of jobs. To see this in another way: why should productive capital be wasted subsidizing a dying enterprise producing unwanted goods by overpaid workers at uncompetitive prices?

Although the companies that Bain Capital nurtured back to health and profitability — because, in the judgment of the investors, they showed promise — were dutifully mentioned, the focus of the discussion remained on the euthanatized companies and their lost jobs. Eager to administer the coup de grace, the commentators piled on “excessive” profits and wealth, ignoring whether or not these were acquired honestly through hard work and brains.

Why should productive capital be wasted subsidizing a dying enterprise producing unwanted goods by overpaid workers at uncompetitive prices?

In the second instance — the unasked question (and probably why it wasn’t asked) — the assumption is that work as a community organizer is always noble and beyond criticism. Perhaps it is, but does it qualify a candidate for the presidency, where judgment, leadership and knowledge are paramount?

Mitt Romney’s record — whatever you might think of his policies — at Bain & Company, Bain Capital, and the Salt Lake Winter Olympic games, as well as in the governorship of Massachusetts, demonstrates the sort of judgment, leadership, and knowledge that one expects from a first-class commander-in-chief. In contrast, Barack Obama showed a striking lack of judgment and a foolish naivet√© when he promised to close the Guantanamo prison, to have the most open and accessible administration to date, and to do a lot of other things that he has not done, three and a half years into his presidency. The May 26 issue of The Economist displayed its inimitable sense of humor and irony when it reported that

“Barack Obama accepted an award honouring his administration’s commitment to transparency on March 28th 2011. It was given by a coalition of open-government advocates. But the meeting was closed to reporters and photographers, and was not announced on the president’s public schedule. Occasionally life provides perfect metaphors.”

The article then very seriously ups the ante:

“Yet perhaps none of Mr Obama’s transparency promises has rung hollower than his vow to protect whistleblowers. Thomas Drake, who worked at the National Security Agency, was threatened with life imprisonment for leaking to the Baltimore Sun unclassified details of a wasteful programme that also impinged on privacy. The case against him failed — ultimately he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanour charge of ‘exceeding authorised use of a computer’ — but not before he was hounded out of his job. Mr Obama’s administration tried to prosecute him under the Espionage Act, a law passed in 1917 that prohibits people from giving information ‘with intent or reason to believe that it is to be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of a foreign nation’. Mr Obama has indicted six whistleblowers, including Mr Drake, under the Espionage Act, twice as many as all prior administrations combined, for leaking information not to a ‘foreign nation’ but to the press.”

Finally, to tie the ribbon properly, The Economist contrasts the Obama administration’s secrecy with the new sunshine policy of Georgia’s Republican administration, which opens vast public access to government files. All this from a newspaper that endorsed Obama over McCain in 2008.

As to leadership, President Obama abdicated any vestige of it when he ignored the balanced-budget recommendations of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission and subsequent Super Committee — both of which he had commissioned. And he left the design of health reform in the capable hands of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.

Obama’s knowledge of community organization might be beyond question, but if his role as a teacher of constitutional law at the University of Chicago meant anything, warning bells ought to have chimed in his head as he signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare — as became evident to constitutionalists on June 28 when the Supreme Court’s minority issued vigorously dissenting opinions to the majority’s ruling on its constitutionality.

His lack of economic knowledge is even more abysmal. The Diane Rehm Show referenced above was aired as a follow-up to the Democrats’ critique of Romney’s stint at Bain. TV spots, print advertisements, and an Obama address have caricatured private equity, financiers and of course the Republican candidate as “vampires” and “vultures.” A conflict between profits and unemployment was insinuated. Referring to these attacks, The Economist agreed with Romney’s oft-stated comment that Obama has no idea how the economy works or how jobs are created, and in its June 2 issue opined, “Mr Obama is guilty not of rhetorical excess but of economic muddle. That is far more worrying.”

But back to NPR.

The then soon-to-be-expected Supreme Court ruling on the legality of Obamacare supplied the theme for another recent Diane Rehm roundtable discussion. To the NPR powers-that-be, the constitutionality of the law must have seemed indefensible. So once again, they changed the premise and reframed the debate to stack the deck in their favor. Instead of focusing on the substance of the upcoming decision, discussion focused on the haplessness of five to four decisions and the desirability of broader consensus among the justices. This was chewing on the sizzle instead of the steak. Ironically, even though Obamacare was upheld, it was still a five to four decision.

Conan asked his audience whether NPR offered good value to its listeners, thereby subtly shifting the premise of the argument and justifying the subsidy. He received nothing but paeans of praise for NPR — from its own listeners, of course!

On June 15 President Obama displayed a presidential quality that is anathema to lovers of liberty: a lust for power. Bypassing Congress, he ordered the Department of Justice not to enforce certain measures of immigration law, in effect passing the so-called DREAM act by executive order. On the day it happened, Diane Rehm’s Friday roundtable discussion focused on the decree’s compassion, on Congress’s ineffectiveness, on the Republicans' immigration policy muddle, and on the consequences of the president’s move on the political campaign — in particular, how it stole the thunder of Florida Republican Congressman Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American vice-presidential hopeful whose modified DREAM act had a good chance of being enacted, in a conventional manner. In short, she focused on everything except the executive order’s legality.

A Fox News discussion, on the other hand — and virtually at the same time — questioned the constitutionality of the president’s decree, almost to the exclusion of every other aspect.

On another show, NPR itself was the subject du jour. Whenever the nation’s budget is up for discussion, NPR’s subsidy — relatively small as it is — becomes a point of contention for some Republicans. But the animosity conservatives harbor towards public radio for their leftward slant is almost beside the point. Their more basic concerns are twofold: is the subsidy a proper function of government; and can we afford it?

Those questions are about fundamental premises. Yet they were completely ignored when Neal Conan tackled the subject on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.” Conan’s show is sometimes a Gatling gun of vox populi sound bites on whatever the current concern happens to be. During these broadcasts he poses a provocative question and solicits callers for their opinions, granting each of them only a few seconds, and seldom engaging them or directly commenting on what they say. On that day Conan asked his audience whether NPR offered good value to its listeners, thereby subtly shifting the premise of the argument and justifying the subsidy. He received nothing but paeans of praise for NPR — from its own listeners, of course!

Premises are not confined to words. Tone can convey its own hidden premises, and Conan is a master of the craft. Merely by the length of his silence and the inflection on the few words he uses to break it following a caller’s comment he can indicate his approval, disapproval or neutrality. The last is the quality he always strives to project, but the careful listener can often almost hear him muffling a censorious tut-tut-tut.

He doesn’t hold a candle, however, to the archly supercilious Nina Totenberg, NPR’s legal affairs correspondent. It’s never difficult to determine Totenberg’s likes and dislikes, which — you can be certain — are always evident, especially when combined with her East Coast Brahmin accent, which lends a certain emphasis to her tone. She can infuse with utter contempt the utterance of a name or story she disapproves; and she can manage to give weight and portent to anything she considers noteworthy, no matter how trivial or anodyne, by the intonation of her voice.

* * *

Writing is seldom objective; reportage never is. Putting an idea into prose requires choosing words to convey the thought, while even selecting what constitutes a news story, deciding how to report it, or how much context to include, invariably slants it.

This seems such a simple observation. Yet most news organizations are loath to recognize or admit it, and don a mask of faux objectivity that few people see through. With one exception: the aforementionedEconomist.

The Economist is an English weekly news magazine in continuous publication since 1843, with a circulation of 1.5 million. Itcalls itself a “liberal newspaper”, but it is not “liberal” in the American sense. Rather, it is “classical liberal”, sometimes advocating radical libertarian positions. Its June 11 issue carried a critique of charitable tax breaks as a cover story. It advocates the legalization of drugs and open immigration, has criticized the “corporate social responsibility” movement from an ethical perspective, and has strongly defended securities short selling and naked speculation as beneficial practices.

Ironically, the journal’s editorial stance results in much more objective reporting than that of an “objective” source such as NPR — for one thing, because a reader knows up front where The Economist is coming from. Contrast with The New York Times (the “newspaper of record”), with a print circulation of 1 million. The NYT has always considered itself the epitome of objectivity, yet a large majority or readers view it as “liberal” (in the American sense). This view was confirmed in a mid-2004 editorial by the then-public editor, Daniel Okrent, in which he admitted that the newspaper did have a liberal bias. But this bias is not the paper’s stated policy position. Both the NYT and NPR would benefit hugely from such a disclosure, as they would no longer draw accusations of hypocrisy. But don’t hold your breath.

One unexpected bonus from The Economist’s openly classical liberal bias is that they can use humor to drive the point of a story home. Reporting on Zimbabwe’s upcoming elections under President Robert Mugabe’s tyrannically corrupt administration, The Economist offered a photograph of an elderly, loincloth-clad shepherd leaning on his crook, next to a coffin under a tree; nearby, a cow grazed. The caption read: “Four votes for Mr Mugabe.”




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