Alas, Zimbabwe!

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I had visited several African countries, but my 2009 flight to Harare turned out to be the most stomach churning. The ongoing expropriation of farms owned by people of European descent and the associated violence in Zimbabwe was international news in those days. On the plane, I watched two movies, Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland. Aided by a couple of glasses of wine, the two movies and the news from Zimbabwe got mixed up in my mind. I was expecting to encounter a violent society, general chaos, and militants with AK-47s. I was craving for my plane to somehow turn around.

But Harare proved safer than many other places I had been to in Africa. When we arrived, the airport was in complete darkness because of a shortage of electricity. The officials looked bored and sleepy. Yet interesting events awaited me. I was to get arrested in Harare. I was to spend time with Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, who was at that time an international star, a hero of human-rights activists for his opposition to President Robert Mugabe, and soon to be prime minister (a position without much power) under him. I was to be befriended by a relative of Mugabe, with whom I spent two days. I was also soon to become, to use a word that is yet to find a place in the dictionary, a multitrillionaire.

When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free.

Zimbabwe had recently lost control of its currency. Inflation was so rapid — reaching as much as one million percent at one point — that the nation’s money was left with no value. A few months before I arrived, people had stopped using the local currency. The only medium of transactions was the US dollar, the South African rand, or the euro. When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free. By this time, you couldn’t even buy a local bus ticket with those notes.

Nothing was cheap. Even for simple food and fruit, the prices were much higher than I would have paid in Canada. A kilo of onions was US $1.60, sugar was $0.85, and potatoes were a dollar. I could have bought a cheap table fan for something between $50 and $110. A 300-gram packet of Kellogg’s cornflakes was $2.10. A 400 ml of Pantene shampoo was $7.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap — a couple of dollars or less a day — and land amply fertile. Development economists struggle to explain why even basic foodstuffs are so expensive in such countries. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into places like Zimbabwe?

The explanation is very easy, but very incorrect, politically. I will zero in on it at the end.

Despite the high price of goods that should have provided huge incentives for people to work, the roads of Harare were full of thousands and thousands of unemployed men. Those trying to do something were selling produce — exactly the same produce — from small roadside shops. Prepaid vouchers for cellular phones were being sold everywhere, partly as currency or a hedge against inflation.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into the country?

But what I was exploring was the economy that represented the higher tail-end of the national GDP, which was then $606 per capita. Harare, not the hinterland, was my principal location.

Despite extreme poverty and unemployment, Harare was a safe city. I tried striking up conversations in fast-food joints with those of European descent, and contrary to what I expected, they told me about the lack of ethnic conflicts in Zimbabwe. Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party. I got the impression that it wasn’t necessarily the violent aspects of Zimbabwean culture but its relative sheepishness that allowed violent people to rule the country’s institutions and not get challenged. If a significant minority doesn’t get fired up about liberty and proper institutions, the society must fall into political tyranny and chaos. I soon lost my fear and walked around freely, but bad things managed to happen, evidence of the tyranny beneath the calm.

At one point, a policeman came out of nowhere, started shouting at me, and held my wrist while I was midway crossing a road. He was shouting at me and pulling me in the other direction. I declined to go with him unless he let go of my wrist. We agreed that I would walk with him to his small post at the corner of the road. He had seen me photographing the parliament building, which is illegal. For him not knowing that law was the ultimate crime. He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation. My only other option was to look important and name-drop. So that’s what I did. In a tribal society, it is pecking-order and might-is-right that rule. The rule of law is not just unimportant, it isn’t worth the paper it is written on — it is incomprehensible to anyone, including the judges.

Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party.

One evening, Morgan Tsvangirai visited the hotel bar, where I managed to have a private conversation with him. Before becoming a politician, he was a trade union leader and had worked in a nickel mine. He told me bluntly that if he came to power he would be “fair” but would expropriate whatever he needed for the good of Zimbabwe. When I told him that international investors would not put money into Zimbabwe unless they saw profits and safety for their capital, the idea made no sense to him. He seemed to have absolutely no understanding of the concepts of private property and profit. Lack of ideas was in him so palpable that I doubt he could even be labeled a Marxist.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse. Ironically, that understanding had completely escaped the international media and other international organizations that were lobbying to have Mugabe replaced by Tsvangirai.

I had met a lot of well-educated Zimbabweans who were living in London and New York. They expressed their patriotism and their craving to return. But they made it amply clear that they weren’t going to do so except as expatriates with hardship allowances added to their Western salaries. In the economic structure of Zimbabwe this would simply not add up. So they did not return.

He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation.

For whatever reason, I had come to be seen in Harare as a man wielding huge money power. A relative of Mugabe befriended me and decided to show me around during the last two days of my visit. He showed me his fleet of cars and his several palatial houses. He also showed me expropriated properties and farms of ethnically European farmers. Genteel readers may find my happily “enjoying” a trip to such farms a bit repulsive. But revulsion would simply have meant that I wouldn’t have had the experience, or have been able to write about it. We drove around Harare and surrounding areas like royalty, with the police now extremely servile. Our vehicle always picked up pace when we drove closer to police blockades.

So what does the future hold for Zimbabwe?

Zimbabweans are extremely unskilled and have a very high time preference. The moderately skilled Zimbabweans have moved on to greener pastures. Brain-drain is real, in Zimbabwe as in the rest of the Third World. None of this augurs well.

I reflected on what the “liberation” movement of Zimbabwe must have been like. I had good laughs with a lot of Zimbabweans and found them very friendly, but I found no ingredient in them that would make them fight for liberty and freedom, if they had any concept of what those words meant. The nationalist movements of the colonized countries are too sugarcoated in history books. Those movements were mainly about local goons fighting for power when Europeans were getting tired and colonization had started to become less profitable.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse.

As I write this, Robert Mugabe has been removed in a coup. He had been in power since the foundation of the republic in 1980. He was, in effect, installed by a relatively rational entity: the British. No such entity exists in the extremely irrational and tribal Zimbabwe. The concepts of liberty, planning, reason, and the rule of law do not exist there. Zimbabwean democracy is incapable of finding another Mugabe. It will by definition find a significantly worse “leader.”

The world today is celebrating the end of Mugabe and the rise of new light in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans danced and celebrated the removal of Mugabe and the appearance of their new-found “freedoms.” But behind the facade they are happy for something completely different. When they use the word “freedom” they are expecting the end of Mugabe to produce an era of free-stuff, goodies that flow without having to put in any effort. In their worldview, free-stuff should come to them without obligation to plan, invest, or strive for something more than momentary pleasure, including the pleasure of political “liberation.”

Let us zero in.

Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of Africa. Gleaning out the key factors that made it a comparatively prosperous society is fairly easy, but hard to utter. In the old days its institutional spine was British rule and farmers of European heritage. Without their return in some form, Zimbabwe has no hope.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would.

Of course, the milieu of Western society and international organizations is such that anyone who holds a politically incorrect view is immediately thrown out. So these organizations simply do not have the capacity to prescribe corrective action for Zimbabwe. They recite “democracy” as a treatment for all ills. But a “democratic” society that lacks the concepts of practical reason, limited government, and the rule of law does not have the ability to find a good leader. It will merely feel attraction toward the person who offers the most goodies.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would. They will be expecting fresh elections to do the job. This demand for elections and democracy has been the never-ending, simplistic prescription of international organizations in the postcolonial world. But the prescription does not work. Zimbabwe will, unfortunately, get worse, much worse.




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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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