Friday, May 29, 2015

Bad progressive myths

  1. Court victories preserve our rights.

    In fact, court victories nowadays delegitimize the courts. The courts these days are called upon to rule on controversies that are live and bitter in our polarized society, and the courts therefore are often seen to be as partisan as any legislature or executive. Moreover, court rulings often lead to reactive legislation to correct what the courts are seen to have gotten wrong. The so-called Religious Freedom Restoration laws at the federal and state levels are notable examples of such legislation. They're also examples of why such laws are such bad ideas.

    Rather than relying on the courts, progressives need to change the hearts and minds of the public. The far right has been pretty good at doing that, or at least at changing the terms of our political discourse far to the right. Progressives have to match that effort. We have some hope of success, too: on issues like income inequality and grotesquely unjust treatment of different races (and classes) by the criminal justice system, progressives hold the high moral ground and can muster far better arguments than the far right, which clings to the policy prescriptions which got us into our current mess.

  2. The do-nothing Congress is the primary obstacle to getting things done.

    Progressive news outlets love to bandy about the statistic of the last Congress being the least productive in history in terms of bills passed. First, it's juvenile and it trivializes Congress' role in our democracy to gauge its performance by a meaningless but easily-ascertained quantity. The more important objection, though, is that Congress is precisely as good and as bad as the electorate. The electorate is divided. Nobody is happy that more laws weren't passed, but what laws could have been passed that wouldn't have antagonized nearly half the population? The laws your average Tea Partyer wants are hardly the ones I want. Do-nothing may be better than do-bad.

    More to the point, to focus ire on Congress is to miss the bigger point: progressives must change the hearts and minds of the public. You change the public mood, you make it possible to elect better politicians. (Possible — not inevitable.)

  3. Stringently logical arguments will win the day.

    I'm really sad about this. Logical, rational argument is supposed to trump all else. However, the truth is that people know what is rational — but they don't always care. Enough studies of human behavior have confirmed the non-rationality of our decision-making processes that to deny this truth is, well, irrational. Yet progressives keep acting as if we can bludgeon our recalcitrant opponents into agreement with data and logic alone. T'ain't so. We need complementary rhetorical strategies that take the reality of human behavior into account. (The far right is much better attuned to how people make decisions than progressives are. The far right is in trouble only because the flimsiness of its arguments on many issues is becoming too difficult to hide.)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Nightly Show needs work

Larry Wilmore's Nightly Show is disappointing.

On The Daily Show Wilmore could use Jon Stewart as a foil, a handy surrogate for the average clueless white person. That worked well for his generally world-weary persona who had seen every permutation of racial animus and oppression and had a ready supply of snark.

On The Nightly Show, he's on his own for the opening segment, which is where he tries to hit the two or three stories of the day. It's painfully clear that he has spent most of his life as a writer, not a performer: he doesn't have the fine sense of timing that a former stand-up like Stewart has, nor does he have the luxury of losing himself in a character like Stephen Colbert's Colbert Report blowhard. (More on Colbert shortly.) Even the writing lacks a certain snap: it nips where it should bite. Since the show is co-produced by Stewart, who has a nose for writers who can draw blood, I can only assume that it's Wilmore who is softening the edges: either he has assembled writers who can't quite hit the mark, or, more likely, he won't let them go for the jugular.

In the show's second and third segments, Wilmore gets to have a conversation with his guests. This is both good and bad. It's good because Wilmore comes alive when he's talking to someone; he loosens up and riffs more freely. It's bad because with generally three or four guests, nobody has time to say much. Wilmore structures the discussion around a handful of questions intended to make room for comedy; this makes matters worse by limiting the scope of the conversation so nothing substantive can be said, while limiting the comic answers to often obvious one-liners. I come away from these segments acutely frustrated that I've neither learned anything nor laughed.

Of course, The Nightly Show occupies the former time slot of the celebrated Colbert Report, a show that was so good it rivaled (some would say eclipsed) The Daily Show. Colbert himself is the kind of talent who comes along but rarely: a fearless improviser with a razor-sharp comic sensibility, yes, but also quick-witted, smart (with a capacious memory, which is not the same thing) and genuinely sweet. The show started as a parody of cable-news punditry, but evolved into a gloriously versatile vehicle for whatever Colbert the performer wanted his persona to do and to say. Generally what he wanted to say was not just funny, but whip-smart, too. His evisceration of George W. Bush and the Washington press corps at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner was an example of the deceptively effortless way he could turn hypocrisy and lies against their purveyors — all while making his audience (which didn't include the rich and powerful) laugh riotously.

How much does Colbert's incandescent show hang over Wilmore?

The answer, unfortunately, is, "A lot".

Wilmore might have avoided comparisons with Colbert if The Nightly Show didn't traffic in commentary on current events. It does, though. That makes the comparisons unavoidable, and Wilmore doesn't measure up. He's not as funny, obviously, but he's also not as informative. That's a serious shortcoming when you consider that Stewart and Colbert set the standard and that John Oliver is raising the bar every week. (Oliver casts his own shadow over Wilmore as yet another Daily Show alumnus who redefined the satirical news show format to suit his strengths.)

What should Wilmore do to fix his show?

I'm not sure. It seems clear he doesn't want to follow the Stewart/Colbert pattern of having a single guest each night, so perhaps he ought to give the round-table format a fighting chance of producing something good by ditching his opening solo presentation. Whether or not he extends the amount of time devoted to his guests, though, he should probably make his questions more serious, or at least less gimmicky. His "keeping it 100" (as in "100% real") bit, his most-repeated trope, puts a straitjacket on his writers as well as his guests and trivializes the conversation. (I haven't seen it the last couple of nights; perhaps he came to the same conclusion I did and has dropped it.) Stewart isn't afraid to let the comedy lapse in favor of solid, informative discussion during the guest segment. Perhaps Wilmore should adopt the same philosophy. His guests might also appreciate that, particularly those like Neil de Grasse Tyson who probably hope to make substantive remarks but who are limited to answering silly questions as part of lame, partially scripted bits. I know audience members like me would appreciate better discussions.

Wilmore has only a little time to make any fixes. It's unlikely his current audience will defect to Jimmy Fallon, though the snarkier Jimmy Kimmel may be a draw. When Jon Stewart leaves, though, Wilmore's lead-in will be at risk. If Trevor Noah stumbles, some might switch to Conan O'Brien and stay with him the whole hour. Noah is likely to do well enough to keep most of the current Daily Show audience, though. The real threat to Wilmore will be when Colbert starts his CBS show in September. I, for one, will give him a try. If he can bring anything new to the 11:30 show format, and The Nightly Show isn't significantly better than it is now, I might abandon Wilmore altogether. I doubt I'll be alone.

I root for the underdog, Larry, but you're making it difficult. Fix up your show, pronto.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Teach the definition

I just started reading "Defending Darwin" and I'm already irked. Not by the author's story — to the contrary, it saddens me to no end that the phrase "defending Darwin" still applies to a current struggle, rather than an historical one — but by this:
“What do you teach?” Responding to such a question should be easy and invite polite conversation, but I usually brace for a negative reaction. At least half the time the person flinches with disapproval when I answer “evolution,” and often the conversation simply terminates once the “e-word” has been spoken. Occasionally, someone will retort: “But there is no evidence for evolution.” Or insist: “It’s just a theory, so why teach it?”
I'm not surprised there's often a negative reaction to the idea that one teaches evolution. (I don't understand why the author doesn't say "biology" and save himself a lot of grief, but that's his lookout.) Nor am I especially peeved about that negative reaction: saddened, yes, but not peeved. I've come to accept that this country has a long, long way to go before the damage wrought by literalist readings of the Bible is fixed.

No, what ticks me off to no end is the hopelessly ignorant retort, "It's just a theory".

I was going to explain what the word "theory" means in a scientific context, but fortunately the piece's author, James Krupa, does so just a little way into his essay:

Unfortunately, one of the most misused words today is also one of the most important to science: theory. Many incorrectly see theory as the opposite of fact. The National Academy of Sciences provides concise definitions of these critical words: A fact is a scientific explanation that has been tested and confirmed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing it; a theory is a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence generating testable and falsifiable predictions.


Theory is the most powerful and important tool science has, but nonscientists have perverted and diluted the word to mean a hunch, notion, or idea. Thus, all too many people interpret the phrase “evolutionary theory” to mean “evolutionary hunch.”

Darwin will still have to be defended for a long time to come, both in this country and anywhere else ancient religious writings are held up as incontrovertible truth. But one thing those of us who subscribe to a scientific understanding of existence should not have to do is to fight with the sorry ignorance of what a "scientific theory" is.

Forget "teaching the controversy" — teach the fucking definition!!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Seat belts

The California Highway Patrol is apparently focusing on seat belt enforcement this Memorial Day weekend.

Apparently nine out of ten of us wear a seat belt. Can you think of any other common activity that garners 90% participation? If we could get that level of participation in voting, this would be a different country.

Besides, the only one who will be hurt if you don't wear your belt is you. If you drive drunk, you could hurt or kill others.

I don't want young people to die needlessly, but their parents or guardians should be the ones to teach them to use seat belts. As for adults, if they choose to drive without a belt on, that's their lookout and they (or their survivors) will have to live with the consequences. The Highway Patrol should worry about stopping behavior that could harm others.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Letterman exits late night

I watched Conan O'Brien last night. I've never been a fan but I was intrigued by a quick glimpse of a teaser for last night's episode: on the standard clip of the host was superimposed the words, in a giant font, "GO WATCH DAVE".

Sure enough, that was the message O'Brien gave his TV audience: go watch Dave. As in David Letterman.

O'Brien's monologue was a touching tribute to Letterman, whose late-night NBC show O'Brien inherited and, as O'Brien candidly admitted, nearly lost. O'Brien credited an unsolicited appearance by Letterman as a guest with restoring O'Brien's own morale as well as his staff's.

O'Brien and last night's first guest, Patton Oswalt, spent much of their time struggling to explain what Letterman meant to them and to other comedians of their generation.

Even if I hadn't already planned to do so, it would have felt wrong to ignore O'Brien when, at the stroke of 11:35, he frantically urged us to change the channel. It genuinely seemed to mean that much to him.

As far as I know, every one of Letterman's direct time-slot competitors implicitly or explicitly steered his audience to Dave last night. That's a gesture of respect unimaginable for anyone else. It certainly wasn't one extended to Leno. It has to hurt the insecure Leno that for the current denizens of late night, Letterman, not Leno, is their touchstone. Letterman is their Carson.

My entirely unscientific assessment of the coverage of Letterman's retirement is that it has been more extensive and a lot more admiring than the coverage of Leno's was. I don't think it has anything to do with Letterman being better-liked (I don't think he is). More entertainers and critics just seem moved to express how much Letterman meant to them.

About Letterman, I have to admit that, as with O'Brien, I've never been a fan. But I have to give him credit for having inspired so many others. To get the kind of praise he has gotten over the last couple of months, he had to have been doing something right.