Non-crazy conspiracy theories

Public Policy Polling classes “Bush intentionally misled on WMD” with “The moon landing was faked.” WTF?

What item does not belong on this list? What were the folks at Public Policy Polling thinking when they included it?

*Global warming is a hoax.
*Osama bin Laden is still alive.
*A UFO crashed in Roswell, NM in 1947 and the US government covered it up.
*A secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government, or New World Order.
*Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks.
*There is a link between childhood vaccines and autism.
*The moon landing was faked.
*Barack Obama is the anti-Christ.
*Bush intentionally misled about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
*The CIA was instrumental in creating the crack cocaine epidemic in America’s inner cities in the 1980’s.
*The government adds fluoride to our water supply for sinister reasons (not just dental health)
*Shape-shifting “lizard people” control our societies by gaining political power.
*A larger conspiracy was at work in the JFK assassination.
*Bigfoot exists.
*The government or the media adds mind-controlling technology to TV broadcast signals.
*Exhaust seen in the sky behind airplanes is actually chemicals sprayed by the government for sinister reasons.

I’ve left out some borderline items from the survey, including “The medical industry and the pharmaceutical industry ‘invent’ new diseases to make money.” (At one level, that’s obviously true about pharmaceutical companies; the question is whether the new diagnostic entities correspond to genuine deficits.) And of course the “lizard people” question depends on what phylum you think Dick Cheney belongs to. But the outlier in the above sample lies so far out that I’m frankly puzzled. Not every statement about organized wrongdoing is a “conspiracy theory” in the pejorative sense of that term.

Fact-checking and reality-testing

Glenn Kessler gives Obama “Three Pinocchios” on background checks. I give Kessler three “Benjy Compsons.”

So the WaPo fact-checker decides to award Barack Obama Three Pinocchios – that is, call him a liar – for saying that “as many as” or “nearly” 40 percent of gun transactions now avoid background checks, based on the most recent study of the question, because the most recent study is old and had a small sample and the true number – unknown – might be less than 40%.

As the Phil Cook and Jens Ludwig, the authors of that study, had already pointed out, we already know that something like 80% of crime guns were acquired outside the background-check system. That already gives us an estimate of the benefit of tightening availability; the total number of unchecked sales helps us estimate the cost, with more sales outside the current system implying a higher cost of changing the rules.

So the President is guilty, at worst, of quoting the wrong statistic, not of making up numbers to support his case. The abuse of fact-checking, and especially the elision of the line between questions of interpretation and questions of deliberate deception that would justify the use of the term “lie” or the cutesy “Pinocchio” system, would be a disgrace to journalism, if the editorial page of the Washington Post were still considered a journalistic enterprise.

I understand that the persistent lying of Republicans puts honest fact-checkers in a bind; if they call the balls and strikes accurately, they wind up looking like partisan Democrats. Under the circumstances, I suppose it makes sense that Glenn Kessler decided that being an honest fact-checker wasn’t worth the hassle, and decided to take up an alternative line of work.

But the RBC hereby awards Kessler three “Benjy Compsons” for not checking with, or even Googling, Cook and Ludwig to actually understand the issue before calling the President a liar.

As long as that’s clear

GOP for “self-deportation”? Hell, no! Just “encourage illegal aliens to return home voluntarily” with threats of arrest. Whew! Had me worried for a moment.

Who says Republicans favor “self-deportation”? Not at all! They just want to “encourage illegal aliens to return home voluntarily” by arresting those who don’t.

I trust you’ll agree that’s not at all the same thing.

[Is it actually possible to overestimate the gullibility of the voters and the stenography of the press corps? I suppose we’ll find out.]

Breitbart in Venezuela

Latest claim from Chavez’s successor ready to be picked up by Drudge.com.

Looks as if Chavez’s handpicked successor has been reading Breitbart.com. He says he has “a very good source” for a completely cuckoo conspiracy tale about Roger Noriega, Otto Reich, “the Pentagon,” and “the CIA” plotting to kill his rival in the forthcoming presidential election and blame it on Chavismo. Of course, since the story wasn’t on Breitbart, Republican pols won’t pretend it’s true.

Reuters reports it fairly straight, leaving it to the reader to figure out it’s crazy talk. I’m not sure that’s the right approach, as opposed to saying that there’s no evidence for it and that Maduro refused to name his source. On the other hand, I also think the story is deficient in not mentioning that Roger Noriega has published equally lunatic claims about Venezuela and that he and Otto Reich did in fact support the abortive coup against Chavez in 2002, and managed to get George Bush and Condi Rice to go along with them.

Footnote I just hope this doesn’t mean that Maduro’s friends are actually planning to kill Capriles themselves.

On Orwell’s Rules for Writing

I’m a fan of George Orwell. I think one of the most important pieces of writing in the English language, for example, is his set of rules for how to make the perfect cup of tea. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether people can really make a cup of tea, and therefore participate in civilised society, without following those rules; I often ungraciously request that my friends read Orwell’s piece before I permit them to hand me a brew.

Because of this general affinity for Orwell’s work, it’s always with some sadness that I look over his prescriptions for what constitutes good writing. He distils these into six rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

They cause me sadness because I know full well that I violate rules one through five fairly regularly – a violation that I justify by appealing to rule six. I recognise that my own style of writing – my modus scribendi – is all-too-often characterised by florid and pleonastic writing. ← There you have it: twenty-one words in a sentence that would make Orwell spill his impeccably brewed tea all over his morning copy of Pravda. Cliché? Check. Aureate prose? Unquestionably. Prolixity? Naturally. Passive voice? Colour me checked. Argot? Affirmative. And yet, aside from being inelegantly constructed, I don’t see much of a problem with it. It conveys the point clearly, albeit pretentiously.

Ed Smith’s last column from the New Statesman argued that Orwell’s rules have been co-opted and deployed for precisely the nefarious purposes Orwell had hoped to prevent:

Orwell argues that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words.”

I suspect the opposite is now true. When politicians or corporate front men have to bridge a gap between what they are saying and what they know to be true, their preferred technique is to convey authenticity by speaking with misleading simplicity. The ubiquitous injunction “Let’s be clear”, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored.

The argument seems plausible to me. Indeed, the Guardian has a lovely infographic that illustrates how SOTU speeches have adopted increasingly simpler vocabulary and syntax over time. You can decide for yourself whether this has accompanied more political duplicity, as Smith argues.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2013/feb/12/state-of-the-union-reading-level

I enjoyed Smith’s post not just because I think the argument seems accurate. It’s because I’d like to think that in my own case, grandiloquent writing isn’t really the problem. Orwell’s concern was not with the choice of words (a stylistic concern); it was with the way words can be used to manipulate thoughts (a substantive concern). Hence, the dispositive sixth rule.

My take-away from Orwell’s writing rules, then, is that the sixth is the only true ‘rule,’ as it is the only one with substantive content – not to write anything barbarous. The preceding five ‘rules’ aren’t really rules at all. They’re more like suggestions, and Orwell didn’t have much of a bee in his bonnet for those.

Oops – a cliché. Damn that pesky first rule…

Clinton’s clot, Krauthammer’s shame

Do I hear any apologies?

Earlier this month, Hilary Clinton, having picked up a virus on one of her many overseas trips, became dehydrated, fainted, fell, hit her head, and suffered a concussion. That caused her to postpone her scheduled testimony on the Benghazi pseudo-scandal.

While Clinton was still at home on an IV drip to treat her dehydration, The usual right-wing suspects – John Bolton, Charles Krauthammer (a physician before he became a full-time character assassin), Glenn Reynolds, Sean Hannity, Monica (“Creepy”) Crowley, Allen West – joined in charging her with faking the concussion to avoid testifying, and the Murdoch pseudo-news empire tirelessly repeated their baseless charges about “Benghazi Flu.”

Today Secretary Clinton was hospitalized after follow-up exams disclosed a blood clot “stemming from” the concussion. Not clear how dangerous the situation is. She’s being treated with anti-coagulants.

So far, not a peep of apology from any of her traducers. One widely-read right-wing blogger chided the State Department for inadequate “people skills” after the Department corrected a false story about the Clintons partying in the Caribbean. The Fox News story on the latest development drops all the previous charges down the Memory Hole. Reynolds links to the blood-clot story, but not to his earlier, widely-linked half-witticism: “Help, I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Testify about Benghazi,” with its disgusting reference to Clinton’s concussion as having “addled her pate,” nor his equally heartless post earlier today. I guess in Tennessee being a Real Man means making fun of sick people.
I know there’s some sentiment in the RBC community that we should stick to our wonkery and remain above partisan warfare. But unless we deal with the meta-problem of the well-financed, fanatical, unprincipled, unpatriotic, and downright mean fringe movement that has succeeded in taking over one of our two political parties and creating a media echo-chamber that isolates not only is ignorant followers but also its leaders from consensus reality, we won’t be able to deal with any of the actual problems.

UPDATE Ann Althouse apparently agrees with me that she is grossly over-placed at Wisconsin and is applying for a job at Tennessee. See, because the press release doesn’t specify the site of the blood clot, it’s all part of A Conspiracy So Vast … .

And yes, her lunatic ravings draw a link from Instapundit. Neither item even bothers to offer the usual insincere expression of wishes for a speedy recovery. But it would be like their team, not like our team, to wish both Althouse and Reynolds short lives and painful, lingering deaths, so let’s leave that part to the judgement of God.

Shocking, but true

Dan Froomkin:

1. Contemporary GOP politicians and spokespeople are habitual liars.

2. The conventions of mainstream reporting forbid reporters to report that highly relevant fact.

3. The penalty for scholars who state that fact and criticize reporters for their failure to report is is to be categorized as partisan and thus denied coverage.

Don’t feel sad for Mann and Ornstein. They’ll be OK. Feel sad for the country.

Sell-Out of the Century?

I would hardly qualify as the Obama campaign’s most important supporter, but I did give several hundred dollars to the campaign, as well as spending numerous hours making phone calls on the President’s behalf.

I did not do this so that the President could raise the Medicare age and retain the lion’s share of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.  But if The Shrill One and Ezra Klein are right, then this precisely what the President is intending to do.

If this is true — and right now it is a very big if — then it represents the greatest sell-out of a winning political coalition since LBJ ran on “not sending American boys to Vietnam.”

Remember when I argued that progressives need to Occupy the White House?  Yep.

Yeah! What Michael Grunwald said!

Slowly, all-too-slowly, the press corps is adjusting to the fact that, when it comes to mendacity, the two parties are not symmetric. Grunwald points out why doing so is both hard and essential:

GOP’s up-is-downism puts news reporters in an awkward position. It would seem tendentious to point out Republican hypocrisy on deficits and Medicare and stimulus every time it comes up, because these days it comes up almost every time a Republican leader opens his mouth. But we’re not supposed to be stenographers. As long as the media let an entire political party invent a new reality every day, it will keep on doing it. Every day.

Joe Klein on Benghazi

“There is no scandal here–except for the reprehensible behavior of politicians like John McCain and Lindsey Graham.” Amen!

Klein unloads:

There is no scandal here–except for the reprehensible behavior of politicians like John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

Except that I’d add “and the unwillingness of most of the press to call b.s. on a b.s. pseudo-scandal.” Anyone who even pretends to take this seriously should be conclusively presumed either to be a total hack or to be just too dumb to live.

But really, you need to read the whole thing. Klein reads McCain a well-deserved lesson.