Peter Thiel Should Attempt the Anatomically Impossible

A few years ago, I made note of Peter Thiel’s showboating program to give young folks a cool hundred grand if they dropped out of college to pursue their dreams. This scheme, cooked up by a Stanford graduate, a venture capitalist and hedge-fund manager, was in transparent alignment with various neoliberal schemes cooked up to denigrate and weaken and ultimately destroy higher education by the simplest of strategies: under the guise of reform, simply gut the system in question–all the better to pick at its scraps. (c.f. charter schools, which aim to reform the public school system by getting rid of it.) From that stance, a straight line can be drawn to Thiel’s donation of 1.25 million dollars to the Donald Trump campaign; one of the hallmarks of fascism, after all, is disdain for education. Or rather, for anything that could possibly generate critical inquiry of any sort. As the New York Times’ source said, “the investor feels the country needs fixing, and Mr. Trump can do it.” That’s certainly one way to ‘fix’ a problem; you get rid of the entity afflicted by the problem. In this case, the American republic.

We should keep Thiel in mind whenever we evaluate an anti-public education stance. The undermining of public education is not an innocent bid to ‘restore’ quality; it is a malignant bid to replace public education with a horde of shrieking rent-seekers: the armies of educational consultants and charter operators lurk among them. Folks like Thiel are common in the business world; they attain success in one narrow field, and then they imagine that the tool they have acquired–the corporate vision, with its particular incentive schemes, its understanding of human relations and their monetizations–can then be successfully exported to all domains. In Thiel’s case, first it was public education, then it was the country. Soon he will have a scheme for curing cancer and for bringing peace to our troubled world. Corporate ‘leaders’ and ‘innovators’ imagine they are sneering at the conventional niceties which up prop hidebound domains of human endeavor and infusing them with radically new paradigms–in the form of their own conventionally acquired, cliché ridden, wisdom. Unsurprisingly most of these corporate-to-country-to-world schemes are cooked up by the graduates of private schools, which have provided a comfortable insulating layer from the realities of most folks’ lives.

Thiel embodies the worst kind of educated philistine, the kind Nietzsche worried about and warned against: they possess education in the formal sense–Thiel does have a pair of degrees in engineering and law–but they show little cultural or intellectual sophistication, and their thin patina of education equips them with a dangerous assurance that they could clean up any mess, solve any problem, so long as quaint notions such as the collective interest or social constraints like civil liberties were shoved out of their way. They have grown up imagining they have bent the world to their will; they now seek new territories to conquer. As part of a fascist brigade, if necessary.

Responding to Caitlin Kelly on Journalistic Standards, Writerly Solidarity, and Bloggers’ Responsibilities

Caitlin Kelly from the New York Times writes in my comments space in response to my blog post from a few days ago and I respond. I want to expand on that response because I think her comment and mine bring to light some interesting issues. (The comments space also features some very good remarks by Satadru Sen, David Coady and Anna Gotlib; please do check it out.)

First off, it is entirely unclear to me why Kelly thinks a blogger needs to contact a journalist for clarification, when the blogger’s point is to note a piece has gone to press that doesn’t show the care required of a journalist. The point is to criticize the article, to call it out, to show to readers a journalist does not seem to have done the legwork required in order to produce a good piece of journalism. Critics of journalists cannot be expected to check in with them for vetting as it were; this seems like an unnecessary constraint. Since when has this requirement become de rigeur?

My friend Julie Rivchin Ulmet made the following perspicuous comment on my Facebook page:

That’s incredible on so many levels. First, you didn’t refer to any conduct by the author of the piece, you referred, appropriately, to the “New York Times” and the “article”. Its a bit ridiculous for her to take it personally, let alone to do so publically. And because you are referring to a published article and not behind the scenes actions, it is preposterous that you should ask for comment. It’s basically textual analysis. The text speaks for itself.

‘The text speaks for itself’ indeed.

Second, Kelly seems to ignore the tremendous power differential that exists between journalists like her who find a platform in media outlets like the New York Times and bloggers like myself. My blog posts have very limited visibility; if Kelly is worried her professional reputation will be hurt then she can perhaps rest easy. But her pieces have thousands of readers and are backed up by the authority of the New York Times; they have the power to influence opinion significantly. It is Kelly’s responsibility to do the checking, and to make sure her piece is not vulnerable to the kind of criticisms mounted in the Techdirt piece I was quoting. Like some dude once said, with great power comes great responsibility.

Third, Kelly wants to rely on a notion of writerly solidarity: that I should not attack another writer. But this is to invoke a solidarity or a fraternity that does not exist. More to the point, it is a dangerous invocation. Writers write, critics critique, journalists expose; once they put their ideas out there they should expect to be critiqued. I have now published three books, and am working on my fourth. None of my reviewers have bothered to contact me for clarifications; rather, they write first and then expect me to write defenses. I have a pen (or keyboard); I can defend myself very well with those. That’s what I do; I meet critique with more critique. I have written over 150 blog posts over at ESPN-Cricinfo so perhaps you could call me a sports journalist; I do not expect those who respond to me to ask me for clarification first. I have written almost 300 posts here. I don’t expect people who criticize me here to contact me first for clarification either. (In my response to Kelly I seem to have conceded too much in this regard). If someone critiques me, I will respond here (as I am doing at this very moment to Kelly’s critical comments).

Lastly, as I have noted, I look forward to Kelly’s response to the original criticisms mounted in the TechDirt piece. I have linked to her blog and will be monitoring it to see if that happens. Perhaps Kelly can post the original version of her piece so that we can see if editing by NYT editors above her resulted in the omissions we are all worried about.

Stenographers, Megaphones, or Journalists?

Yesterday I posted the following on my Facebook status:

The New York Times gives us ‘news’ on the CTU strike and includes this:

‘Mayor Rahm Emanuel has focused on trying to improve the quality of public education, with a longer school day and more meaningful teacher evaluations. The Chicago Teachers’ Union, meanwhile, has been intent on reinstating a 4 percent pay increase, and protecting those who are laid off when failing schools are closed.’

Yup, this is ‘news’ reporting all right. Just the news.

From: (‘Next School Crisis for Chicago: Pension Fund is Running Dry‘, NYT, September 16, 2012)

I hope it is clear what the problem is with the ‘reporting’ above.

And over the weekend, the New York Times ran a piece on the too-cool-for-school endeavors of Mr. Peter Thiel. Today, the good folks at Techdirt have a response, which captures most of my central reactions to it.  ( I have a visceral reaction to showboats like Thiel that I will set aside for now.) To wit, it reads like:

[A] retweet of corporate PR.

In short, the New York Times article–by Caitlin Kelly–flirts with reading like a poorly edited press release. And the piece I linked to above–by Mary Williams Walsh–provides evidence too, of having been copied from Rahm Emanuel‘s manifestos.

We are, folks, seemingly confronted with creatures all too common in today’s journalistic world: the faithful stenographer and the eager megaphone.

A little story before I go any further. Some sixteen or so years ago, a good friend’s cousin came visiting to New York City. I met him a few times at parties and dinners and struck up some light conversation about his work at a pharmaceutical company’s press and public relations department. His job was to write up press releases based on material provided to him by company scientists, and then send them on to media outlets like magazines and newspapers.  This being 1996, he did most of his work the old-fashioned way, faxing one-pagers to a list of numbers every day. Crib a little, write a little, fax a lot. He was good at his work, very prolific in the releases he put out, and he was paid well. All seemed hunky-dory.

But all was not well. For as my new acquaintance confessed to me, he was alarmed at the rate at which his press releases appeared in print. Note, I did not say ‘material from his press releases’; rather, quite simply, all too many ‘journalists’ at the receiving end of his fax blasts were simply taking the press release, removing his name, making some minor cosmetic alterations and then simply the running the release as their article. Job done. On to the next ‘story’.

The New York Times has been honest enough to admit that in the past it was part of the cheerleading crew that failed to flag the Bush administration’s ghastly, criminal, war on Iraq. But the lack of critical appraisal shown then seemingly still afflicts the Grey Lady. And they aren’t alone in this abdication of journalistic responsibility either: as responses to the US administration’s ‘lede’ on the Benghazi attacks show, all too many journalists today are simply uncritical purveyors of whatever nonsense is sent their way from corporate and political sources. The next time you read a debate about the indispensability of the journalist in the context of today’s blog-happy world, keep that in mind. (These ramblings  remind me I need to get back to reviewing David Coady‘s excellent What to Believe Now: Applying Epistemology To Contemporary Issues (Blackwell, 2012), which provides a spirited and philosophically rigorous defense of the independent blogger.)