Thursday, July 8, 2010

Dumb, Dumber, Something Something Deck-Chairs on the Titanic

Adam Frank has criticized of some of the high-profile reporting done the day after President Obama's prime-time "battle plan" oil spill address. Frank:

[W]hat hit me hard was a headline on CNN telling us the speech failed because it was pitched over the head of the American people. Its level was too high. And what level might that be? The Tenth grade.

According to one CNN analyst, a Paul J.J. Payback,
Obama's nearly 10th-grade-level rating was the highest of any of his major speeches and well above the grade 7.4 of his 2008 "Yes, we can" victory speech, which many consider his best effort, Payack said.

"The scores indicate that this was not Obama at his best, especially when attempting to make an emotional connection to the American people," he added.
And there in lies the problem, the whole problem, the deep problem that we all face. We live in a world of staggering complexity, a world poised at a dangerous turning point with science and technology living at root of both our problems and our possibilities. And yet, in this poised world and at this critical moment, our leaders are expected to speak to us as if we were seventh graders. Anything else is considered too highhanded, too professorial for the American public.
I agree with that as far as it goes -- anyone who heard that address and went away in a huff over Obama's sentence structure or diction needs to buy a dictionary and a usage guide, learn to read them, and do so forthwith -- but I think it understates the depth of the problem.

Note that the CNN hack was assessing the speech's merits strictly in terms of its short-run political appeal -- whether it made an "emotional connection to the American people," or in other ways tilted voters this way or that way in light of the forthcoming Congressional elections.

Here, the celebration of simple-mindedness and dumbed-down reading exists a layer beneath and supports a rotten, cynical layer of calculus that reduces everything it touches to hits and misses, gains and losses, victories and setbacks, in short-run electoral politics. Couching this kind of "analysis" in even the most sophisticated and elegant prose imaginable -- combining the best features of Christopher Hitchens, Vladimir Nabokov, Lewis Lapham, James Joyce, George Orwell, and anyone else you'd care to add -- wouldn't elevate it above the status of unhelpful, stupid dreck.

The salient question is whether the "battle plan" for the Gulf of Mexico stands to succeed or fail at undoing the colossal damage done to the people, animals, plants, and places affected, and preventing such disasters in the future. In setting this question aside, or at best processing it through predictable Conservative-Punch-and-Liberal-Judy theatrics, CNN's hack is only following the idiotic contemporary norms of big-name political reporting. The reading level of the presentation, whatever it suggests about the state of things, does matter, but it matters considerably less.

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