Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

10 February 2014

A Snide Slander Unbefitting an Economist


[For recent brief comment on the tone and mood of opening day at Sochi, click here.]

I had not planned a eulogy for Pete Seeger. He was never an idol of mine, although I admired both the man and his music. Cynical Bob Dylan was more my speed.

But Seeger made an impact. He wrote his masterpiece on war and renewal—“Where have all the flowers gone?”—early in the Atomic Age. The Cold War turned it into an existential question: what kind of renewal might emerge from a radioactive wasteland?

It was not Pete Seeger who answered that question. It was two Russians and an American, whose cool judgment under immense pressure saved our species from self-extinction. Their names were Khrushchev, Arkhipov, and Kennedy. I like to think that Seeger’s song helped motivate at least one of them to keep his twitching finger off the button and let us live.

Seeger wrote other songs that inspired the American labor movement. For several decades, that movement produced the most equitable and widely prosperous society the world has ever known. In the last two decades, along with what is left of British industry, it has helped lift nearly a billion people out of extreme poverty. (If you want to know what difference a strong labor movement makes, just look at Bangladesh and its tragic garment workers today.)

The plutocrats and pols who accommodated the US movement were smart enough to consider workers’ welfare a means to their own prosperity. And they, including Henry Ford, were right. Today their successors struggle just to see the problem of inequality. They are too preoccupied, as they travel the world in their private jets, trading their derivatives and regaling the press with Marie-Antionette-like bon mots about doing “God’s work.”

Seeger’s lyrics also inspired generations of African-Americans and their sympathizers. Not only did they help reduce racism here and abroad. They ultimately helped give us an African-American leader of the free world, who incidentally does not treat Britain as his poodle.

No, I didn’t idolize Seeger. But when I read in the British newsweekly The Economist that he had been a “Bolshie with a banjo,” I saw red, and not in Seeger.

Only an arrogant pipspeak of a British twit, in complete ignorance of American culture, and with pretensions toward nobility that he could never attain, could have written that caption. Real British nobility—of which precious few remain today—kept the people’s feelings and their welfare at least marginally in view. They also had some manners and knew Latin, including “de mortuis, nihil nisi bonum.”

The bilious obit continued with slander after slander, which the safely anonymous author no doubt considered “cute.” It ended by dinging Seeger for renouncing Communism late, and so for failing to “Turn, Turn Turn.” All in all, the obit was brutally and obnoxiously dismissive.

Just a few years ago, The Economist had been a paragon of journalism. It did its best to mimic the dismal science from which it drew its name. It put data first, calculations second, and ideology a distant third. That’s why I subscribed to it, beginning about two decades ago (with a long hiatus).

Now, The Economist’s order of precedence appears to have been reversed. Ideology comes first, calculation second, and facts a distant third. In this respect it appears to be reliving the process by which Rupert Murdoch annihilated the Wall Street Journal as a serious newspaper.

It all started, in my view, with a nauseatingly triumphalist issue, in June-July 2012, lauding London as the best city in Europe for its banking and real-estate bubbles. When I read that, I wondered why The Economist didn’t also tout Russian spooks’ plain-view murder (albeit delayed) of Litvinenko by polonium in 2006. If you’re going to sell your soul and your open society to the highest bidder, why not go all the way?

The snarky Seeger obit was not enough, by itself, to get me to cancel my subscription. Not yet, anyway. But the writing appears to be on the rest-room wall. And not just for British news media.

While on fellowship in Cambridge four decades ago, I rode the Tube every chance I got. I loved it for its convenience, speed, reliability, cleanliness, and quiet.

Now all those things, apparently, are gone. The last time I rode the Tube, several years ago, huge crowds were waiting at our station. The trains on the line we were to use were over half an hour late. We waited outside, in the rain, as clueless clerks tried to line the crowd up so exiting passengers could leave a dangerously overcrowded platform.

We finally made it to our destination, about an hour late. When we returned home in the late evening, the trains were full of drunk, rowdy and obnoxious youth. As I exited our train with my Asian-origin wife, walking next to a drunk and grinning spitting image of a skinhead, I steeled myself to deliver a swift kick to his crotch.

Fortunately, the youth limited his lack of civility to drunkenness. We exited the Tube without incident, though not without the type of unease that I had never felt on any subway in New York or Moscow.

Maybe if the Brits had had a Pete Seeger of their own, their twits’ knees might jerk a little less violently for conservative pablum. They might show a little respect for, if not insight into, foreign cultures divided by a common language, let alone the perpetual struggle of working people for a fair shake. And with a Pete Seeger to give their aimless louts a bit of hope for the future, the Tube might regain its impressive order from the seventies, if not run on time.

Footnote 1: If you like slow, lugubrious singing, you can watch and listen to a young Seeger singing the song here. Like many great song writers, Seeger was not the best performer of his own tunes. If you want a more effective performance, try the one by Bob Dylan or by Peter, Paul and Mary, for which you’ll have to pay.

Footnote 2: The very same issue with the nasty Seeger obit had a slanted story on just the previous page. Summarizing recent academic research on US economic inequality and social mobility from Harvard and Berkeley, its subhead read “America is no less socially mobile than it was a generation ago.”

But the penultimate paragraph reported enormous geographic disparities in social mobility within the US. And its anonymous writer failed to point out (or perhaps even to notice) that the data reported ended more than a generation ago, years before the more recent inflection point at which US inequality took off.

Murdoch, who has been notorious for rewriting his minions’ headlines, could not have done a better job of slanting the story and distorting its conclusion if he had rewritten it himself. And this bit of pro-plutocrat propaganda is no doubt the source of what has become conventional Yankee wisdom: that US social mobility has not changed, at least up to 1983! [see the graph on printed page 23]

Epitaph (to Journalism, not Seeger!): Rewrite the headline, and you control the lead. Control the lead, and you control the story. Control the story and control the thought. Control the thought, and you control the mind.

This is Murdoch’s Orwellian formula. This is what gave us Yanks Fox, destroyed the Wall Street Journal, and has turned our Yankee politics into a farce that precocious three-year-olds would laugh at.

I canceled my Journal subscription after reading too many stories whose real meaning became clear only after two or three readings. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen to The Economist, or to our Mother Country.

Despite its economic shortcomings, Britain has always seemed to meet or exceed us Yanks in taste and intelligence. But just read the story on page 23 of The Economist’s February 1, 2014 issue. Then read the subhead and scrutinize the graph. If an Orwellian shiver doesn’t crawl down your spine as one did mine, then you’re a better (or more sanguine) man than I am, Gunga Din. You can’t take frequent error for mere sloppiness, not when it consistently points in a rightward direction.

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