Wrong: A Typology
Some of the problems with the New York Times are nebulous and diffuse. The writers’ tone can seem kind of smug and suck-uppy. They write about rich people too much. They care way too much about iPhones and hipsters and artisanal axes and stuff. Yet none of these things are wrong, exactly. It’s not incorrect to write that a man in TriBeCa is crafting beautiful handmade “urban axes,” as indeed he is. Yet some claims and ideas in the Times aren’t just annoying; they’re concretely, satisfyingly wrong. That is what we’ll be looking at today. How many kinds of wrongness are there in Times articles, and what form do they take?
I’ll start with an easy one, easy because it contains an obvious mistake. In “Fear (Again) of Flying,” Judith Warner argues that women used to be all political and feminist and excited to become career gals and smash the state, but now they are inward-looking and solipsistic and only care about perfecting themselves. “There’s no sense that personal liberation is to be found by taking a more active role in the public world.” Warner ignores such obvious culprits as the mainstream culture that bombards women with images of perfection; the current moment’s reactionary political climate that prevents people from thinking radical change is possible; or even feminist victories of the past few decades that have reduced the need for women to “[chafe] at the ties that bind to home and family.” No, she places the blame squarely where it belongs: on yoga and meditation.
“Instead, they’re fleeing to yoga, imitating flight in the downward-gazing contortion called the crow position.”
A difficult pose, but not one that should make you feel “contorted,” unless your legs don’t bend at the knee. Also, union protests started breaking out around the U.S. like three weeks after this article was published. Maybe “taking an active role in the public world” isn’t dead after all. There are even some women protesting! There must not be any yoga studios in Wisconsin.
Type of wrong: Yoga-related factual inaccuracy.
Next, something exciting and new: The revamped NYT Magazine debuted this week. I’m feelin’ the new look… It’s got some cool fonts… I like that kinda 70′s one they use for the headlines, not the blocky one but the other one. I think you have to read the print edition to see it. Anyway, this isn’t a design blog; I never had beef with the way it looked. Would that I could say the same about the writing!
Case in point, The Ethicist. We’ve all been excited to check out the new one. Her name is Ariel Kaminer, and her first advice-asker writes in with a query about his job as a wholesale distributor. “One of our good customers from India asked if the holy man from his temple could stop by to bless our place of business. We accepted his offer. He then added this caveat: The holy man would prefer that no woman enter that area of the building during the ceremony.” The shaman dude ended up cancelling, but “some women on our staff were insulted by our willingness to abide by this restriction.”
Kaminer advises “starting with: ‘Clearly what I did offended you, and I’m sorry. But to be honest, I don’t understand it as well as I’d like to. Explain it to me so I don’t make the same mistake twice.’ That might get things started.” I advise: Do not ask your female employees why they don’t like being ordered out of their own workplace by a random dude. The only thing this will “get started” is a vibrant workplace tradition of referring to you behind your back as Condescending Asshole. They might fire you, even though you’re the boss. It’s really not their job to explain this shit. Embolden this guy to go around pestering members of marginalized groups about why they don’t like being marginalized, and there’s no telling where he’ll go with it. He’ll be telling gay couples that marriage is overrated, asking black people why they didn’t appreciate the exclusive drinking fountains, and informing Jews that he always thought the Blood Libel was more of a Blood Backhanded Compliment. He’d be all like, “I didn’t mean ‘Christ-killer’ in a bad way! I just meant that you’re in such good shape, you could kick Christ’s ass! You are one fierce mensch! Have you been lifting weights?”
Type of wrong: Perpetuating a hegemonic system of unequal power relations in which the privilege of the dominant class is allowed to pass unremarked, while the subjectivity of subaltern groups remains invisible in mainstream cultural discourse.
On to the features! In “Death Takes a Rain Check,” Frank Bruni (the food guy) profiles David Murdock, an 87-year-old billionaire who has devised a plant-intensive diet that he thinks will stave off the chill hand of death itself.
“‘I never have anything go wrong,’” Murdock is quoted as saying. “‘Never have a backache. Never have a headache. Never have anything else’…. Because he is 87, it makes him an unusually robust specimen, which is what he must be if he is to defy the odds… and live as long as he intends to. He wants to reach 125, and sees no reason he can’t, provided that he continues eating the way he has for the last quarter century: with a methodical, messianic correctness.” That’s great! If there’s one thing this world needs more of, it’s old, rich white men!
Type of wrong: I can’t decide who is more at fault: Murdock, for being a deluded narcissist who thinks magic food will make him immortal; Bruni, for wasting ink on a deluded narcissist; or God, for not dispatching Murdock instantly just to prove a point. God, I am not a vengeful person, but please scourge this man with heart disease, lung cancer, boils and leprosy, then give all his money to the downtrodden peoples of the earth. Thanks!
Next, the Styles section. In “When Your Life Becomes a Verb,” Laura M. Holson writes about the popular new term “Sheen” and its elusive, ever-shifting connotations. “What, exactly, did ["Sheening"] mean?
Midway through the piece, we are told that “Eric Arauz, a mental health consultant who travels the country lecturing about his experience with bipolar disorder, said that Mr. Sheen’s behavior suggests he might suffer from a psychological imbalance as well as drug addiction. (Mr. Arauz is not a doctor.)” You spend ten paragraphs waxing eloquent about how you can’t parse the verb “to Sheen,” and then you quote a mental health expert who isn’t actually an expert? Yours is truly an intellect for the ages, Laura M. Holson. Also, my mom totally thinks Charlie Sheen is bipolar. You should quote her!
Arauz continues, “‘It’s rubbernecking in front of a disaster…. People do not feel responsible for what is happening.’” Why is it that people are always thinking they’re not personally responsible for Charlie Sheen’s mental health? It must be our modern culture of solipsistic individualism and depersonalizing technological mediation. Also, Jersey Shore and Facebook. You monsters!
Type of wrong: Fallacious appeal to authority; jumping on the Sheen bandwagon a week late.
In last week’s “Wine in Two Words,” Eric Asimov complains that wine writing has gotten too complicated, and that reviews use too many adjectives to talk about subjective things like “notes.” He proposes simplifying the criticism: “Consumers could be helped immeasurably if the entire lexicon of wine descriptors were boiled down to two words: sweet or savory.”
Now, there are many things that might be said about this idea. One might ask what in the hell a “savory” wine is, and whether it tastes like roast chicken. One might observe that wines are already categorized (as red or white, sweet or dry; by region and grape varietal), and that sensory adjectives are used deliberately to add a subjective dimension to these categorizations. But the wine expert in my life has advised me not to attempt analysis of this column, because Asimov is “just trolling.” So I will limit myself to applying his own theory to his writing. I can sum up his column in two words: “Totes Ridic.” Because I didn’t use complete words, my system is even more efficient than his. I have now helped you, the reader, immeasurably. You’re welcome!
Type of Wrong: Subjecting Occam’s Razor to a reductio ad absurdum.
Oh what the hell, let’s do another yoga one. The problems with “Yoga’s Stress Relief: An Aid for Infertility?” by Catherine Saint Louis are pretty clear. She describes a growing trend of “yoga for fertility” classes, including one held at the New York University Fertility Center. A few paragraphs down she goes on to inform the bewildered reader that “no study has proved that yoga has increased pregnancy rates in infertility patients.”
So… it’s not “for” fertility. No reputable authority has ever suggested it is. Why did you start out telling us yoga might be “an aid for fertility,” even with a question mark? The question shouldn’t have been asked!
Type of Wrong: Practicing medicine without a license.
Modern Love time. In “A Once-Upon-a-Time Romance,” Charlotte Silver constructs a labored parallel between her failed relationship and the United States — not the famous country, but a fabulous ocean liner from 1952 that now lies abandoned at a dock in Philadelphia. The piece focuses on her yearning for the glamorous, elegant world that both the ship and the relation-”ship” (hey, I made a pun!) represented to her.
She was with this guy named Steve or something, and “our relationship was a rather affected exercise in trying to recapture some of the rituals of that time.” Oh great, more sensitive nostalgia-ists. “We sought a certain romantic formality in what has become an informal and wholly nonromantic world.” The 1950s were soooo romantic, you guys! Unless you were gay, attracted to someone of a different race, needed access to reliable birth control, or were a woman who wanted to have sex outside of marriage. You know what, I’ll just go ahead and say it: Things are more romantic now. Fuck the fifties. If you actually had to go back to the fifties, you’d be clamoring to come back after like ten seconds. “Informality,” Jeggings, Rock of Love, spray tans, vajazzling and all.
Extra bonus quote: “But to me that day, the condition of the present-day United States was a distinctly feminine degradation. There was a fierce brown gash down the long white throat of her, and I couldn’t stop staring at it, as if it had been made with real violence in mind.” A gash? Did you really just write that sentence? Charlotte Silver has gone through either way too much Freudian psychoanalysis, or not nearly enough.
Type of wrong: False analogy, ill-informed nostalgia, there’s no such word as “nonromantic.”
Oh, I could go on. But you see my point. Wrongness comes in many types. From simple factual errors that a fact-checker could have caught, to ideological mystification that a feminist Marxist could unmask, to logical fallacies that an ancient Greek logician would have delighted to mock, to self-serving rationalizations and stupid-sounding made-up words, they are diverse. And sometimes, you’re lucky enough to find each species of wrongness combined in one ill-conceived, misbegotten, risible, fallacious catalogue of deceit, conceit, chicanery and error. Such a gallimaufry of the inane manifests itself where we would most expect to find it: an Alessandra Stanley TV column.*
*It also manifests itself in Ross Douthat’s “Why Monogamy Matters,” but that one deserves its own post.
“On Monday’s episode of ‘Skins,’ MTV could show minors in the kind of flagrante delicto that is usually reserved for mature audiences. Yet most adult American’s still can’t watch Al Jazeera English on television… It seems like a perverse application of free speech.” Would censoring Skins help Al Jazeera get on the air, in some manner that I’m not aware of? Kind of like how when you clean your plate, starving Africans get to eat? Type of wrong: False dichotomy.
“But sex is sexier than foreign affairs, and it certainly sells better.” Yes. Because sex is so sexy, it has never once been censored in the history of humanity. Type of wrong: Ignorance of history.
“To be fair, Al Jazeera English may be providing the most up-close and personal coverage round-the-clock, but it isn’t necessarily the best. And ‘Skins’ isn’t the worst series for young people on cable, not by far.” At this point it strikes me that Al Jazeera and Skins aren’t really competing in the same event. Type of wrong: False analogy, apples-to-oranges comparison.
“That would be ‘Jersey Shore.’” I KNEW IT! This was never really about the mideast. It was about Jersey Shore all along. So now we have a 3-way comparison going between Al-Jazeera, Skins, and the fist-pumping Guidos we love to hate. Type of wrong: False analogy, philistine incomprehension of the greatness of Jersey Shore.
“‘Jersey Shore is popular mostly because it is a reality show that works like a cartoon. The stars are self-parodying characters who misbehave outlandishly — without comeuppance or scary consequences. Like Daffy Duck, who can dodge hunters’ bullets and swallow nitroglycerin, characters like Snooki can curse, get drunk, have promiscuous sex and buy a stripper pole, and never get seriously hurt.”
I’m curious to know what “comeuppance” Stanley thinks Snooki should receive for buying a stripper pole, a legal transaction in the retail marketplace. As far as scary consequences go, if you curse at someone, they might curse back at you, while if you get drunk, you might get a hangover. Those two outcomes that are represented with tolerable accuracy on the show. But Stanley’s willful confusion runs much deeper. It’s on TV (and in the movies) that casual sex always results in negative consequences: pregnancy, venereal disease, date rape, falling in love with Ashton Kutcher. Just think of Kids, or Juno, or Knocked Up. In real life, people sometimes have casual sex, have a fun time, and get on with their lives. And the Jersey Shore cast are real people! The lack of consequences you’re seeing is a real lack of consequences! Alessandra, girl, you’ve been watching too much TV!
It’s at this point — confusing reality with fiction, the solid object with its insubstantial shadow — that New York Times erroneousness reaches its utmost limit. When you’ve suggested that going to the beach to scope out juicehead gorillas is somehow comparable to drinking nitroglycerin, it’s really just impossible to take you seriously. We all know that times have been tough on print journalism, and the Paper of Record could use a few more fact checkers. But if such a thing existed, I’d suggest they fill another position: These writers need a Fact-Checker for the Soul.