Matt Yglesias Destroys Rick Wilson

Matt YglesiasI don’t watch Up with any consistency anymore. I think Steve Kornacki is good—one of the best people that MSNBC has. But he lets a lot of nonsense go by that Chris Hayes never would have. For example, this morning Republican strategist Rick Wilson was allowed to go on at length about things that just aren’t true. He’s not a total idiot like Amy Kremer, but he sure wasn’t insightful, even about the Republican movement. And Kornacki let him make some blanket statements about Obama that just weren’t true. It was sad to see.

The best part of the show was after Wilson went on at length (Of course!) about how he wanted the NSA to “scoop up” all the data in other countries. That struck me as typically stupid conservative. It goes right along the lines of people thinking that the Constitution only applies to citizens, even though that’s not what the Constitution says. There is this idea that only America matters. I have a hard time stomaching this kind of anti-international, parochial world view. Luckily, Yglesias was there to hit back:

Another thing that has not gotten a lot of play in the debate is the international element. It’s great for us to sit in America and say, “Yeah, of course we want to spy on foreigners.” But it’s very important to American commerce… And people who are sitting in their living room in Paris, in Berlin, in Tokyo are not going to be so blase and say, “Well, it’s only foreigners who they’re spying on.”

This caused Wilson to backtrack and refine what he was saying, but it was clear that he’d been nailed. The exchange is at the end of this clip, but it is well worth checking out:


I really like seeing Matt Yglesias on the TV. He is clearly a quiet person who hasn’t studied broadcasting. It is nice to see a wonk just being a wonk.

Fighting William Proxmire with Golden Gooses

[One of the primary examples used in this article (quoted in our usual box) has been updated. One of the winners, Wallace Coulter, declined the award because the Foundation could not document that the work was done with government money. Having worked on numerous government contracts, I don’t think this matters in the least. Wallace Coulter’s career was subsidized by government contracts. The Foundation is claiming that they can’t say if he was working on that particular bit of research under a government contract. See the Update below if you want to look into this issue more. -FM]

William ProxmireBen Florsheim wrote a really good article over at Washington Monthly last week, Against the “Golden Fleece” Award. For those of you who are not familiar with this award, it was created by Wisconsin Democratic Senator William Proxmire. He was something of a star among liberals. Not only did he have the right positions on pretty much all policy questions, he did not take money from Political Action Committees. Of course, it was the case that he was dearly loved in Wisconsin and didn’t need that money. But still: Proxmire was a good guy.

The one bad thing about him—and it is really bad—is his starting of the Golden Fleece Awards. And now, they are about the only thing people remember about him. Fully half of the Wikipedia page section on his legislative career is dedicated to the awards. And that is in a page that makes no mention of his refusal to take PAC money. The Golden Fleece Awards were given out for wasteful government spending. Unfortunately, the awards often came down to simply not understanding the need for basic scientific research. Everyone can have a good snicker about funding research on Monarch butterfly sex. But when species decline starts to affect agricultural yields, it stops being so funny.

In a sense, the award was the beginning of the modern wave of anti-intellectualism in American politics. Now it is common for (almost always) conservatives to claim that this or that research is a joke based only on its title. As Florsheim noted about the beginning of the award, “The NSF had spent $84,000 in taxpayer dollars to fund a study on the origins of love. Proxmire didn’t think that was a good use of $84,000. And thus, a new generation of headline-grabbing anti-intellectualism was ushered into an institution where such posturing had a storied legacy on which to build: Congress.”

As you can see in that example, there are big problems. First, $84,000 isn’t a lot of money. It is one thing to point out a useless weapons system that the military doesn’t even want. And Proxmire certainly did that. But more often, the target was small research contracts that, even if they were of dubious value (and that was rarely the case), didn’t save any real money. But even more important, it just added fuel to the widely held belief that the government wastes all kinds of money when that just isn’t the case.

Last year, a group of like minded people decided to push back on this nonsense by creating the Golden Goose Award. It is meant “to celebrate scientists whose federally funded research seemed odd or obscure but turned out to have a significant, positive impact on society.” Florsheim explains this years winners:

This year, the first recipients of the Golden Goose Award were John Eng, a VA doctor who with funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs discovered that the venom of the Gila monster (a type of lizard) contains a hormone that is a highly effective treatment for diabetes; and the late Wallace Coulter, invented a now-industry-standard way to count blood cells while using funding from the Office of Naval Research to (of all things) “improve the paint used on Navy ships.” Rep. Charlie Dent said in the Golden Goose press release about Coulter that “you can almost imagine the pithy sound bites that would be used to denigrate his request—’Government paying people to watch paint dry’—or something along those lines. Instead, what the American taxpayers received was a technological boon with economic impact across major economic sectors like health and manufacturing.” [Update: whether Coulter was working under a government grant for that work has since been questioned. -FM]

There is nothing more annoying to me (and probably most people) than people showing total ignorance while feeling superior. The very idea of the Golden Fleece Award is bad because it flatters people’s prejudices. There is certainly government waste, but the approach to it should be argument, not shame. All shame does is lower confidence in the government. The Golden Goose Award is a needed palliative, but I suspect it won’t be that effective. “Outrage: Government Funds Gila Monster Venom Study” sells newspapers. “Scientist Finds Treatment for Diabetes” doesn’t. But we’ve got to try.

Update (2 December 2013 5:56 pm)

A commenter noted that the Wallace Coulter Foundation declined the Golden Goose Award. He seemed to think this undercut the entire article, but to me it matters not at all. The Foundation declined the award, “While there can be no doubt as to the extraordinary achievements of Mr. Coulter, who discovered the Coulter Principle and invented the Coulter Counter, the Foundation determined that it could not be certain that federal funding was involved in the discovery of the Coulter Principle, which was the basis for the award.” Does this change the article. I will leave that to you to decide.

Dolores del Rio: Bird of Paradise

Delores del RioThere isn’t a lot to do in an elevator so if you’re like me, you’ve read everything on the walls. And that means you have seen this: Otis Elevator Company. It was founded by Elisha Otis who was born on this day in 1811. He didn’t invent the elevator, of course. But he did invent a mechanism that stopped an elevator from falling when its hoisting cable fails.

The Croatian composer Ivan Zajc was born in 1832. Here is his To Battle, to Battle!

Writer of The Ox-Bow Incident, Walter Van Tilburg Clark was born in 1909.

Crime writer P. D. James is 93 today. Singer Tony Bennett is 87. I don’t know what it is about him, but I just don’t find his work that compelling. I mean, he’s a fine singer—just not very interesting. Actor Martin Sheen is 73. Martha Stewart is 72. And director John Landis is 63.

The day, however, belongs to the great Dolores del Rio who was born on this day in 1905. She was a huge star during the last days of the silent era and the early days of the talkies. She then went on to be an important part of the blossoming Mexican film industry in the 1940s and 1950s. I can’t find any good clips of her. Here is a bit of Bird of Paradise that will give you an idea:

Happy birthday Dolores del Rio!

Jesus and Troy

The IliadThe other day, I discovered that a BBC documentary series that I really liked was available online. It is Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War. What I didn’t know before watching the series was that people thought that The Iliad told the story of a real war. And indeed, 150 years ago, it was conventional wisdom that the Trojan War was nothing but myth. Then Heinrich Schliemann started digging and the rest is history. Well, mostly. There are still debates in the academic community. But I think we can reasonably say that there was a great city very much as Homer described it in the place Homer said that was destroyed when Homer claimed. Regardless, the more evidence that has been found, the more it looks like The Illiad is based upon a much earlier poem about the sack of that city.

I can’t help but contrast this to the historical Jesus. That is a much more slippery subject. As time has gone on, it looks less and less like Jesus was a real man. And I say this as one who wants to believe. I don’t mean that I’m a Christian, because as regular readers know, I am certainly not that. But the whole idea of him wandering around Palestine spreading the word and performing miracles (even if they were only stagecraft) is really compelling. What’s more, from a theological perspective, it doesn’t really matter if Jesus was a physical being. Certainly you can read all that Paul wrote without thinking that Jesus actually walked the earth. Although I will admit that most modern day Christians would find the idea hard to stomach, but that is more a reflection of the fact that religions tend to accrete beliefs that have nothing to do with the core of the faith. (And note: this is a big issue between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics claim that the church traditions are the church whereas the Protestants believe they can find the church right there in the Bible. I tend to side with the Catholics on this; just look at the fractured Protestant movement. But I really don’t have a dog in this fight!)

One of the reasons that I question the historicity of Jesus is the sheer volume of apocryphal Gospels. It seems everyone was writing them. And what they show is that the different factions were fighting for their version of the church. To me, it just stands to reason that people would start to say, “Jesus believed this and I know it because he said it.” But even more troubling is the archaeological evidence. The Gospels are filled with places that were populated when they were written, but were not when they are supposed to have taken place. Such anachronisms are of great concern. How can the title character be Jesus of Nazareth when Nazareth didn’t even exist then?

Let me be clear about my position. I don’t particularly have an opinion as to whether Jesus was a real human or not. What I do think is that if there was a real man, he has had so much mythology piled upon him that he has effectively disappeared. It seems to me that books like Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth are fool’s errands. All they really do is try to sift the truth from the myth. And in the end, what is the point? The religion is the religion. You either feel God in it or you don’t.

The Old Testament is very much like The Iliad. In fact, it is now widely believed that Moses is a fictional character. But more to the point, the Old Testament is a collection of stories from pre-history that were finally put down in print. But here we get to a critical difference between scripture and literature: it is all in the mind of the reader. They are both documents of what people were saying and listening to at a particular time. And they are great stories. But when people think they must be literally true, their thinking about them ossifies and they stop appreciating them for the great literary works that they are.

It would be terrible if people today worshiped Zeus and so thought that The Iliad had to be literally true. It is cool that there appears to be an actual war that it was based on and a place that we can visit. But that doesn’t change the pleasures of reading Homer. And the same should be true of the Bible.

Here is the first episode of In Search of the Trojan War. It is much recommended!


Christian apologists often claim that there is no more evidence for the existence of Socrates than there is for the existence of Jesus. That’s true. But skeptics claim that it doesn’t matter. It is not the man we care about but rather his teachings—whoever their actual writer or writers were. I don’t see why the same is not true of Jesus. I guess it’s that whole “fear of death” thing people have. But it’s sad.

Friday’s Conservative Idiot Pundits

David BrooksLast night, I was watching All In and Chris Hayes interviewed Michael Steele about something. I forget what it was exactly. The main thing is that Steele, as usual, had nothing insightful to say. Of course, that is his purpose on MSNBC: to act like a Republican who isn’t totally insane. But that’s his purpose everywhere. That is his claim to fame. And it is really an easy job. As I’ve written before, there is a huge affirmative action program going on for conservatives. People like S. E. Cupp and even George Will would never have become the media darlings they are if they were liberal. And that’s equally true of Steele.

At the end of the interview, Hayes reminded his viewers that Steele was once chairman of the Republican National Committee. It only occurred to me then what a nakedly cynical move that was by the Republican Party. It reminds me of a scene from O Brother, Where Art Thou? In it, Pappy O’Daniel is losing badly in his re-election bid to Homer Stokes who travels the state with a midget. Pappy’s son proposes that that get their own midget, but one that is even shorter. Pappy thinks this is a stupid idea, and says, “You slump-shouldered sack of nuts! Why, we’d look like a bunch of johnny-come-latelys. Bringing out our own midget. Don’t matter how stumpy!”

That is the level of thinking of the Republican Party. The Democrats elected the first black president. So the Republicans looked around for an African American—Any African American!—who they could put in the job. Of course, it didn’t work. Steele is a charming and capable man. But his pick was nakedly political. And it only made the Republicans look more racist, even if their real problem with Steele was that he wasn’t crazy.

Also last night, I got a chance to see another conservative affirmative action case. David Brooks was on the PBS Newshour. This is a standard thing. Normally they bring on a conservative and a moderate to discuss the week’s news. Why a moderate and not a liberal? Balance! Actually, it is because they think moderates are liberals. It is one of the many subtle ways that the media keep all discussions on a conservative footing. Brooks was paired with Ruth Marcus. And they talked about unemployment. Brooks pushed the old conservative canard: structural unemployment.

Let me explain: structural unemployment is a concept that allows conservatives to do nothing about high levels of unemployment. The idea is that people aren’t out of work because there are no jobs. All their jobs are being taken away by robots. And the new jobs require skills the people just don’t have. This is exactly the argument that was used by conservatives during the Great Depression. But somehow when demand returned due to the buildup for World War II, people did have the skills for jobs. Dean Baker explains all in an article this morning, Brooks and Marcus on PBS News: Getting Just About Everything Wrong on the Economy.

It’s true that the “liberal” didn’t come off looking great. She’s a Villager, what do you expect? But she isn’t a total idiot whose only skill is dressing up conservative talking points like Brooks (and for that matter Steele). Also, Brooks’ column yesterday was, The Neocon Revival. Stuff like this deserves to be buried deep in the Red State archives—not on the OpEd page of the New York Times, the PBS Newshour, or “liberal” MSNBC.