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July 30, 2007


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Haden's got grit. Told me next time I was in Weehawken to look his ass up. Can't ask for more than that.

Cackety Dishwitz

He doesn't live there, moron.


Oh. That explains a lot.


Plus his name is Holden. But you can submit a grant request to Clear Fund.


The thing where they give the dough straight to the poor works better for me. I got a root cause that keeps me awake at night.


The deserving poor only. With your root cause you are in another category.


Thanks, Phil, and thanks for the submission.

Believe me, I can understand the emotional reaction to think tanks. Largely, that's why I'm so suspicious of it.

As someone who naturally gravitates toward abstract theory, I feel most threatened (viscerally) by the enemy theorists. But are they really any major part of any major problem? Does anyone whose opinion actually hangs in the balance pay them a millionth as much attention as you do?


You know what, I want to save you the time of pointing out how big a deal the Bell Curve was. I know that book got a lot of attention. Still, I wonder how much it really matters in the scheme of things. People who want to believe certain things will always find or hire someone to argue them while wearing a distinguished-looking pair of spectacles. Clearly, you'll never put an end to that - the most you can hope is to reduce the supply of brains for hire. That's the part that I don't think matters. If you're reading critically, the best think tanks the world has to offer won't smoke screen you. If you reading because you want that smoke screen, the worst will.


My training was the liberal arts. I see think tanks as a betrayal of that ethos. So, I entertain myself twitting the pundits. Doesn't do much good, doesn't do much harm, and leaves me feeling refreshed. As a World Class Fool, little things make me happy.


Holden, you detest the meme that the poor deserve what they get because the market is just. But do you wonder how that meme was disseminated? It is a talking point, part of a coded worldview that is actively promoted by certain funders through specific think tanks and pundits, publications and talk shows. Do you find that detestable? A good pundit does not just write books and white papers. He or she crafts memes, soundbites, vid clips, talking points, or a phrase like "welfare queen." This stuff is pretty well orchestrated.


The reason it matters, Holden, is that fake theory doesn't sound that different than authentic theory to people who aren't used to thinking critically. It crowds out real thinking and you get what we now have as a public discourse.

An authentic theory cannot stand up to an attack of sound bites and the type of sound bite reasoning that Phil describes. If theory and serious thinking matters to you, then the think tank and the pundits who mouth their words are a core problem. You could just ignore them, but their message is blasted 24/7 from the media manipulators who fund it all and a serious practice of theory becomes impossible. Even if you retreat into the academy, they will send Horowitz after you there.


Propaganda creates "what everyone knows," or common sense, and it ties common sense to the lizard brain, to hatred, anger, blood lust. To turn the propaganda engines against the poor, particularly the black and brown, is despicable, and a big part of what certain funders on the right have done since Reagan. The payoff is lower taxes, and election through a "southern strategy," but I am afraid also the payoff is gratification of centuries-old malice. Recoding racial prejudice to make it socially acceptable is not acceptable to anyone with a conscience. Those who do it should be confronted. The press doesn't. And so the tide of coded hatred rises. Standing against it may be fool's work, but what else am I doing in the evenings of greater importance? Might as well blog as watch Wolf Blitzer read what passes for news. Giving is upbeat. Taking on the creatures of the slime pits is dirty work. But I find I enjoy it. The tools of satire were created for this centuries ago, and it delights me that they still work, in our time as in the age of the Emperor Augustus.


Yes, I detest that meme. Here's my theory of how it gets spread:

1. People tend to believe what they want to believe.

2. That's about it.

If you got what you've been dreaming of, and all the think tanks you hate were illegalized and dynamited, I think you would see the world change very little. In this world, all the things you detest would still be happening. People would talk themselves into self-serving nonsense. They'd pass it onto their kids. Some of their kids would feel so passionate about it that they'd go into politics, and craft all the sound bites they could. Other, kids, better cut out for writing than politics, would wish they could spend all day writing about this nonsense. Some of them would achieve their dream, and be hired as campaign speechwriters. Others, as editorialists. Finally, there would be those who couldn't get either of these jobs, and they'd have to go be lawyers or something, because there'd be no think tanks to hire them. Big deal.

I'm not saying memes don't matter. I'm saying that they've got tons of ways of spreading. Bad think tankers are a drop in the bucket.

Meanwhile, there is a lot more to conservatism than malice. Looking at someone's funders is a terrible test of whether you're listening to self-serving nonsense. Listening is a great test.


For someone who asks for measurement of some things that are distinctly hard to measure, why do you assert without any metrics, demonstration or proof that "the activity of think tanks don't matter".

I assert that they have given us two of the worst presidents ever and continue to have a hold on public discourse. Without a message crafted over years and perfected in focus groups, none of this drivel would stand up. It is a system to make the fake real, and it works. People believe what they want too, but they are also limited and shaped by what they here, what is expected of them.


Phil, there is one thing I've noticed that everyone has in common whose beliefs are far from the mainstream, no matter the issue. Every single one of these people shares the belief that the other side is 300x more cunning, competent, and brilliant in manipulating the media and advancing its message. (Extremist Israelis believe Arabs are masters of controlling the news and their image. !!)

Somewhere there is a Bizarro Phil, "blogging meritocracy" perhaps, blaming the Brookings Institute for the fact that we have government at all. That, if you ask me, is how think tanks get funded: each side perceives the other's manipulative machinery as more important than it is, and so overinvests in their own. The hired guns blast back and forth at each other, each afraid that the other is fooling the people in the middle, who are in fact busy watching The Sopranos.

As someone who sees both merit and nonsense on both sides of the spectrum, I attribute the spread of bad ideas to a combination of natural logical mistakes, the tendency to believe what your parents and friends have told you, and the tendency to believe what serves you. Not to any kind of conspiracy. Partly because I don't believe any conspirators, particularly nonprofits, are that good at what they do.


Holden, you should follow the link in the thread above to Commonweal's resources and read around. There is a significant literature on the rise of the mighty whurlizter of conservative ideology. You are correct that the mainstream and progressive community has responded with their version of the same approach, raising tens of millions for progressive think thank and sound bites. The alternative is to fund "transpartisan discussion groups," to get citizens talking to citizens, rather than experts talking to a mass audience via soundbites. I realize this is not your issue per se, but you should really consider the role of ideology and politics in producing and reproducing poverty. I notice that Albert posted on this at WCT.


I have thought about that issue, a lot. Right now I think we need to figure out how to help people, more badly than we need to figure out how to get our existing ideas for helping people to appeal to voters (or donors). That's not my final call, I'm still thinking (and reading you and Albert).


Hey Holden, did you have a mentor, or mentors, as you progressed through your youth and education? Some you held in reasonably high esteem? If so, can you give me a principle, or axiom, or parable, or quote, that they might have gifted you, that sent you home to your humble bed, slayed, left you ceiling-staring, left you feeling the boundaries of your dubious "self" spreading spreading spreading so gently, so rightly, so undeniably, horizontal, that you were unreachable for a while? I know this is a lot to ask and I certainly don't demand a response, but I felt the urge to ask you, so I do, my valiant brother.

It is such a beautiful day here, I mean, SUCH a beautiful day...

I can only feel thankful and confused.


Holden, thanks. Great response, I truly appreciate the open mind. What is the role of public policy is creating, ameliorating, or alleviating poverty? That is a huge question, and not one in which I have real expertise. Albert is much closer to the issues. That public policy side is where Schambra fits. That is his homeland, and his efforts are part of a larger effort to redefine the role of government. His role is more than that of a theorist, he is also a practitioner of politics, and that means, as a speechwriter, thinker, and polemicist, moving the needle with public opinion and voters. His words will affect inner city kids for generations to come. If his words carry, those kids will have to rely mostly on private charity, not programs like Head Start. Taxes will go down, public programs will disappear, and the Holdens of the world will step forward to take up the slack, as the Conrad Blacks find their taxes reduced. That is Bill's better world, the world we wants. I believe he is sincere in wanting it, and that his life is aligned. He is paid to polemicize for what he believes. The world I want is one in which Conrad Black is divested to his newspapers, public opinion is formed through open debate, and the poor are heard, seen, loved and treated as fellow citizens who deserve no less respect than the bigshots, and who deserve a chance just like the white kids in the prep schools. Whether that goal is achieved through philanthropy or public policy, we cannot let the wealthy just walk away from the challenge with a shrug, saying, "It would be patronizing to help these shiftless blacks. Let them be smart and moral and tough like me." That is a Victorian attitude, dreged from the abyss by conservative intellectuals like Bill, and given new credibility. Last time it led to reform, through writers like Dickens and the muckrakers later. And Marx and strikes and violence marked that era too. What will reform our Gilded Age? Meanwhile, helping kids as you do is honorable and much to be applauded.

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