Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Psychohistorians versus Pseudo-Intellectuals

Asimov, Krugman and America deserve better. Teresa Nielsen Hayden makes an authoritative case that "Krugman is from Trantor; Gingrich ain't:

Far be it from me to discourage mainstream political commentary that’s framed in terms of science fiction, but Ray Smock’s Newt Gingrich the Galactic Historian gets it wrong:

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, Newt Gingrich is from the planet Trantor, a fictional world created by Isaac Asimov in his classic Foundation series about galactic empire.

Wrong. The Honorable Newt is not from Trantor. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman is from Trantor. This is known. He’s said on multiple occasions that he went into economics because the field of psychohistory doesn’t exist. What Krugman took from the Foundation Trilogy was the idea that you could learn everything about history and put it together in order to understand not only what has happened, but why things happen the way they do. Remind you of Gingrich? Me neither.*

Newt’s master plan for America does not come from a Republican Party playbook. It comes from the science fiction that he read in high school. He is playing out, on a national and global scale, dreams he had as a teenager with his nose buried in pulp fiction.

Do not blame that on science fiction. 93% of the people in my social circle read the Foundation Trilogy and assorted pulp SF in their youth, and none of them turned into Newt Gingrich.

Smock’s thesis is unwarranted. The argument present in his actual evidence is that Gingrich is prone to wishful thinking, and a grandiose view of his own place in the world. That’s not the fault of the books he’s read; it’s his innate character, beginning to end. If he’d read other books, he’d have drawn the same conclusions but used other examples to illustrate them.

Look at his relationship with history. I’ll allow that Gingrich has read more of it than the average citizen, but I’ve never seen any evidence that his reading has led him to form opinions not already present in his thinking. He mines history, shallowly, for illustrative examples. He uses it to put on airs. And if you’ve read Catton, Foote, and McPherson, Gingrich’s novels certainly won’t give you any surprising new takes on the Civil War.

Newt Gingrich’s knowledge of history is like George Bush’s religion: it exists only to validate what he already wants to believe. When the influence is that shallow, the texts are not to blame.

Hear, hear, and read the rest (the comments have some good stuff, too). Hayden's description of Gingrich's use of history reminds me of several other pieces that call into question Gingrich's quality as a historian and his modus operandi as a public (pseudo) intellectual.

In "Five myths about Newt Gingrich," John J. Pitney, Jr.'s first item is:

1. Gingrich is an academic.

He earned a PhD in history and taught college before winning a seat in Congress. He has often spoken of himself as a historian. In 1995, he told CNN’s Bob Franken: “I am the most seriously professorial politician since Woodrow Wilson.”

But whereas Wilson spent years publishing scholarly works, Gingrich was more like the professor who wins popularity awards from undergraduates but doesn’t get tenure because he doesn’t publish anything significant. He even told a college newspaper in 1977 that “I made the decision two or three years ago that I’d rather run for Congress than publish the papers or academic books necessary to get promoted.”

Since then, he has given countless lectures and written more than 20 books, but has never produced truly serious scholarship. A typical Gingrich work is full of aphorisms and historical references — and devoid of the hallmarks of academic research: rigor, nuance and consideration of alternative views. Conservative political scientist James Q. Wilson once assessed materials for a televised history course that Gingrich was teaching as a “mishmash of undefined terms... misleading claims... and unclear distinctions.”

Yet Gingrich has been quick to cite his credentials as a source of authority. In a letter to Reagan budget director David Stockman, he once wrote: “From my perspective as a historian, you don’t deal in the objective requirements of history.” And recently, he suggested that mortgage giant Freddie Mac had paid him for his historical expertise, not his Capitol Hill connections.

The "mishmash" NYT link is well worth following. It delivers more information about Gingrich's ethic breaches – he was fined an unprecedented $300,000 "for misusing tax-exempt funds for partisan purposes and providing untrue information to a House Ethics Committee inquiry." (Some things never change: "The 395-to-28 vote followed nearly a year of investigation led by the committee's special counsel, James M. Cole, whose view of Mr. Gingrich's transgressions was plainly harsher than the committee's Republicans were ready to accept.") The piece also gives a glimpse into Gingrich's megalomania: In 1992, in talks with supporters in Florida, Gingrich described himself as (among other things), "Definer of civilization," "Teacher of the Rules of Civilization" and "Arouser of those who Fan Civilization" (make your own joke). Finally, it provides more of Wilson's assessment of Gingrich's work as a historian:

In the fall of 1993, Mr. Gingrich began teaching the history course, ''Renewing American Civilization,'' that would later lie at the heart of the controversy over his use of tax-exempt funds. An associate, Jeff Eisenach, sought from James Q. Wilson, the conservative scholar, an endorsement of a chapter of the text prepared for the course. The professor's reply in September 1993 was not quite what the Gingrich camp was hoping for:

I am troubled by the chapter. Perhaps I don't understand the purpose of the course, but if it is to be a course rather than a series of sermons, this chapter won't do. It is bland, vague, hortatory and lacking in substance. I do not deny that personal character is important; I have spent much of the last 10 years making that argument in some detail. But this chapter does not strike me as a thoughtful examination of the sources or importance of character in American life. Philosophically, it is a mishmash of undefined terms (''the universal immune power''), misleading claims (''principles are natural laws''), and unclear distinctions (e.g., between principles and values). Scientifically, it is filled with questionable or unsupported generalizations (e.g., standards of acceptable conduct are influenced more by the media than by the family, broadcasting cannot continue to live by the numbers, since World War I Americans have lost sight of right and wrong in favor of ''quick-fix mentality,'' etc.)

Historically, it does not represent Adam Smith correctly. . . . The Founders are also treated somewhat cavalierly. It is true that George Washington spoke often of the importance of virtue, but he didn't write the Constitution; Madison and a few others did. In the Federalist papers, Madison defends that Constitution by saying that it does not require virtue for its operation: ambition will be made to counteract ambition.

I could go on, but I dare not for fear I have misunderstood what this enterprise is all about. I am a professor, and so I bring the perspectives (and limitations) of a professor to bear on this matter. If this is not to be a course but instead a sermon, then you should get a preacher to comment on it.

''Renewing American Civilization'' was more than a course or a slogan. It was one vision statement after another. This is from the March 19, 1993, version:

American civilization is decaying. Most Americans know that the combination of 12-year-old kids dying of AIDS and 18-year-old students, who cannot even read, receiving high school diplomas, threatens the very fabric of American civilization. . . .

We knew American civilization was decaying before the Democrats took the White House. We now know after two months of the Democratic machine that they will accelerate the decay and make it worse. . . .

Now that's fair and balanced history teaching. Gingrich has been a scoundrel for so long, it's important to remember his own history.

More recently, Steve Benen reports that Gingrich "intends, if elected president, to teach an online course." That's an odd, disturbing and potentially hilarious prospect, but it leads Benen to link a 1995 Washington Monthly piece by Allan Lichtman about the course Gingrich taught at Kennesaw State College in Georgia, the aforementioned “Renewing American Civilization." Lictman dubs it "fictionalized history":

Gingrich’s fictionalized history makes more sense when you examine his sources. This professor doesn’t waste much time on books or documents, unless you count novels and films. This is History Lite (which, admittedly, some students covet). He spends far less time on The Federalist Papers than he does on "The Last of the Mohicans," one of his favorite films:

“Wonderful scene where the American ... is standing there and the British officer says, ‘Aren’t you going to Fort William Henry?’ And he says, ‘No, I’m going to Kentucky.’ And he says, ‘How can you go to Kentucky in the middle of a war?’ And he says, ‘You face north, turn left and walk. It’s west of here.’ It’s a very American response... Now, he ends up going to fight. Why? Because of the girl, which is also classically American. It’s a very romantic country.”

Of the books he does use, you have to wonder whether he has read them recently…

Gingrich’s historical selectivity and outright errors are, well, revealing. He manages to get through the entire Civil War without ever mentioning slavery...

Not surprisingly, much of Gingrich’s course is preoccupied with the history of the welfare state-the “actively destructive” welfare state, that is. He doesn’t acknowledge any of the good that government has done over the past 30 years, when federal investments in education, electrification, research, and facilities built Gingrich’s modern South.

Instead, Gingrich explains, “The modern welfare state basically says to you: Tell us what kind of victim you are, and we’ll tell you how big a check you get ... In the elite culture model, we focus on losers.” Perhaps, but does Gingrich then number the people he represents among the losers? His congressional district receives the largest amount of federal funds of any district in America. Newt the teacher may have forgotten this. Newt the politician knows it well.

Films can be useful tools for teaching history, but it depends on their accuracy, and the teacher's knowledge about their accuracy (scrutinizing an inaccurate depiction could make for a good and fun discussion). Similarly, citing a film or novel might frame a public issue well, but obviously, this is not true is the fictionalized account is at direct odds with reality. Many of Gingrich's notions are either antiquated or fantastical – Al Franken once joked that all of Newt's ideas appear to come from a Reader's Digest from the 50s, and Stephen Colbert pointed out that many of Gingrich's crazy ideas seem lifted from Bond villains. Gingrich has long cited both fictionalized history and fiction to justify his positions. Back in 1994, Gingrich proposed putting welfare children into orphanages, citing the 1938 film Boys Town:

Asked to comment on Hillary Clinton's criticism of his proposal to ship welfare children to "orphanages," Rep. Newt Gingrich (R., Ga.), told the panelists of NBC's Meet the Press that the First Lady should hie on down "to Blockbuster and rent the Mickey Rooney movie about Boys Town."

This advice, from the man who yesterday was elected speaker of the House of Representatives, confounded the nation's movie lovers, not to mention its social-service professionals.

The inspirational Boys Town starred Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan, the real-life figure who rehabilitated thousands of delinquent youths at his facility near Omaha, Neb. In the 1938 film, Mickey Rooney played Whitey Marsh, a hard-bitten delinquent who becomes a cherub under the patient care of Flanagan.

"There seems to be some romanticizing about orphanages these days," says Joan Reeves, commissioner of Philadelphia's Department of Human Services. "I remember Boys Town. I liked the movie. I cried a lot. But I don't look to movies for help in solving social problems."

"Doesn't Gingrich know that the Boys Town of today is nothing like the Boys Town of yesterday - and neither are the boys?" asked Frank Cervone, executive director of Philadelphia's Support Center for Child Advocates, which represents abused and neglected children.

"The actual functioning of the place is quite different from the 1938 film," said Randy Blauvelt, public relations director of Boys Town, which has been "besieged by the media" since Gingrich's statement.

James G. Driscoll made similar points, noting that "Gingrich has a Ph.D. in history and likes old movies, but knows little about preserving modern families. Very little." In a further odd development, Gingrich hosted a showing of the film on one of the Turner networks.

You may have caught Newt Gingrich's remarks that child labor laws should be repealed so that poor kids, who are lazy (and presumably black), can take over janitorial jobs at their schools. Check out Susan of Texas for a good treatment of this characteristically stupid and immoral proposal. Paul Glastris also notes that Gingrich was outraged at a Clinton plan to give jobs to inner-city youth – claiming that tax cuts to private businesses were better. Granted, Gingrich has a long history of flip-flops and talking out of both sides of his mouth, but that doesn't diminish the special quality of bullshit he brings to each one:

As Paul [Glastris] asked, “Why, then, was Gingrich against government jobs programs for poor teens in 1993 but favors them in 2011? Could it be that he opposes them only when they’re offered up by Democrats, and supports them only when they involve firing unionized workers?”

As we've examined before, "Gingrich has somehow remained a member in good standing in the Beltway, despite his long record of hyper-partisan, McCarthy-esque bomb-throwing and many attacks on the very notion of a functioning government." While he has said and done many despicable things over the years, the following get my vote for the most contemptible and unforgivable, summarized well by Steve Benen and Kevin Drum:

Just a few days before the ‘94 midterm elections — the cycle that would represent the “Republican Revolution” — a deranged woman named Susan Smith drowned her two young sons in South Carolina. It was a horrifying crime that captured significant national attention.

In his desperation to exploit literally any opportunity for partisan gain, Gingrich quickly made infanticide a campaign issue and publicly equated Smith’s murders with the values of the Democratic Party. Gingrich told the AP at the time, “The mother killing her two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we have to have change. I think people want to change and the only way you get change is to vote Republican.”

That someone would think this is offensive. That someone would say it out loud, on the record, is just twisted.

Calling Gingrich “one of the nastiest, most malignant pieces of work ever to grace American politics,” Kevin [Drum] concluded, “Newt Gingrich extolling the virtues of bipartisanship is like Hannibal Lecter promoting the value of good nutrition.”

That’s a terrific line that happens to be true.

Another great summing up of Newt Gingrich is that "He's a stupid man's idea of what a smart person sounds like." Never one to pass up an opportunity, he will continue to show that for the rest of the campaign season and his political career.

(For more on Gingrich, see Roy Edroso's most recent wingnut roundup, John Richardson's 2010 feature for Equire [plus extras], and follow some of the links above.)


zencomix said...

The latest anti-Newt ad here in Iowa blames Obama for Newt's ascension. (Why is Obama smiling? Because he's helping to suppress Romney and popularize Newt because Newt will be easier to defeat!) It's not from the Romney campaign specifically, but one of the offshoots.

I'm predicting a Ron Paul victory in the caucus.

Tata said...

My dear, I think you invest too much into refuting Newt when really what Newt needs is the Charles De Mar treatment. His whole schtick is his tin-plated ideas. If every time he spoke a whole mess of people stood up and laughed things would turn around in a hurry. For one thing, robbed of his phony superiority, we would certainly see his sadistic side laid bare.

So: Point & Laugh will save us.

Cirze said...

Having thought in the past that the newt was just dishing on stoopid people, I like it!

"He's a stupid man's idea of what a smart person sounds like."

But there again, he went to Emory, and before Newt attended, it had had a good reputation.

So, I assumed he at least had to take some courses and get a B or above to pass.

I'd love to see his transcript.


I've read that he copied his PhD thesis from an old one he found when doing research.

Bet this will be pursued by tons of reporters if he wins Iowa.


Batocchio said...

Zencomix, I'll have to hunt those down. It's both astounding and sadly predictable that Republicans are blaming Obama for somehow dispatching candidates he does better against in the polls.

Tata, by all means, we should point and laugh. (Mother Jones is posting a great series of oddball incidents from Newt's past.) However, as one of the earlier linked pieces explores, Gingrich is considered a Very Serious Person in the Beltway, and there are real people (non-Beltway) who really do think he's smart, FSM help us all. Plus, while I thought I was familiar with most of his scumbaggery, I learned some new details in researching this post. His willingness, even in an ostensibly academic course, to engage in McCarthyesque propaganda is really impressive, in a douchey-evil sorta way. Perhaps we should go with "Never Forget, and Always Mock" for Newtie.

Suzan, I haven't heard the plagiarism charge before, although a cursory search turned up several pieces skewering the shallowness and unoriginality of Newt's thesis. If nothing else, it's further proof that he does not hold up well to scrutiny.

Thanks for stopping by, folks!

Anonymous said...

It is 45 years after the Moon landing. John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about the Planned Obsolescence of automobiles in 1958 in The Affluent Society.

So how can economists even be rational if they say nothing about the depreciation of durable consumer goods for 50 years? Like they could do calculations for psychohistory. They just need for consumers to be dumber than themselves.