Tone-Deaf Experts in the Hour of Grift


or, The Confidence-Men, Their Masquerade: A Bar Jester Chronicle

Just when you think journalistic malfeasance at the New York Times can’t get any worse, out comes one of its daily newsletters with a top story about how the government is doing all kinds of good things for us that we’re just not smart enough to recognize – unless, of course, the Times is there to draw our attention to them. 

One of these is the “American Rescue Plan,” which no one except the people who believe in its efficacy has ever heard of. So in comes the Times to crank up the amp to eleven.

The problem is that we fly-over folk can’t get our small provincial minds around what the Planners have done for us from behind their thick black curtain of transparency. We haven’t properly understood what a smart, valiant, and courageous thing it was for the government to print money. 

Now in our defense we couldn’t read our leaders’ lips at the time because of how bravely and – let us not forget – how compassionately these smart people stood behind their matching accessorized masks. But at least we could hear their muffled voices. 

So what’s wrong with us?

Actually – and this happens occasionally at the Times – nothing is wrong with us. What we’re dealing with here is the Left’s greatest weakness: its own modesty. The Regnant Party just isn’t very good at tooting its own horn and telling us how benevolent it is. 

And that’s why in New York the Party’s PR Department is stepping in.[1] It goes like this. The Democrats have a

preference for technocratically elegant and often invisible policies. It wasn’t always this way…. Social Security, Medicare and the G.I. Bill – as well as New Deal parks, roads and bridges, many with signs marking them as federal projects – helped popularize government action because they were so obvious.

All of these programs, as all of us know, and many other programs conveniently not mentioned, are unimpeachable goods and come with no costs, whether monetary, psychological, or social. They are not susceptible of criticism.

But “if voters don’t know what the government is doing to improve their lives,” asks the PR Department, “how can they be expected to be in favor of it?”

That’s a great question – assuming that the purpose of government is to improve the lives of “voters” rather than expand its own power.

But an even better question might be, “Why don’t you background people agree with us that your lives are being made better because of what we’re doing for you?” 

For it’s inconceivable to the Times’ staff that “voters” could possibly lack confidence in so tender-hearted a government as its citizens currently enjoy. (I say nothing about how ridiculous it would be for anyone, especially “voters,” to lack confidence in the tireless truth-seeking disinterested fourth estate.) Surely the educational system that our betters have been in charge of over the last 60 years has conditioned us to stand and applaud with the regularity of party lackeys in a state-of-the-union address at the omnibenevolence of the federal bureaucracy we’re all lucky enough to have a barely-audible voice in.

And with that educational system’s old curricula and canon so thoroughly discredited by now, no one, assuredly, would ever think to appeal to America’s crazy homegrown prophets – those DeadWhiteMales ignorant of RaceClassGender who, in an era of national cheerfulness, took a more tenebraic view of progress: Hawthorne in The Blithedale Romance, for example, or Melville in The Confidence Man. The shell game that these books exposed? It was all in good fun! The thing about Hawthorne is not that in his view the Do-Gooders will always transmogrify our agreeable everyday small-scale messiness into something like Edward Bellamy’s nightmarish and leviathanic Boston. What, after all, does Hawthorne’s wariness of Philanthropists have to do with top-down Rescue Plans? And the thing about Melville is not that he distrusted human nature or saw the corrosive power of inordinate wealth or divined that politics is for con artists trying to close a deal. He just secretly, or maybe not so secretly, wanted to cuddle with tattooed harpooners. That’s the thing to know about Melville.

Or could it really be that what Hawthorne saw is that large-scale rescue plans are actually blueprints for ruin – and about as morally reputable as mesmerism? Could it be that what Melville saw driving this Ship of Fools toward the rocks was this very same kind of NYT sleight-of-hand? “Believe usTrust usWe must have your full confidenceCan’t you people see that there’s no other way this can work out in our favor except that you trust us?”

In fact Americans do know about the American Rescue Plan. Many of them who aren’t smart enough to be trusted with self-governance have been calling it the American Ruination Plan. One reason for this is that it was plainly drawn up to rescue us from the problems caused by the Planners’ prior rescue plans.

Another reason – and this one is more to the point – is that all kinds of questionable things have been showing up on The Plan’s Accounts Payable column: rampant inflation traceable directly to the Plan, gas prices thundering through the economy (such as it is), used-car prices making buyers as skittish as trout in shallow water on a cloudless day, and shortages of parts for pretty much everything, because all the parts are manufactured anywhere but at home. And for those who have opted out of every aspect of the food economy except for shopping and eating, who could ignore food prices scaring working people half to death, to say nothing of widespread anomie, acedia, and ennui, drug-use, alcoholism, suicide, road rage, and street violence – including the racially-motivated violence in the New York subway? 

The bookkeeping here is so dishonest that it makes the mortgage-swap-securities Scheissters of ’08 look like they were holding up three fingers and acting on Scout’s Honor.

But why stop with technocratic, if also invisible, elegance? In the same NYT newsletter we read about high school attrition and absenteeism, both of which were caused by the pandemic.

Brief pause for emphasis here: attrition and absenteeism were caused by the pandemic itself. They were not caused by the technocratically elegant policies that the Managers imposed on putatively free citizens to “help” them manage the pandemic – with the assistance, be it noted, of the New York PR Department and its contempt of long-term data and the Mertonian norms of scientific endeavor.

To this absenteeism – which, by the way, is reverberating in colleges and universities now as high-school graduates take their no-account habits with them to the next level they’re in no way ready for – I add by way of anecdote the two-year-old granddaughter of a buddy of mine who is woefully behind in her language skills: at a crucial time in her development she didn’t get to see her parents’ masked lips move. She didn’t get to see them mouth the words her ears had been picking up on. 

And my friend is forbidden by these wise masked parents to see his own granddaughter because he has not had a “safe and effective vaccine” for which there are no long-term data, there having been no long term yet for those data to emerge in – and which, if we had them, would no doubt turn out to be just be so much “disinformation,” which is the word the PR Department assigns to anything it doesn’t want to hear. Grandpa’s natural immunity isn’t good enough for people who are smart enough to know all the good that The Party is doing for them and their two-year-old daughter who can’t talk. No doubt the young parents will eat a store-bought apple but not one plucked off an apple tree. Only the manufactured is real; only what’s for sale is real; only what the technocrats say is real is real. 

What my buddy’s daughter and son-in-law have done is not difficult of description: they have handed their confidence over to villains with ruinous technocratic policies, just as Melville predicted they would. And the victims of their sophisticated confidence are the granddaughter and her grandfather, neither of whom has any say in any conceivable familial circumstance that lies ahead. The confidence men aboard the Fidèle haven’t told these smart people what to do yet.

Imagine the Paper of Record following this story not with the intent of explaining it to us (“here’s why you should admire these college-educated and – did we mention? – blue-state parents”) but with a sincere willingness to wonder whether The Rescue Planners haven’t in fact been telling us to follow the kind of science (trust it!) that has been conveniently reduced in scope to fit into their Emergency Power-Grab Kit. 

For make no mistake: by now a journalist is not someone who reports but someone who explains. Hear the leonine-hearted compiler of the Times daily newsletter leading with his wonted misunderstanding of what someone in his position is supposed to do: “I started writing this newsletter two years ago, with the goal of helping you make sense of the day’s most important stories.”

Such charity in the service of elucidating what someone other than “you” has decided are “the day’s most important stories”! And not at all condescending!

“My colleagues and I are able to do this,” continues our generous-minded journalist, “only because of the unmatched breadth and depth of The New York Times’s reporting, from a newsroom of 1,700 journalists.”

Confide in us. There are 1,700 of us. There’s no crisis of credibility here.

Except there is. For a glimpse of the Times’ unmatched narrowness and shallowness, follow Matt Taibbi on the most recent war profiteers that no elite media outlet has any interest in reporting on.

Here’s a teaser from Taibbi: “As war rages, there will be officials on TV with sincere opinions about how the U.S. can help Ukraine. Very often, however, what you’re watching is a paid lobbyist plugging for a weapons maker,” among whom Taibbi names Leon Panetta, “a senior counselor at Beacon Global Strategies, which represents a host of security companies, including famed munitions maker Raytheon.”

Then there’s Admiral James Stavridis, “a member of the Beacon Advisory board, [who] has been stumping for more arms deliveries on NBC and MSNBC since war broke out.”

And there’s General Wesley Clark, “who has his own lobbying business” and who has “urged new deliveries via print articles with headlines like ‘The time to arm Ukraine is right now.’ Former Defense Secretary William Cohen has also been a regular on-air presence of late, always calling for more more more, and his own eponymous consultancy, The Cohen Group, routinely goes unmentioned.”

But if you point this out, you’re not in favor of an honest and unfettered fourth estate. You’re not anti-grift. You’re pro-Putin. No one has to listen to you. “Disinformation!”

The thing about Matt Taibbi, though, is that, unlike the 1,700 anti-Putinite unmatched unmatchables in the Times newsroom, he doesn’t believe that the principal safeguards of democracy are censorship and mendacity. 

Or how about this for instilling confidence and retaining credibility? In a story on Hunter Biden’s celebrity lawyer, the Paper of Record has this to say:

Hunter Biden has a long history of seeking employment or profit in areas that overlapped with his father’s public duties and doing business with questionable partners around the world, including in Ukraine. His extensive and well-publicized personal travails – including addiction to crack cocaine, divorce, a relationship with his brother’s widow and money problems – have spilled into politics, helping to fuel relentless if largely baseless efforts by Republicans to link his father to his business ventures.

What, pray, does the phrase “relentless if largely baseless efforts by Republicans” mean? Efforts that are “largely” but not “totally baseless” are, by definition, based. But readers not smart enough to know what The Planners are doing for them would never need to know anything about those efforts, much less have them explained or made sense of.

And at any rate The NY PR Department and its 1,700 Confidence Men are not interested. Curiosity of that sort could mean trouble for the hologram living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. So it’s nothing but crickets in the darkness from them.

Then there’s Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle’s assault on “our democracy,” which we can clearly see in her opposition to the travel mask mandates that the fourth estate approves of. People not smart enough to understand all the good the government does for them see Mizelle as part of a larger effort by conservative judges nationwide to do the unthinkable: rein in federal administrative agencies even as “experts in those operations, working under the direction of Congress, labor tirelessly to write many of the rules that govern our lives.”

But who is this “Judge Mizelle” you’ve never heard of until recently? She’s a judge whom National Precious Radio is quick to tell us was “was nominated by former President Donald Trump in September 2020 at age 33 and confirmed by a 49-to-41 Senate vote” and whom “the American Bar Association” – apparently the first institution endowed with the human capacity for speech – “said … was not qualified for the position because she had not been practicing law for long enough,” time rather than competence being the only measure.

If experts outside those operations – experts in self-governance, for example – don’t have a thoroughly sanguine a view of the rule-writers on the inside who are so eager to govern our lives, well then we’ve got a national crisis of confidence on our hands. And as everyone knows, low voter confidence is as bad for a Republic as low consumer confidence is for an economy.

But take heart! The Times weekend newsletter does not neglect to tell us that on late-night television the redoubtable social critic and political philosopher Jimmy Kimmel has weighed in on the Roe v. Wade scandal. You’ll want to cancel your morning appointments and spend that valuable time on YouTube under the tuition of Dr. Kimmel.

Back of all this you might hear a rabble-rousing Palestinian Jew from a couple of millennia ago promising that the truth, once known, will set you free – but that poor soul on a collision course with Golgotha was assuming that truth could be disentangled from all the elegant technocratic lies it’s wound up in.

And, really, lies are what we’re dealing with whenever confidence rather than truth is at stake. The logic of lying requires no explaining from PR Departments: once you start lying, there’s no going back, and then the lies keep mounting until you are incapable of knowing the truth and can’t remember what lies you’ve told to cover up the Ur-lie whence all the other prevarications issued. You’re just flat-out busted, but since you’re a liar you won’t admit it.

What the Party of smart people does is insinuate itself into the minds of the smart people who vote for its smart candidates. And “insinuate” is the right word exactly: it means to make your way, to penetrate by subtle ways; to worm yourself in, to make your way by stealth into the favor and affection of others. In other words, it means to be a snake. And no one should have to tell anyone what a snake is the archetypal symbol of. The Party of smart people and its flunkies in the news rooms are belly-crawlers, and their looping anthem is “Trust in Me.” They’ve taken the advice of that great villainess, Lady Macbeth: look like the innocent daffodil but be the adder under it. 

The problem with a moribund politics and a mendacious fourth estate is that we’re now dealing with fantasies too dumbed down even for Disney, only now the animators have become way too subtle for the people smart enough to understand the elegant benevolence of the technocrats. VP Harris is always giggling; POTUS Biden is always trying so hard (not to mangle his sentences), and The Ship of Fools is not headed toward the rocks. Trust us. Believe us. We must have your full confidence.

For myself, I have no use for the Bidens or the Trumps or the Clintons or the Bushes. I have never given any of them my vote. I don’t like war in Ukraine or anywhere else. If I could commit theocide, I’d begin with Ares and then, like Patton tearing through Italy, I’d work my way across Mt. Olympus. Poseidon and Putin alike can suck it, for all I care. And I don’t know personally any of the people responsible for compiling the NYT daily newsletter. If they are well-meaning, which they probably are, someone should tell them that “well-meaning” doesn’t feed the bulldog.

They should also be told – and who at the Times shouldn’t be told this? – that they are tone-deaf. (“Preference for technocratically elegant and often invisible policies”? None of the seventeen-hundred noticed how like fingernails raked across a chalkboard that sounds?) They have no clue what they sound like to people outside of their little River-City orchestra trying by the mere power of volition to scratch out the Minuet in G – and doing so in front of parents whom the traveling salesman and con-man maestro thinks are too stupid to recognize a slimy trickster when they see one – a trickster whose main purpose, surely, is to enter the temple: to get Hester to earn just one more A.

But of course the thing about tone-deaf people is that you can’t tell them they’re tone-deaf. That’s the very problem, and it’s a problem impervious to solution. They can’t hear the pitch, and no amount of plunking out an A440 will help them distinguish it from a D-sharp. It’s like the old story of the young lass who says to her professor, “I can’t understand why I keep getting Cs on my papers,” to whom the professor sensibly replies, “Of course you can’t, dear.”

1. The Bar Jester recognizes that the other repugnant political Party also has its PR Departments masquerading as disinterested news outlets. He wouldn’t be mistaken for someone who is not an equal-opportunity hater.

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