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29 June 2008


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Jay McAnally

"Today, outside the elites of a few universities, we have little in the way of intellectual life in this country. We have little in the way of political life. NBC's Political Director just referred on MTP to the "Republican Brand." My. My. Marketing rules. "

But Colonel: In an MBA world, Governance *is* a Marketing excercise...


I think this 'branding' is part of the cultural logic of late capitalism. We are no longer subjects in a political sense but rather subject consumers targeted with non-stop advertising. Our political consciousness extends no further than brand loyalty. Thus capitalism; any critique of the educational system has to begin with its political economy and that simply is not going to happen.

My experience with students is that they are starving for anything that makes them think. The reluctance on the part of many educators to meet them halfway is in large part due to the negative classroom leadership that thrives on the Pipes' model of academic excellence.

William R. Cumming

The "Closing of the American Mind" published several decades ago seems to really ring true in many respects. That is why the stakes for the world are so high here in the US. We are not unique and subject to the same human frailty of other peoples. That is why outlets for real thinking and insight are in short supply. Thanks for this opportunity Pat. Here's to differences of opinion and the chance to express them.


I neglected to add that this 'leveling' is another way to phrase the 'massification' traditionally associated with leftist educational models. Whaterver the description, however, we are left with the unavoidable fact that higher education has been corrupted by market forces, labor supply and demand, etc. and has little to do anymore with the true meaning of a liberal education.

Current American values have little room for the humanities.

Mama Africa

great post! thanks very much for sharing!

David W.

There is a lot to unpack here, and the Col goes much deeper than the Broder column does. (btw, How intellectually lazy can Broder get by quoting Peggy Noonan as being in agreement? Her entire audience are these same people--from 'middle America,' of course, which helps explain and mitigate both their 'dumbness,' as well as her's and Broder's, for that matter.)

While right wingers are not generally good at creating media content, they are certainly aware of how to use the mass media in general to achieve their goals, which basically involve maintaining a fragmented and superficial society which values the transitory spectacle above all.

However, I'm leery of crusty Classics professors (mine were non-crusty), who believe that all great works are behind us, as they are forever looking with longing at ancient Greece. Only a few years after your anecdotal experience, an epic American poet came onto the scene, who wrote lines such as this:

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

While it is true that Dylan's words and message are all too easily lost in the wide but shallow stream of American consciousness, I think the 'Golden Age' is an oversimplification, and things like the Iliad can be seen as the media of the day.

The lens of time also occludes looking at the present--today's bard will likely not be speaking in iambic pentameter, nor will he (or she) be playing a lute (btw, Shakespeare himself was an argument against the Classics--discuss)

Duncan Kinder
A classics professor once told his class in my presence that there no longer existed the possibility of the creation of an American epic poem, something like the Iliad, Aeneid, etc., because the declining cultural level and the lack of common values among the "American people" had destroyed the basis of wide comprehension that would be needed for such an effort.

If he were any good, he would know that Homer actually was pre-literate, that he composed his poems through oral formulation, as the poet of Beowulf apparently also did.

He also would know the difference between parataxis and hypotaxis, which is basically the difference between Hemingway (parataxis) and Faulkner ( hypotaxis ). It was also basically the difference between Euripides and Aeschylus, the debate between which Aristophanes lampooned in the Frogs.

Patrick Lang

David W.

"Bob Dylan?" Same - same as Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Benet?

Well, if you say so.... pl

Patrick Lang


That is rather cruel to the old boy. He is dead now so he can't answer you.

You did not address my point and his as to whether or not there is enough left in our civilization to generate epic. "Epic." I'm sure you know what that is. pl


Colonel Lang:

Have you seen Seymour Hersh's article in the New Yorker about the escalation of U.S. covert operations in Iran? This is looking like a repeat of Iraq. The Democratic leadership has agreed to fund this escalation without knowing what exactly they've signed onto. Please comment if you will.


I forgot to give you a link.



I forgot to give you a link.



I think Shakespeare said it best - "Brevity is the soul of wit". Short, simple sentences tend to be more memorable. Complex sentences are somtimes necessary, and they can be used to deliver an ironic point. As a general rule, though I try to avoid them.

I don't take a lower Flesch-Kincaid score in speeches as proof that they are less intellectual. Communicating is also an intellectual process. In some ways, it's comparable to engineering, in that how you try to communicate an idea is designed to appeal to a particular group of people or to a particular mood.

I've done technical writing for a living here and there, and while I don't find it easy, I've learned to communicate complicated thought in relatively simple language. To me, the ideal communication wastes no words, and is clear enough that there is no possibility of misunderstanding. The longer the average sentence is, the less likely that is to be true.

Rather than being another sign of the intellectual decline of America, lower F-K scores might be taken as proof that the speeches are getting better.


Susan Jacoby wrote an interesting op-ed on the subject of how the term "elite" has become a slur, and synonymous with "elitism".

PITY the poor word “elite,” which simply means “the best” as an adjective and “the best of a group” as a noun. What was once an accolade has turned poisonous in American public life over the past 40 years, as both the left and the right have twisted it into a code word meaning “not one of us.” But the newest and most ominous wrinkle in the denigration of all things elite is that the slur is being applied to knowledge itself.

Despite my previous comment about F-K scores and their relationship to intellectualism, I agree with Jacoby. Intellectual achievement has become a negative thing in this country. I don't think that's an accident - it serves the purposes of the politicians who foster that view, as well as their sponsors.


How appropriate that the Republicans should be concerned about their brand. A brand, if you recall, is typically associated with cattle, often from Texas. A brand is often placed on the haunch near the place where the BS comes out...

So, to make a long story short, the Republican brand is synonymous with BS.


There is one, rather simpler reason why no one is going to compose an epic poem such as the Iliad, and that's that epic poetry is no longer read and enjoyed by the mass audience. For better or worse the cultural centers of gravity have shifted to novels, movies, music and television (in roughly that order of importance). With very few exceptions, what we now consider classics all began their lives as popular entertainment, made by people whose living was entertaining people, and almost no one who wants to make a living entertaining people today chooses epic poetry as their medium.

I'm also not convinced that the level of popular entertainment today is that much worse than it ever was. You could probably find the Victorian equivalent of that college professor wringing his hands over the Penny Dreadfuls that were so popular in the 19th century. Or the Elizabethan equivalent talking about the popularity of bear baiting and these bawdy plays of the 'johannes factotum' Shakespeare. And I'm not kidding about Shakespeare being bawdy in places. There's a reference to cunnilingus in Hamlet.

That said, the problem of simplifying our political discourse is a very real one. I don't think it's to do with any real or perceived drop in the level of popular entertainment however. The problem as I see it is that as a society we've started treating political discourse as if it was just another popular entertainment. A problem which in turn has resulted from a mentality that considers civic responsibility on the part of the entities that control our media to be limited to not broadcasting swearing, genitals or blasphemy.

I may just be being optimistic here, since it's far easier to carve out a space for disinterested reporting and discourse than it it to raise the general cultural level, there's at least a hope of fixing or changing the political system. If the political system really is a symptom of general cultural rot, improvement seems much less likely.

Duncan Kinder

You did not address my point and his as to whether or not there is enough left in our civilization to generate epic. "Epic." I'm sure you know what that is. pl

Well, I do know that in the Albert Lord, Singer of Tales book, illiterate Bosnian bards were generating epics back in the 1920's and 1930's.

As for the status of our civilization, I don't know, but I personally composed and delivered the minutes of a club I belonged to in epic form about a year ago.

I would be willing to locate and post same, but I doubt if that would further the cause of civilization very much.

frank durkee

Let me add that as a graduate of an "elite" university and a member of what was "a learned profession" at least when I graduated from seminary the commidification of theology and the decline of the background of recent graduates of seminaries follows the trend identified. One illustration in the ealy 2000's at a diocescan meeting in the SW of roughly 120 people the Bishop described Utilitarianism and mentioned one of its developers Jeremy Bentham. He aske who recognized the name, only one hand went up, mine. Tragic.

Cloned Poster

Your post PL:

Flesch reading ease score: 60.1
Automated readability index: 9.6
Flesch-Kincaid grade level: 8.9
Coleman-Liau index: 11
Gunning fog index: 12.2
SMOG index: 11.3


Col. Lang.......and this dumbing down is news to you? More importantly, why do you think that the powers that be prefer it that way?

A colleague of mine and his wife have recently returned from residence in America where they ran an educational consulting business, working for many States. It was sufficient to provide them with not one, but three luxury yachts.

I asked him about the the quality of American public education and his comment is unprintable. Badly paid hacks going through the motions of working through dumbed down standardised textbooks.

The products of this system are the target audience of Faux News.

Do you understand the implications of this?


I started using the term "Marketingocracy" as opposed to democracy or capitalism to point out the particularities of the current state of affairs on these shores. Knowing that Μάρκετινγκ stands for marketing and
Αγορά for market, can someone come up with a better formulation for the term "Marketingocracy".

john in the boro

I think the Bush administration and the neoconservatives believe that they are living the “Axis of Evil” epic.

“Sing, O’ Dixie Chicks, the anger of George son of George that brought countless ills upon the Americans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying to his maker, and many a hero did it yield a prey to hubris and oil, for so were the counsels of PNAC fulfilled from the day on which the CEO of Haliburton and great George first fell in with one another.”

It just remains for Doug Feith or Richard Pearle to set the rest of it to verse. As for the Broder article:

“In the words of political analyst David Broder, NCLB “may be the most important piece of federal legislation in 35 years’” (Martin R. West and Paul E. Petersen, “The Politics and Practice of Accountability,” p1). I guess Mr. Broder is disappointed. Ironically, he cites a “slim book” about presidential “simplistic sentences” as the authority to make his point in “Dumbing Down the Presidency.” But his implications may be spot on. Politicians look for simple solutions to complex problems, and the public has gotten use to it.


Does it really take an post-grad education to understand that sentences like "We want peace (with Iraq prior to invasion)" and "They are the axis of evil" are so very wrong?
They are short and simple, and lies.

David W.

PL, indeed I do, and I hope that you will take it as an opportunity to expand on your current conceptions--rather than thinking me an example of said malaise;>

That said, I think it's important to view literature not only for its mellifluous renderings of language, but also for how it reflects the society that it springs from; in that context, Dylan is much more a lyrical representative of our culture than any of the US Poets Laureate. (see disclaimer #1)


Col. Lang:

Unfortunately, Broder’s analysis creates more problems than it solves and doesn’t address those that are staring him in the face. He seems to forget that ‘dumbing down’ has become a way of life in this country; something not confined to politics and politicians but is part of that well known path of least resistance consistent with human nature that always gets in the way of solving problems wherever you are and whatever you’re doing.

Broder tries to use Lim’s analysis of presidential speeches, and, by association the work of Tulis to make a limited case that presidential candidates are dumbing down elections because they are no longer trying to influence voters by arguing persuasively for their policies but instead are seeking “. . . to build trust by identifying themselves with those voters and their “common sense” view of the world.” Hit by an acorn of his own making, Broder’s sky begins to fall.

At the end of his essay, however, he solves the problem by concluding:

“Lim knows that the forces feeding the trends he describes will not easily be reversed. But he calls on politicians to think about their role as educators of the public and on the public to demand straight talk from those who would be president.”

Nowhere does Broder refer to the careful, analytic work of Tulis and his colleagues on presidential rhetoric and political decision making,
http://www.criticalreview.com/2004/current_issue.html nor does he reflect on the genuine failure of the political system to ensure that citizens are trained in the critical thinking necessary to engage in rational deliberation about their candidate’s views as opposed to demagoguery. Broder’s idea that this can be achieved by simply having the public demand “straight talk” from their candidate is too silly to even qualify as jejune.

Moreover, whether the speeches of our political leaders are written for an eighth grade level of understanding is only relevant to the extent that this allows the speech maker (writer) to ignore content necessary to inform the citizenry in a way that improves the quality of their political decision making. The answer to this question is not to make speeches longer or more complicated but lies in figuring out how best to educate our citizens in every aspect of their lives from politics to health care so that the choices they make about who is to lead them are the best they can be.

For example, in an area ostensibly outside of politics, the private health care system has developed telephonic followup programs to help patients with chronic diseases manage their illnesses more effectively. One of the problems these companies face is how best to bring the patients themselves up to speed with the health care information they need that will help them get better and stay well. For too many patients, not having had a basic high school course in health science makes that task more onerous and time consuming for the health care provider, and, ultimately, less beneficial to the patient as a vehicle for his/her care.

The issue is not the validity of Broder’s shallow view of American politics but the survival of the country itself.

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