Thursday, March 20, 2008
  Self-explanatory sentences

I've always enjoyed spotting self-explanatory sentences, short utterances that tell you all you need to know about the speaker. Such sentences aren't the same as Freudian slips (eg Comrade McCain's "I'm a liberal conservative Republican") because the words are all fully intended, but nevertheless they tell you a lot more than the speaker meant to say.

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My favorite, overheard on a bus from a biker-type young woman:
"My fucking friends always stop me from fighting whenever I'm fucking pregnant."

Tells you all you need to know about her life.

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A few months ago, Baba Walters on "The View" said that she had received a Christmas card from Bush. Baba said "I'm shocked that he sent a RELIGIOUS Christmas card."

Tells you all you need to know about Baba's worldview: the concept of religion is utterly and completely alien and external, and she can't begin to imagine why anyone could possibly associate "religion" with a Christmas card.

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Recently in a PBS report about the power of 'micro-loans' in the third world:
"...she lives in a hut made of dung."

Encapsulates REAL poverty in a few words.

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Now to the current point:

A conference on the future of journalism, shown last night on C-Span, featured a Self-Explanatory Sentence that tells you all you need to know about the establishment media, though the speaker clearly didn't have any idea of the revelation.

Near the end of the conference, a large humorless biped of indeterminate gender (possibly female by birth) stood up, announced that it represented a Finnish newspaper, and asked: "Why is the demand for quality news going down while the level of education in most places is going up?" It then continued to discuss OECD and UN education ratings for several minutes, though it didn't even realize that the moderator had stopped listening to it.

Answering the question wouldn't help, because the question is invalid. (And interestingly the moderator didn't even try to answer the question, perhaps because he comprehended the true problem!) But unraveling and deleting some of the stupid assumptions behind the question would actually help to improve both the quality and sales of newspapers.

First assumption: That the content of high-class newspapers like the NYTimes and the Guardian is actually "quality news". In fact the content of such newspapers is a weird mix of true but irrelevant celebrity gossip and criminally fraudulent lies about economics, international trade, global warming, political candidates, etc. If such papers were treated the same as other companies, they would have been shut down years ago for fraud and organized crime.

Second assumption: That educated people are the only ones who can appreciate "quality news". Polistra has specialized in knocking down this myth by offering samples of radio news and entertainment of the '30s and '40s: entertainment full of elegant humor, literary references, poetry, Shakespeare and classical music; entertainment that unquestionably appealed to mass audiences as shown by steady corporate sponsorship and high ratings.


Third assumption: That education levels as measured by OECD or UN have any connection with intelligence, or with a hunger for learning and quality. I'm thinking of my grandfather and other men of that generation I've known through the years, who quit school around 4th grade because they needed to work on the farm. Their education level wouldn't even register on the OECD ratings. But they made a point of keeping good books around the house, they enjoyed reading books and newspapers, and they liked the high-quality radio programs mentioned above. Why? Not because they already knew all that stuff; because they DIDN'T ALREADY KNOW ALL THAT STUFF AND WANTED TO IMPROVE THEIR MINDS. They also wanted to be sure their children learned about the world.

Today's Well-Educated People are divided into two distinct groups. One group is the hard-working professionals who finished a PhD in order to practice their specialized talents. These folks consume "news" only to advance their professional abilities: to gather the latest research or find out what the competition is doing. You won't [and shouldn't] find this level of data in newspapers of any quality, so these type-A superachievers don't have time for papers. The other group is less-talented folks who picked up a liberal arts degree for credentials, because they didn't have anything intrinsic to offer. These people have steaming piles of self-esteem; unlike my grandfather, they are perfectly certain that they know everything in the world. Unfortunately, their liberal arts education was the exact opposite of learning. In some areas such as college history courses, the negative learning has actually been measured: students know less after graduation than they did at the start. In English, they may possess more "facts", but the "facts" are pure Derrida-style Leninism, not any sort of actual info about the history and function of literature and language.

Fourth assumption: That humorless bipeds of indeterminate gender but solidly orthodox Marxist faith are capable of determining the nature of "quality news" in a way that makes sense to normal humans. Such bipeds are certainly capable of infinite arrogance and infinitely unjustified snobbishness. Unfortunately, snobbery and arrogance do not constitute "added value" in entertainment or information. People know when they're being treated with disdain, and they run away from the source of contempt as fast as possible.

Putting those together: the falseness of Assumption 1 means that the rest of the question hasn't been fully tested. It's quite possible that even today's "educated" people would enjoy and pay for quality news and entertainment, IF it were made available. Since it's NOT available through today's newspapers, radio, and TV, we simply don't know if they would buy it.
 


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Polistra was named after the original townsite of Manhattan (the one in Kansas). When I was growing up in Manhattan, I spent a lot of time exploring by foot, bike, and car. I discovered the ruins of an old mill along Wildcat Creek, and decided (inaccurately) that it was the remains of the original site of Polistra. Accurate or not, I've always liked the name, with its echoes of Poland (an under-appreciated friend of freedom) and stars. ==== The title icon is explained here. ==== Switchover: This 2007 entry marks a sharp change in worldview from neocon to pure populist. ===== The long illustrated story of Polistra's Dream is a time-travel fable, attempting to answer the dangerous revision of New Deal history propagated by Amity Shlaes. The Dream has 8 episodes, linked in a chain from the first. This entry explains the Shlaes connection.

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