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    A blog by John Warner, author of The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

On Becoming a Dangerous Person
September 4, 2013 - 8:32pm

I sometimes fantasize about becoming a dangerous person, the sort that can wield genuine power and influence. A hurler of Zeus’ lightning bolts or Thor’s hammer, capable of a mighty blow with a single strike, metaphorically speaking, of course.

I’ve been thinking about dangerous people as I’ve read a series called “The Tuition is Too Damn High” by Dylan Matthews, a contributor to the Washington Post Wonkblog.

Class of ’12 (Harvard), Matthews has the look of someone hoping to become dangerous.

Please know that “dangerous” does not necessarily equate to bad or evil. Thor is a hero. Sometimes Zeus did the right thing. Danger exists independent of morality. It can cut either way.

Our most dangerous people are politicians.

Presidents are obviously always dangerous, probably the most dangerous people in the world. Even as he’s pushed around by congress domestically, with one stroke, President Obama can dispatch a drone to launch some Hellfire missiles anywhere in the world and snuff lives.

Zeus’ lightning, only, you know…not mythical.

Senator Ted Cruz has quickly become a very dangerous person. He seems capable of hamstringing the entire federal government if he so chooses. (And he seems to be choosing.) Depending on your political point of view, this is either sabotage or heroic.

Current office holders are most dangerous, but even after exiting government, they retain some potency. Just this morning I saw Donald Rumsfeld on my television telling us what we should be doing about Syria.

The extremely wealthy are also dangerous.

The current leaders in this category are perhaps Bill Gates and the Koch Brothers. The Kochs, along with fellow billionaire, Art Pope, seem to be in the process of buying North Carolina’s state government.

Bill Gates, meanwhile, has funded the adoption of a national education curriculum that just about every public school student will be subject to, the Common Core standards.

Gates has even publicly declared his intention to “fix” the world’s biggest problems by utilizing data. Can we imagine anyone more well-intentioned, but also dangerous?

The mega-churched like Joel Osteen or Rick Warren have obvious influence over their parishioners, influence which easily reaches danger. One summer, I worked inside my hometown post-office handling mail and I would see envelopes addressed to a medium-sized televangelist named Ernest Angley. The envelopes held a small piece of cloth and a cash “donation.” Angley was meant to bless the cloths and send them back.

As a grift, it was pretty small-time, but it all seemed to add up. I’m not a believer, but I have to say that anyone who is getting rich and famous preaching the gospel probably isn’t doing it right.

For those of us without political office or massive wealth or a congregation willingly sending us their money and their spirit, our only other route to becoming dangerous is to find a way to get people to pay attention to our ideas.

Rush Limbaugh knows this. For many years he has called himself “the most dangerous man in America” and has the merch to prove it.

I actually don’t see Rush as particularly dangerous. His followers are called “ditto heads” for a reason, namely that they are well in sync with what Rush has to say long before he says it. Rush doesn’t move the needle of debate so much as report where one faction stands.

He isn’t the weather. He’s the barometer.

Far more dangerous than Rush is New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Most pundits, paid to spew content via various media, are no more dangerous than the average sports talk show host, sound and fury signifying nothing.

Friedman is dangerous because his opinions (“The World Is Flat”) are actually influential among the “elite” the kinds of people who hold power. He also seems to influence popular opinion, i.e., invading Iraq. I’ve written in the past that this is why the recent sloppy kisses he’s been giving MOOCs disturb me so much.

Friedman is not only dangerous, but very very bad. 

I’m tempted to say that given the fact that he appears to be an idiot that Friedman’s appeal is inexplicable, except that it’s the opposite. His approach to his craft (so to speak) is a kind of ur-text of dangerous-bad punditry.

1. Stake out some turf. Friedman’s original beat was the Middle East, but he’s since moved on to become a preacher of “change.” Regardless of the subject, it’s Friedman’s job to tells us how the world used to be verses how it is now, and what we have to do to adapt. His current hobbyhorse is the need to become an individual entrepreneur if one wants to succeed, as evidenced by these two efforts, “Need a Job? Invent it” and  “The Start-Up of You.”

2. Simplify the complicated. People turn to thought leaders (I just gagged writing that about Friedman) because thinking thoughts is hard, particularly when it comes to extremely complicated things like the decision to deploy the American military to a foreign country. This is when the Thomas Friedmans of the world are at their most dangerous-bad because they can take this complicated thing and explain that we can just decide it’s actually simple, in that case by famously managing to reduce the complexities over the debate leading up to the Iraq War to demonstrating to terrorists that we could force them to “Suck. On. This.”

3. Make the simplified version fit preconceived notions about the world in general. Friedman is especially good at this. His Iraq theory dovetailed nicely with American’s post 9/11 fear and feelings of impotence. His current “personal start-up” obsession taps into economic anxieties as the structures that once bolstered the middle class fall away.

4. Slogan-ize it! Friedman is a master of pith from “The World is Flat,” to his latest regarding the perceived appeal of MOOCs. “When outstanding becomes so easily available, average is over.” Never mind that it’s nonsensical, it sounds profound.

5. When in doubt, argue by anecdote. Friedman’s never met a cab driver who didn’t share his take on geopolitics. And the experience of a single MOOC – one taught by his friend, no less - is enough to declare the age of traditional education over.

6. It’s better to be certain than be right. Thomas Friedman is wrong about just about everything. If the Iraq invasion isn’t enough, witness “The Start-Up of You” from July 2011 in which he marvels at the success and market capitalization of, among others Zynga and Groupon, two once hot companies that are now circling the drain.

And yet, because he is consistently certain in print, he manages to maintain the choicest punditry real estate in the land.

Which brings me back to Dylan Matthews. He is a young person of seemingly blinding intelligence and ability and even achievement for someone just out of college. But he has the look of ambition about him, and ambition sometimes trumps sense, particularly when we are young.

In reading through “The Tuition Is Too Damn High” I see the work of someone who wants to become dangerous. I imagine he actually wants to be successful, but becoming dangerous Friedman-style is the surest route to that destination.

Matthews demonstrates a strong correlation with the Friedman criteria. He’s staked out his turf (higher ed costs) and already slogan-ized, in his case “The Tuition is Too Damn High” being a play on fringe New York gubernatorial candidate Jimmy McMillan’s “The Rent Is Too Damn High Party.”

While the articles in the series are often larded with charts, he uses anecdotes to make his most potent arguments (in the impact on audience, rather than validity, sense) with anecdotes that are, at best, non-sequiturs, as in the opening of the first installment, when he shares a screenshot from the University of Hawaii – Manoa’s tuition and fees information for 1974-75, the year his mother graduated from college. He contrasts the $322 she paid at this flagship state university with the $36,305 in tuition he paid in his final year at privately run Harvard and declares that we have a problem.

In the sixth installment he describes the apparently luxury “sports center” at Purdue as an example of the “Bowen effect” (universities will spend what they raise) and then goes on to butcher his discussion of how higher education funding and budgets actually work.

(Inside Higher Ed’s Matt Reed has more on this.)

Consistently, Matthews makes the complicated seemingly simple. In Installment V he discusses Baumol’s Cost Disease, but decides that Bowen’s is the more likely culprit to rising expenditures, eliding the fact that it could be both (or neither).

Even in Installment VII, on William Bennett’s theory that government subsidies increase the cost of education, which is about as murky a field as you can find for economists (something Matthews notes), Dylan Matthews ends the piece with a prescription, an answer to the presently unanswerable. 

My belief is that Dylan Matthews sees himself doing a service for his readers by boiling things down in this way, but the truth is, by trying to be certain, by making the complicated simple, by declaring from the beginning of his series that he has answers to these questions, rather than more questions, he is doing the opposite.

I share Matt Reed’s ire at Matthews. As Reed says, “I’m glad to see higher education get serious public attention, but I’m consistently mystified that the voices that get the most attention are people who literally -- and I mean this without malice -- do not know what they are talking about.”


Dylan Matthews has read a lot of studies, but he hasn’t done any real reporting beyond Friedman-esque anecdote harvesting. He does not appear to be genuinely seeking truth – which is not the same thing as arriving at an answer – but instead is seeking attention.

And Dylan Matthews is indeed getting a lot of attention for his work. The first installment of the series has 580 comments. Matt Reed’s critique has, as of this writing, nine. In the comments on Matthews’ posts you see a lot of agreement among those with axes to grind (often for good reason) and disagreement from people who actually work in higher education. This would be a very productive discussion, except that it’s not discussion, but argument where neither side is encouraged to listen to the other.

Attention and ambition can be intoxicating. The noxious brew these things have made of politics is self-evident, as the raison d’etre of everyone seems to be to get attention, raise funds, and stay elected, service and citizenship be damned.

And I’m sure there’s preachers out there who look at Joel Osteen and think how much more effective they could be for the Lord if they just had his audience, and begin to think more about how to achieve that then God’s word.

But I would say to Mr. Matthews that one can be successful in his world without becoming dangerous. Or that one can be dangerous, but not be damaging.

Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic writes with grace and power, but also with doubt and humility. This ethos (and a strong editorial hand) has given rise to perhaps the only comments section (outside of Just Visiting of course) that provides genuine illumination and discussion.

No one would accuse Andrew Sullivan of humility, but the transparency he practices both in his own thinking, and in the highlighting of dissenting views keeps him from becoming Friedman-style dangerous.

Even Nate Silver, who is genuinely dangerous, keeps from doing harm through generating his own data and admitting to its limits and not straying into punditry.

It may be tempting to become Thomas Friedman, except that you'd then have to be Thomas Friedman, which I can only imagine is a kind of soul-destroying existence.

Remember Spider Man, Dylan Matthews, with great power, comes great responsibility.

 

 

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