Benjamin Franklin, in a 1779 letter to a friend in France:

When I was a child of seven years old, my friends, on a holiday, filled my pocket with coppers. I went directly to a shop where they sold toys for children; and being charmed with the sound of a whistle, that I met by the way in the hands of another boy, I voluntarily offered and gave all my money for one. I then came home, and went whistling all over the house, much pleased with my whistle, but disturbing all the family. My brothers, and sisters, and cousins, understanding the bargain I had made, told me I had given four times as much for it as it was worth; put me in mind what good things I might have bought with the rest of the money; and laughed at me so much for my folly, that I cried with vexation; and the reflection gave me more chagrin than the whistle gave me pleasure.

This, however, was afterwards of use to me, the impression continuing on my mind; so that often, when I was tempted to buy some unnecessary thing, I said to myself, Don’t give too much for the whistle; and I saved my money.

As I grew up, came into the world, and observed the actions of men, I thought I met with many, very many, who gave too much for the whistle.

This should be mandatory reading – preferably re-read to the point of memorization – for anyone thinking about starting a Ph.D. program.


If forced to pick only one thing, the worst part of the explosive growth of right-wing talk radio since the 1980s is the way that it makes listeners (and now viewers and blog readers) feel like they are somewhere between moderately and well informed. Glenn Beck's schtick revolves around a constant barrage of "facts" that make the viewers feel like they are learning something. Limbaugh has been successful with this tactic as well. The hosts inundate the airwaves with what seem to be facts: out-of-context, cherry picked Founders' quotes, misrepresented statistics, assertions based on no or flimsy supporting evidence, and molehills turned into mountains. The end result is that talking to the average conservative is less like being pedantically lectured by Buckley or George Will and more like being blasted with a wave of hysteria-of-the-day catchphrases and talking points of which the speaker has no substantive understanding (Card check! George Soros! Van Jones! 10th Amendment! Death panels! Caliphate! FHA loans! ACORN!)

I can respect people who have ridiculous ideologies as long as he or she understands it. Believe it or not I count among my friends hardcore libertarians, young Earth creationists, tinfoil hat/HAARP Mind Control types, anarchists, Stalinists, and even a few vegans. It is not difficult to form a relationship of mutual respect with someone who has arrived at a belief system, even a silly one, after some careful thought. I would much rather listen to Jonah Goldberg – a tool, but one who has a half-decent understanding of the ideology and viewpoint he is supposed to represent – than some guy yelling a bunch of phrases he heard on Beck last night.

The biggest single source of annoyance is Beck's obsession with George Soros for the past year. Teabaggers seem to roam the Earth shouting "George Soros!" at predetermined intervals. Whenever something happens George Soros is responsible. Whenever new facts come to light that debunk some right-wing myth, the information comes from some Soros-funded group that exists to spread disinformation (Note: everything on the internet is funded by George Soros). Media Matters? Soros. NPR? Soros. Al Jazeera? Soros. MSNBC? Soros. Highlights? Soros.

Pretty annoying, right? Well it isn't less ridiculous if we replace "Soros" with "Koch."

Since the widely circulated and well done Koch exposé in the New Yorker by Jane Mayer in August 2010 progressives and liberals have suddenly discovered that the Koches are responsible for most of what ails the United States. This, in my opinion, reflects a lack of real understanding of the role they play in politics. Are they big money donors? Yes. Have they been active in astroturfing and faux-populist groups like FreedomWorks and the tea party? Yes. Are they trying to manipulate politics for their own benefit? Sure are. But there are lots of plutocrats diving headlong into the political process, spending what appears to be an unlimited sum of money to achieve their goals. I don't mean to imply that the Koches shouldn't be criticized or that they are not responsible for extensive shadiness that should be brought into the light. But it appears that the new rhetorical crutch of the lightly informed left winger is to pepper statements with "Koch brothers" and blame all of the world's ills on their devious machinations.

I'd like to say "Come on, we're better than that" but unfortunately this underscores the reality that large numbers of people irrespective of ideology are quite enthusiastic in their political beliefs despite being lightly armed with only whatever bits and pieces of information they heard someone else yelling recently.