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WHO IS SISSELA BOK! Outlook asked an academic royal to review a con man’s book: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MAY 27, 2011

The moral demise of Brooks: It has been stunning to watch the intellectual demise of the New York Times’ David Brooks. This morning, he muses about the two major parties’ demagogic approaches to Medicare:

BROOKS (5/27/11): Already many consultants are telling Republicans to drop austerity and go back on offense: Spend 2012 accusing the Democrats of sponsoring death panels. The Democrats will spend 2012 accusing Republicans of ending Medicare. Whichever party demagogues best wins.

Whichever party demagogues best!

Brooks imagines the Democrats “accusing Republicans of ending Medicare.” Last evening, we saw the new head of the DNC on Hardball, and that isn’t what she said. Here was Debbie Wasserman Schultz, in her very first statement:

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (5/26/11): Well, and on top of that, Tim Pawlenty today, one of their leading presidential candidates, actually said that if that plan, if the Ryan plan to end Medicare as we know it was put on his desk as president, he committed that he would sign it into law.

So, I mean, I think it is really— It couldn’t be more clear that Republicans want to end Medicare as we know it and yank the safety net out from under our senior citizens, deny them affordable health care.

She said it twice, in the first twenty seconds: The GOP wants to end Medicare as we know it. Demagoguing nicely himself, Brooks put a demagogic face on what is being said.

On the same op-ed page this morning, Paul Krugman offers a serious account of what has actually been proposed in the Ryan plan. He takes a few minor liberties at one or two minor points—his “76 percent” statistic is selective, for instance—but his presentation is thoroughly serious, as is his topic. As Krugman notes, Democrats are telling the truth about Ryan’s plan—and he seems to know what is being said:

KRUGMAN (5/27/11): Take, for example, the statement that the Ryan plan would end Medicare as we know it. This may have Republicans screaming ''Mediscare!'' but it's the absolute truth: The plan would replace our current system, in which the government pays major health costs, with a voucher system, in which seniors would, in effect, be handed a coupon and told to go find private coverage.

Krugman writes a serious piece. By way of contrast, Brooks has descended to a new realm in the past six months. What illness has left him this way?

Some Democrats and liberals will clown on this topic, of course. On Wednesday night, we thought the Maddow show was an unrelenting hour of self-absorption and innate political dumbness. One problem: Maddow seems to have no idea that the Medicare debate is anything but a political story. Does Medicare need to be improved, adjusted or reconfigured in some way? This willful child doesn’t seem to know that these are serious questions.

Does Medicare need to be improved in some way? On Thursday, the Times editorial board said the answer is yes. “Sooner or later, Democrats will have to admit that Medicare cannot keep running as it is—its medical costs are out of control,” the editors said. “Bill Clinton was right on Wednesday to warn his party that it must bring down those costs if it is to have any credibility on the deficit and the economy.”

Is that assessment correct? We’d like to see Maddow stop her incessant clowning and bring some real experts onto her show to discuss this matter on the merits. Why not ask Krugman himself?

Final point: On Thursday, the Times presented this op-ed piece discussing ways Medicare can save money without reducing meaningful care. Could Maddow get over herself long enough to give such topics a hearing?

Almost surely, the answer is no. For unknown reasons, Lawrence O’Donnell’s show seems to be getting much, much smarter. This is a very good thing. On Maddow, though, it’s all about her—and about ways we can learn to adore her, despite her political dumbness.

Special report: Any given Sunday!

PART 4—WHO IS SISSELA BOK (permalink): Last Sunday, Paul Farhi’s piece on the public schools was the best Outlook had to offer.

His piece dealt with an important subject. It tended to challenge a stultified piece of highly scripted conventional wisdom. In a real journalistic culture, this is the sort of report you’d expect to find in Outlook, the high-profile Sunday “ideas” section of our most famous political newspaper.

Even there, Farhi semi-bungled his effort, in a very standard way, as we described yesterday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/26/11). Outlook’s editors were too conventionally clueless to push him back on the track. Meanwhile, the rest of the section was littered with piffle, as we’ve described all week.

That said, we’ve saved the worst for last. Out on page one, Outlook published a book review which was a near atrocity—a piece which embodied this country’s political/journalistic/academic breakdown of the past twenty-five years.

The review was written by Sissela Bok. But who the heck is that?

Sissela Bok has been famous for lying since 1978. Rather, Bok has been famous for writing a book of that name. Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life first appeared in the aforementioned year—and it may even have a few merits. According to a Newsweek review, “three of Bok's chapters are especially astringent” (the book had sixteen chapters in all). Newsweek said Bok was especially sharp on “the lawyer's duty to the court when he knows his client is lying” and on “the question of deceptive social-science experiments.” According to Newsweek, “her freshest observations are on lying to sick and dying medical patients.”

From that day to this, Bok has been famous for her high-minded critiques of lying. She has been a go-to person for high-end news orgs when issues of lying arise. For that reason, Bok was featured on the front page on Sunday’s Outlook section. She had been asked to review James B. Stewart’s new book on the way an alleged epidemic perjury has, in Stewart’s words, “infected nearly every aspect of society.”

Bok was booked as an expert on lying. But one more thing should be said at this point: Very clearly, Bok is part of world academic royalty. This status makes her work in Outlook especially revelatory.

Who is Sissela Bok? As Wikipedia accurately notes, she is “the [Swedish-born] daughter of two Nobel Prize winners: Gunnar Myrdal, who won the Economics prize with Friedrich Hayek in 1974, and Alva Myrdal, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982.” But Bok isn’t just an academic royal by birth; in this country, she is also an academic royal by marriage.

Bok received her doctorate in philosophy from Harvard in 1970. For well over fifty years, she has been married to Derek Bok, who served as dean of the Harvard Law School from 1968-71, then as president of the university until 1971. As for Sissela Bok herself, she is currently a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health. Before that, was a philosophy professor at Brandeis.

For what it’s worth, Derek Bok comes from high stock too. Just click here.

Let’s state the obvious: There’s nothing “wrong” with any part of Sissela Bok’s background, or with her long marriage. But she sits at the very top of American and world academic culture. As such, she represents a high academic class which has increasingly ducked the real fights of the world—a high class which has refused to serve this society over the past thirty years.

High-minded pap about truth to the side, Bok’s moral absence was on display in Sunday’s Outlook section.

As noted, Bok was reviewing a book about perjury, a book written by James Stewart. She showed no sign of understanding the irony of this assignment—the irony involved in Stewart’s choice of topic. By way of contrast, Digby knows all about it. In recent weeks, she has written two separate posts noting the irony of Stewart writing on truth. (For the second post, with a link to the first, go ahead—just click here.)

Digby saw the context; Bok didn’t. True to the ways of her high useless class, the royal seemed utterly clueless in her review of Stewart’s new work. Eventually, she noted the latest world-class mistake committed by the comically awful author. But just as a person would expect, she seemed unaware of the gruesome history involved here.

Go ahead—emit low chuckles! Once again, Stewart has authored a comically awful howler, in his book’s opening sentence:

BOK (5/22/11): Despite the voluminous documentation Stewart provides, a cautionary note is needed. The book's very first sentence makes an erroneous claim of vast proportions: "We know how many murders are committed [in the United States] each year—1,318,398 in 2009." No source is given for this figure, almost 100 times larger than the number of murders actually reported that year. It turns out to refer, rather, to the totality of violent crimes reported in the United States, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report.

Stewart contrasts the specific number of murders with the absence of statistics for perjury and false statements. "There is simply too much of it, and too little is prosecuted to generate any meaningful statistics," he writes. To be sure, there is always too much perjury. And, as Stewart points out, it is an exceptionally difficult crime to detect, prosecute and prove. But in the absence of meaningful statistics, what evidence is there for thinking that our present predicament is more serious than in the past, so serious that it now threatens to undermine America? Or for Stewart's claim, in his conclusion, that "we appear to be on the brink of becoming a society where perjury is the norm"?

In that second paragraph, Bok leaves Stewart’s basic premise for dead. (No real surprise there!) But in that first paragraph, Bok describes Stewart’s latest astonishing howler, an “erroneous claim of vast proportions”—a comical error which happens to come in his book’s very first sentence. Even there, it doesn’t occur to our lofty royal that something might be rotten in Stewart’s overall work. After all, Stewart is a bit of a journalistic royal—long ago, he won a Pulitzer Prize—and Bok was apparently off the planet during the years which Digby remembers. Since royals always bow to royals today, the great lady overlooks Stewart’s broken premise and his clownish opening sentence. In these, her opening paragraphs, she bows and scrapes to his obvious greatness, ignoring those warning signs:

BOK: In his provocative and hard-hitting new book, James B. Stewart warns of the risks from an epidemic of perjury that has "infected nearly every aspect of society." Citing prosecutors who speak of a recent surge of concerted, deliberate lying by sophisticated, educated, affluent individuals, often represented by the best lawyers, he focuses on four cases involving well-known people at the pinnacle of their fields…

As in earlier books such as "Blood Sport" and "Den of Thieves," Stewart offers riveting accounts of the unfolding of each drama. He brings to bear his superb skills as an investigative reporter, interviewing the main participants in the four cases, and acquiring previously secret grand jury transcripts and notes by FBI agents and other investigators through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Stewart’s basic premise can’t be supported—and his very first sentence advanced an “erroneous claim of vast proportions!” But so what? Stewart is a High Gotham royal! So Bok ignores his clownish ineptitude, deciding to type the requisite words about “his superb skills as an investigative reporter.”

In such ways, academic royals have told the world that it can go hang over the past thirty years.

What irony might Bok have noticed in Stewart’s latest project? She might have recalled an earlier “erroneous claim of vast proportions,” back when he wrote a bungled book which helped change our politics in a very destructive way. That book, of course, was Blood Sport, a book which helped advance the claim that President Clinton and Hillary Clinton were a pair of low-station crooks. How bad was Blood Sport, a book Bok praises? Last month, Digby offered this passage from Gene Lyons and Joe Conason’s The Hunting of the President:

LYONS/CONASON (2000): Still other celebrated journalists continued to predict the first lady's probable indictment as the election year began, most notably Pulitzer Prize winning author James B. Stewart. Published by Simon and Shuster in 1996 to the accompaniment of a multimedia publicity campaign, Stewart's book Blood Sport claims to be the inside story of "the president and first lady as they really are.” Set forth as a sweeping narrative, it includes dramatized scenes and imaginary dialog purporting to represent the innermost thoughts of individuals whom the author had in some cases never met, much less interviewed.

"Scenes that Mr. Stewart could never have observed first hand," complained New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, "are recounted from an omniscient viewpoint. Mr. Stewart rarely identifies the sources for such scenes not does he take into account the subjectivity and often self-serving nature of memory. The reader never knows whether the quotes Mr. Stewart puts into the mouth of an individual...are from a first or second hand source.”

Lyons simply savaged Blood Sport in Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater (1996); we couldn’t hope to retell the whole story here. But given Bok’s mention of Stewart’s latest comically awful mistake, let’s review the giant groaner which emerged from his publicity tour for that influential book.

It’s had to be less competent than Stewart, though Bok doesn’t seem to have heard. At the end of his savage treatment of Blood Sport, Lyons set the scene for the giant howler to which Stewart gave birth at that time:

LYONS (1996): But then came Stewart’s big book tour. For a while, you couldn’t turn on a TV talk show without seeing Mr. Pulitzer Prize. Nightline, Washington Week in Review, Charlie Rose, National Public Radio—the man was everywhere. And just about everywhere he went, Stewart made the same pitch. Blood Sport uncovered no big crimes in Whitewater, just a lot of deceit, bad character, and political opportunism. But surely, Ted Koppel urged during Stewart’s March 11, 1996 Nightline appearance, there was something. “What is it you would say,” Koppel asked, “if you were obliged, in fifteen or thirty seconds, to summarize what is troublesome about Whitewater and what will come back to haunt the Clintons?”

We strongly recommend Lyons’ complete, scathing treatment of this matter in Fools for Scandal. But that summer, in Harper’s, he gave a shorter account of what Stewart told Koppel that night. In this passage, Lyons explained Stewart’s previous giant error—part of the long war which eventually sent Bush to the White House:

LYONS (7/96): My favorite Blood Sport blunder happened during the publicity tour. Asked by Ted Koppel on Nightline what was the worst thing he'd found in Whitewater, Stewart replied gravely. "It is a crime to submit a false financial document," he said. He accused Hillary Rodham Clinton of filing a false financial statement to renew a Whitewater loan in 1987. He added that the First Lady's guilt was "a question for a prosecutor and a jury to decide."

The insinuation was as smug and false as the book, and as easily disproved. Joe Conason at the New York Observer noticed something at the bottom of the document, reproduced in Blood Sport. It was this little notice: "BOTH SIDES OF THIS STATEMENT MUST BE COMPLETED." So Conason got a copy of the original statement. Guess what? All the stuff Stewart accused Hillary of fudging was right there. Mr. Pulitzer Prize had neglected to check the second page.

Sic semper upper-class pseudo-journalists. In his latest thriller, Stewart makes a equally cosmic blunder “in his very first sentence.” This time, he massively misrepresents a statistic. Back then, he failed to check both sides of a crucial document, while accusing the president and first lady of probable crimes.

Trust us: Bok’s royal class doesn’t know about that. As royals, they sat out the war against Clinton, then the war against Gore. At Harvard, they sat inside their own president’s quarters and shut the loud noise of the world away. Precisely for that reason, Bok is still called upon by upper-end news orgs when matters of lying arise.

They know this academic royal is safe—that she is one of their upper-end kind.

Sissela Bok sat out the Clinton-Gore years. During that ugly political decade, her royal class threw the world down the stairs. Almost surely, she doesn’t know the history of Stewart’s earlier book, the one she thinks is so superb. Almost surely, she has never heard about Stewart’s earlier clownish errors.

It isn’t that no one discussed that work. Stewart’s gruesome work in Blood Sport was discussed in a few high places aside from Harper’s. Anthony Lewis did so in the New York Times, as did Martin Walker in the Atlantic (see below). But Sissela Bok is an academic royal of the highest global station. As we’ve long told you, pseudo-academics like Bok have sat out the past few decades. In this way, they have helped the forces of power stifle American lives.

Bok doesn’t seem to know about Fool for Scandal, which appeared in 1996. What was she doing that very year? For a taste of the sheer inanity which passes for high academic culture, we’ll show you, tomorrow or Monday, where Sissela Bok was that year.

Tomorrow or Monday: It was a very dumb year

She should have read the Atlantic: In the Atlantic, Martin Walker described Stewart’s bungling. Within the worlds of pseudo-journalism and faux academe, this has all been disappeared:

WALKER (10/96): Hillary Clinton broke the law, Stewart said, with the 1987 Whitewater loan-renewal application; she submitted "a false financial document" that inflated the value of the property.

Whoops. As Joe Conason, of The New York Observer, established, Hillary Clinton was right and Stewart was thumpingly wrong. He had failed to read the back of the personal financial statement for the loan-renewal application, where she had explained the valuation in detail. In capital letters at the bottom of the document, where Stewart could hardly have missed it, was the warning "both sides of this statement must be completed."

Whitewater exemplifies the old saw that a lie can travel halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on. It can get even farther when spurred on by politically partisan dirty tricksters and investigative reporters who read only one side of the paper. To do the Whitewater saga justice, any fair-minded person, citizen or voter must read Gene Lyons. He is a better writer than James Stewart, knows more about Arkansas than Roger Morris, and appears in print to be a far more reliable reporter than the miserable Gary Aldrich.

“To do the Whitewater saga justice, any fair-minded person, citizen or voter must read Gene Lyons.” So too for real academics.

Bok doesn’t seem to have taken Walker’s advice. Decades later, she is dumbly praising the skill of the “investigative reporter who read only one side of the paper,” even as he finds him making his latest clown-car mistakes.

In part 5, we’ll show you the type of ludicrous work with which Bok was distracted that year. 1996 was a very good year—for the sheer dumbness of royals.