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Weakness to loathe: For the past several weeks, an obvious question has gone unexplored:

Why do so many people say they think Obama’s a Muslim?

On cable news programs, we’ve seen a Familiar Pundit Approach. Pundits sit around, in groups, trying to imagine why people say this. Ignoring the resources of their news divisions, they have been too lazy, too unimaginative, too incurious to go out and actually interview people and ask them why they say that.

Chris Matthews has been a major offender. Question: Do you think the thought ever entered his head that he could actually interview people and ask them about their beliefs?

Pundits have sat around speculating, often assuming that one sweeping answer can explain the thinking of everyone who says this. But this lethargy ended at the Beck event, when Sam Sedar interviewed an unidentified woman who had attended the session. In the course of a fairly short interview, this woman said she believes that Obama “has bowed down to the Muslim faith.” Sedar didn’t question her about this at any serious length—or perhaps he preferred to cut the tape short so he’d have more time to play pundit himself. But this represents the first interview we have seen in which someone says she thinks Obama’s a Muslim, and then explains why she does.

Digby posted the Sedar tape. To watch the short interview, just click here.

Sedar, of course, used the tape as a way to mock “these people.” As he introduced the segment, he told viewers that they will “enjoy” what they are going to see:

SEDAR (8/30/10): But you have this new mix to these people, there’s a little extra new little spice and this woman is an example of that. The, the—the world view, the conspiracies they have constructed, it really is impressive. I think you’re going to enjoy this clip from this woman.

A two-minute, ten-second interview follows, in which the woman says several things about Obama. We’ll summarize her apparent views as best we can:

She says she doesn’t think Obama is a believing Christian.

She says she thinks Obama joined Reverend Wright’s church because he had plans to go into politics.

She says she thinks Obama shares Wright’s “ideology,” by which she seems to mean Wright’s political views.

She says she thinks Obama is a Muslim in some degree or fashion, offering some highly speculative evidence in support of this idea.

Those are the woman’s stated views, as best we can understand them from Sedar’s short interview. Of the four, we would say that three are perfectly plausible, while the last is a rather large stretch.

Is President Obama a believing Christian? Here at THE HOWLER, we have no idea. (Is Bill Clinton a believing Christian? How can anyone know this?) That said, it’s quite routine in American politics to question the sincerity of a politician’s stated religiosity. In fact, this practice is as American as sour apple pie; presumably, such expressions of doubt are often accurate. As a general matter, we’d advise voters to stay away from such speculations. But when this woman disbelieves Obama’s Christian belief, she’s taking part in a long tradition. And of course, she could be right.

Did Obama join Reverend Wright’s church because it would be a good political move? For ourselves, we don’t know or care. But this speculation was endlessly offered during mainstream biographical discussions of Candidate Obama. Given the status of Wright’s church in black Chicago, it would be an obvious possibility.

Does Obama share Wright’s global political views in some way? We have no idea. But given the mountains of praise Obama heaped on Wright before he became politically toxic, it’s hard to know why this is supposed to be a bizarre supposition, especially from an average person who doesn’t favor Obama.

Is Obama some sort of secret Muslim? Citing some rather tangential evidence, the woman said she think she is. Everything is possible, of course, but this belief is a very obvious stretch. For ourselves, we’d be very surprised if Obama has “bowed down to Islam,” whatever that means. (Sedar didn’t ask.) That said, the woman seems to say she wouldn’t care if Obama actually were a Muslim. “If he is Muslim, just be honest about it!” she says, with great animation. “I date a Muslim!” she then laughingly says. (She doesn’t seem to be joking.)

We wish Sedar had asked this woman more questions, or played more of his tape. But this woman’s principal stated concern about Obama involves the politics of Reverend Wright—politics she assumes Obama must share in some sense. Sedar didn’t pursue this statement, preferring to pretend that he has trapped the woman in a foolish self-contradiction. (He hadn’t, at least to judge from the tape.) But might we make an obvious point? In an endless series of clips in 2008, Reverend Wright was shown making certain statements which are very unusual by the standards of mainstream American politics. Obvious fact: If some major Republican figure had spent twenty years in a church whose pastor held similarly unconventional views, we liberals would never stop talking about it.

Presumably, we can all accept the truth of this blindingly obvious fact.

For ourselves, we think it’s silly to speculate about Obama’s religious beliefs. Beyond that, this woman’s reasoning—her “evidence”—is extremely thin. (She quickly accepts a logical challenge from Sedar, admitting he has a point. He takes this matter no further.) But this doesn’t seem to be her main objection to Obama—and this country is spilling with people who think various things based on rather ridiculous “evidence.” Are we really supposed to be surprised when we find a person who says that she believes X, Y or Z without a whole lot of evidence?

This woman doesn’t strike us as menacing, based on this very short interview segment. She doesn’t seem to hate Muslims or Islam. Almost surely, there were other people in that large crowd who would bring a more menacing frame to the claim that Obama’s a Muslim. (“These people” are rarely all alike—except in the minds of their tribal opponents.) But in the passage which follows, Digby explains what she saw in this tape. You’ll note that Digby makes no attempt to record or summarize what this woman said. She simply proceeds to a string of remarkably strong denigration, asserting claims about this woman which she feels no need to justify or defend. Although her claims are sweeping, strong and psychiatric, we are simply supposed to see that Digby’s claims are justified. But then, in the world of the tribal loather, no explanation is ever required. The tribal loathing is all:

DIGBY (8/31/10): She's a likable person actually, easy smile and laugh, and I'm sure she is. As with so many of the tea partiers, the impression I get is that they are inspired and energized by the solidarity they feel with others there as much as anything else. They are searching for fellowship and meaning beyond the normal religious and political realm. (In some ways they remind me of the fervent Obama followers of the summer of 2008.) And let's face it, what she says about the two party’s failing and political corruption could have been said by any one of us. The problem is that the ties that bind her to her fellows are toxic know-nothingism and reflexive tribal identity based upon race, religion and fear and loathing of those who would stake an equal claim to America. It's a dark vision, although I'm sure they don't see it that way—their lack of self-awareness, as that woman showed in that video, is intellectually incapacitating. And their willingness to listen to demagogues hypnotically reinforcing their insular worldview is apparently limitless. (You'd think they'd get bored at some point.)

I know people like that lady. In every respect but the political they are often good people. But this movement is giving voice to her demons, the bad place in her psyche that mistrusts anyone who is different, the fearful place that feels like she is losing her natural born position in the world, that lonely place where she feels as if she's on her own while others less deserving are getting all the attention. And these billionaire tea party financiers and opportunistic hucksters are manipulating her dark side, giving it permission to take over, releasing the beast that resides in all of us but which civilization, morality and reason usually keeps in check.

Sarah Palin never said that she could see Russia from her porch. That said, it’s amazing how much Digby thinks she can see in that short interview with that “likable person.”

We’re sorry, but Digby’s post is just profoundly unintelligent. Without describing a single thing the woman has said, Digby rides to Tribal World; as tribal loathers have done throughout time, she can see right into this woman’s soul based on these few short remarks. Somehow, Digby can tell that this woman is driven by “toxic know-nothingism and reflexive tribal identity based upon race, religion and fear and loathing of those who would stake an equal claim to America.” She knows about this woman’s “demons, the bad place in her psyche that mistrusts anyone who is different, the fearful place that feels like she is losing her natural born position in the world, that lonely place where she feels as if she's on her own while others less deserving are getting all the attention.”

We think that’s profoundly unintelligent—almost delusional, in fact. And we think it’s written from the tablets of the Tribal Loather. Just so you’ll know: On his Fox News program this week, Glenn Beck has been riding this loud liberal loathing all the way to a very big bank.

Tomorrow, we’ll start to look at the way Dr. King spoke about those who weren’t on his side—including the people who were actively trying to kill him, his wife and his baby daughter. (“Almost every night I went to bed faced with the uncertainty of the next moment. In the morning I would look at Coretta and Yoki and say to myself: ‘They can be taken away from me at any moment…’ ”) In her critiques of the pink-skinned people who dared attend the Beck event, Digby hasn’t claimed to be outraged by their insult to Dr. King’s legacy. But many other liberals have done so—Steve Benen and Ed Schultz, to name two.

As these liberals voice their outrage about the insult to Dr. King’s legacy, it’s stunning to compare the way they’ve behaved to the things Dr. King said and did—in his book, Strength to Love, for example. Before that, in Stride Toward Freedom.

A basic question has come to mind as we’ve reviewed the things Dr. King did and said. How many “liberals” would admire Dr. King? At this point, we’re not really sure.

Special report: Who cares about black kids!

PART 7—LET’S TAKE A LOOK AT THE DATA (permalink): American pundits rarely know squat about the nation’s schools. They tend to seize basic points of conventional wisdom and grind them down into the dust. In this morning’s New York Times, we see six letters reacting to Thomas Friedman’s recent column about education—a column in which Friedman showed no sign of knowing squat about public schools.

Then too, there was George Will’s utterly bungled column in Sunday’s Washington Post—a column in which Will completely misconstrues the academic progress of America’s black kids.

Midway through his column, Will refers to the latest hot study—that new ETS study about the black-white “achievement gap.” On August 16, the New York Times bungled that study in one small part of its long report on achievement gaps in New York City’s schools. In the following paragraphs, Will correctly states what the study says, then shows that he misunderstood it:

WILL (8/29/10): Now, from the Educational Testing Service, comes a report about "The Black-White Achievement Gap: When Progress Stopped," written by Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley. It examines the "startling" fact that most of the progress in closing the gap in reading and mathematics occurred in the 1970s and '80s. This means “progress generally halted for those born around the mid-1960s, a time when landmark legislative victories heralded an end to racial discrimination."

Only 35 percent of black children live with two parents, which partly explains why, while only 24 percent of white eighth-graders watch four or more hours of television on an average day, 59 percent of their black peers do. (Privileged children waste their time on new social media and other very mixed blessings of computers and fancy phones.) Black children also are disproportionately handicapped by this class-based disparity: By age 4, the average child in a professional family hears about 20 million more words than the average child in a working-class family and about 35 million more than the average child in a welfare family—a child often alone with a mother who is a high school dropout.

Sad. In that first paragraph, Will is talking about achievement gaps—the difference in academic achievement between white kids and black kids. Progress in reducing the gap has generally stalled, he says, correctly describing the study’s key finding. But people! Even as the achievement gap has held steady, black kids have done much better when it comes to achievement itself. White kids have also done better, leaving the gap largely unchanged.

In the second paragraph we have posted, Will doesn’t seem to understand this key distinction. He starts describing types of pathology which would seem to explain why black kids aren’t making any real progress in schools. But black kids are making progress in school, if we judge by the “long-term trend” NAEP data—the very data which were used in that ETS study. According to those data, black kids have made lots of progress since 1990. But Will shows no sign of knowing this fact, and no one would get any such idea from reading his gloomy column.

Of course, it isn’t just hambones like Will who keep disinforming the public. For our money, Diane Ravitch and Linda Darling-Hammond pretty much did the same thing in their articles in the Nation’s education issue in June (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/31/10). “The achievement gap between minority and white students in reading and math is larger than it was in 1988,” Darling-Hammond wrote (apparently incorrectly)—while failing to utter a single word about the change in achievement itself. (She also suggested that we are further away from a certain goal than we were in 1988—from the goal that that “all students should be competent in the academic disciplines.”)

Ravitch’s claims were even more gloomy. “Despite the time and money invested in testing, scores on NAEP have increased slowly or not at all” since 1998, she wrote.

When claims like these are even being advanced in the Nation, is it any wonder that people like Will are clueless about the real state of play? That citizens themselves don’t know squat about the apparent progress recorded in recent years?

Has progress stopped since the 1980s? Have gains been minimal in the last decade? If anybody cared about black kids, he or she might want to address such questions. And so, darlings—let’s do what is never done! Let’s take a look at the data! Let’s look at the actual scores achieved by black kids and Hispanic kids during the time frames in question. To do so, we will use data from the NAEP’s two major studies, just as that ETS study did, just as Ravitch recommended.

Let’s start with the Will/Darling-Hammond time frame. Have minority kids made progress in academic achievement since 1990? Are black kids more “competent in the academic disciplines?” Using the data from the NAEP’s “long-term trend” study (the data used in that ETS report), this is what we find. Note: In its “long-term trend” study (click here), the NAEP selects kids by age, not by grade:

Score gains in math: From 1990 to 2008, black 9-year-olds gained 19 points in math. Hispanic 9-year-olds gained 21 points. Given the rough rule of thumb frequently applied to the NAEP, those are massive score gains.

(According to this very rough rule of thumb, ten points on the NAEP scale is roughly equal to one academic year. “Educational experts” routinely apply this rule—when it helps create gloomier pictures.)

In math, 13-year-olds have achieved major gains too. From 1990 to 2008, black kids gained 18 points. Hispanic kids gained 14 points.

We hate to dispel all the gloom and the doom, but that’s what the actual data say in the NAEP “long-term trend” report—the report that is universally used in the course of such discussions, the report whose data were used in the study Will was citing. (The study used no other data.)

Score gains in reading: The score gains are massive among 9-year-olds in reading. Black 9-year-olds gained 25 points from 1990 to 2008. Hispanic kids gained 24 points.

The 13-year-olds made gains in reading too. Black kids gained 11 points from 1990 to 2008—though Hispanic kids gained only five. (As noted yesterday, middle-school reading has been the subject where progress has come slowest on all the NAEP’s studies.)

Technical note: We’re comparing apples-to-apples throughout when it comes to “accommodations,” which were first permitted in the “long-term trend” study in 2004. (Starting in 2004, a larger number of kids with disabilities or second language problems were tested. These kids were permitted certain “accommodations” which made the testing possible. In most cases, this lowers the average score for a demographic group, even as it widens participation.)

Almost surely, a person reading Will’s column would have gotten the idea that black kids stopped making academic progress in the 1980s. But the study to which Will refers discussed progress on reducing the achievement gap; when it comes to achievement itself, the progress has been strong on the NAEP. Darling-Hammond completely ignored this record of progress by black and Hispanic kids when she painted her gloomy portrait at the start of her Nation report.

This brings us to Ravitch’s claim about NAEP scores in the past decade. “Despite the time and money invested in testing, scores on NAEP have increased slowly or not at all” since 1998, the Bush hand-turned-Bush basher said.

Sorry. That just isn’t true.

To evaluate this claim, let’s look at the “Main NAEP,” the study which tests fourth-grade students and eighth-grade students regardless of their age. (Using this study eliminates the technical problem with “accommodations.” On the “Main NAEP,” accommodations have been permitted since 1996 in math, since 1998 in reading. For the math report, click this. For the reading report, click here)

What has happened since 1998? Ravitch’s gloom and doom to the side, test scores have risen, often substantially. There were no NAEP math tests in 1998, so we will start with the year 2000 for math:

Score gains in math: From 2000 to 2009, black fourth-graders gained 19 points on the “Main NAEP” math test. Hispanic kids gained 18 points. (Remember: By that very rough rule of thumb, ten points equals roughly one year.)

The score gains were also large in eighth grade. From 2000 to 2009, black eighth-graders gained 17 points on the NAEP math test. Hispanic eighth-graders gained 13 points.

Score gains in reading: From 1998 to 2009, black fourth-graders gained 12 points in reading. Hispanic kids also gained 12 points.

The gains were smaller in eighth-grade reading. From 1998 to 2009, black kids gained two points. Hispanic kids gained six points.

There are no tricks in the data we’ve cited. We can’t really tell you what these data might “mean,” largely for an obvious reason: Nobody gives a fig about black kids—at least, no one cares enough about black and Hispanic kids to report the actual data about their apparent progress in the two major NAEP studies, let alone to stage discussions about what these data might mean. Everyone loves the gloom-and-doom stuff—conservatives like Will for the chance to bash liberal thinking; liberals like Darling-Hammond for the chance to bash No Child Left Behind. But these are the actual data found within the two major NAEP studies. Everybody uses these data—except when these data show the progress made by black and Hispanic kids. Black and Hispanic kids get disappeared when it comes to their major score gains.

How much progress has really been made? How reliable is that rough rule of thumb? You will see such topics discussed when the cow jumps over the moon. Our “press corps” is full of ninnies like Will (and Friedman); these pundits rarely know the first fracking thing about the studies whose outcomes they mouth. At the same time, we have a liberal world full of ideologues and tribal players—and your “liberal journals” will lower themselves to the task of discussing black kids when that moon-jumping cow wanders home.

What’s happening with the nation’s black and Hispanic kids? Have you ever seen this topic discussed at a liberal journal like Salon? On one of your fiery “liberal” TV shows? Using the cheap demagoguery and nasty race-baiting with which the “liberal” world is in love, why wouldn’t this headline be perfectly fair?

Joan Walsh to black kids: Go home!