Journalism in a Post-Literate Society

In a recent speech at Harvard, TPM founder Josh Marshall argued that the competition from the Internet is killing newspapers but improving journalism.

Stacy McCain, though, contends, “iIt’s not the Internet that’s killing journalism, it’s illiteracy.” Rather than former print consumers switching to digital media, “There is, instead, a shrinking readership of news, period, regardless of whether the news is delivered by computer or by print.”

Think about those surveys that tell us that under-30s get most of their political news from “The Daily Show” or Jay Leno’s monologues. People who cannot read fluently — that is, those who cannot process written information as effectively as they process the spoken word — will never constitute a readership for serious news, whether that news is delivered via print or computer.

Evidence clearly indicates that reading fluency has declined steadily in recent decades. To read well — to read complex material with both speed and comprehension — requires reading often. A good reader is a habitual reader. Over the past 30 or 40 years, American schools and parents have failed to inculcate the reading habit in children, producing a generation of young adults in which a majority is incapable of reading and comprehending an article from Newsweek, let alone an essay from Commentary or the New Criterion.

He goes on to argue that what the blogosphere has done is pair an elite community of people who write about current events with an elite readership, citing Marshall himself as an example. I agree.

My colleague Dave Schuler has often argued that we are transforming into a post-literate Visualcy Society. Just as we moved from an oral society to a written one, we’re changing into one that transmits its most important ideas in an audio-visual manner. And this has profound social consequences.

Communicators in a literate society tend to be subordinative, analytic, objective, and abstract.

Will a transition to a visual imagery society result in an analogous reordering of consciousness to that of the transition from oral to literate? I think there’s reason to believe that there is, it’s happening now, and the visual imagery society resembles the oral society more than the literate society that it supplants. Consider the political blogosphere.

Whatever the political blogosphere expresses it does not have the features of the expressions of a literate society, using analysis, abstraction, and objectivity to communicate and persuade. It is polemic not reasoned discourse. That’s part of what the post Endarkenment at QandO Blog comments on, lamenting “the declining ability of people to think critically and logically”.

The blogosphere simultaneously exacerbates and masks this trend. Some of the most trafficked blogs are unreadable for those outside the club; they simply promulgate outrage and hurl insults. At the same time, there are more high quality, reasoned discussions going on than there is time to read them.

Still, this could be a short-term shakeout as society assimilates new technologies. Indeed, there are signs of a rebirth of reading among teenagers.

Contrary to the depressing proclamations that American teens aren’t reading, the surprising truth is they are reading novels in unprecedented numbers. Young-adult fiction (ages 12-18) is enjoying a bona fide boom with sales up more than 25 percent in the past few years, according to a Children’s Book Council sales survey. Virtually every major publishing house now has a teen imprint, many bookstores and libraries have created teen reading groups and an infusion of talented new authors has energized the genre.

And the Internet might even be helping:

[B]ookstores and libraries are finally recognizing this niche and separating teen books from children’s books. “Teenagers don’t want to walk past the Curious George books to get to their books. They want and deserve their own section,” says Levithan, who points out that “because of MySpace, Facebook, blogs and authors’ and publishers’ Web sites, young readers are communicating interactively now with each other and with authors.” Another reason for the YA boom cited by Levithan and others is that teen books have become an integral part of today’s overall pop-culture entertainment menu. They segue into television series, movies, videogames, cartoons and the Internet. If teens see that, say, “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” is coming out in theaters, they’ll read the book in advance of the movie.

And, of course, there’s the Harry Potter phenomenon.

Jack Martin, assistant coordinator of YA services at the New York Public Library, says that the single most important fact is that young-adult books are simply better and more diverse than ever, and readers are responding. “There’s so much good writing now, that’s the key,” says Martin. “They’re telling better stories, and there is such variety, something for everyone.” And, yes, he admits, it started with the Harry Potter books, which have “generated a passion for reading in an entire generation of preteens and teens and many have taken that passion with them to other books.” Martin suggests that the Potter series has captured the interest of young readers who otherwise would never read fantasy, or read at all, and instilled in them an enthusiasm for reading in general. “Harry Potter has made kids trust the book as a source of information that is exciting, not just a school assignment,” he says, adding that the most popular books for teens now are fantasy. Also popular are graphic novels, adventure, romance, humor and, as has always been the case in the YA field, coming-of-age stories.

So, maybe, we’re not going to be “post-literate” after all.

To be sure, we’re unlikely to see the return of the influence of long-form writing to what we had in the pre-television era. We’re used to a snappier, breezier presentation. And people have always had different styles of processing information, so an all-oral, all-written, or all-visual format likely isn’t ideal, anyway. But whereas teens of fifteen or twenty years ago were telephoning each other constantly, they’re now texting. They’re keeping up with their friends’ comings and goings through Twitter. They’re also reading and writing via personal blogs and other social media outlets.

Will this trend lead to a revival of critical debate? Or just the ability to write snarky comments in 140 characters or less?

FILED UNDER: Education, Media, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    The idea that newspapers are not selling because of their content seems beyond both McCain and Marshall. It’s far easier to say that the people who don’t like/agree with what the MSM is offering are just stupid, or when such as Marshall, for example are their more generous moods, ‘illiterate’. So, that’s what they do. We’re all just illiterate hicks.

    Duh, please help us dummies understand all these things, Mister Marshall….

    Look, there is something to be said for the medium itself being less attractive than more recently developed channels such as the net. But the constant leftist/socialist diatribe coming from the more traditional sources cannot be withoout consequence. How, for example to explain the death spiral of traditinal network ‘news’ programs? In their way, their content is very much the same as the newspapers; the parallel of their impending demise is striking. Are network news failures to be blamed on illiterate fools, too?

    I have three different possibilities for the downfall of the newspaper in this country:

    It’s the left-leaning content.

    It’s the left-leaning content.

    It’s the left-leaning content.




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  2. Why do intelligent people get into arguments about the one thing that is causing whatever it is they are arguing about? Unless, of course, they’ve got newspapers or blog ads to sell? Any significant change almost always has multiple causes and interactions between the multiple causes that make such assertions almost childlike in their lack of comprehension.




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  3. Oh, and is there anything more tedious than prefixing post to an adjective as though a new stage of cultural evolution has been reached yet again this week?




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  4. Bithead says:

    Why do intelligent people get into arguments about the one thing that is causing whatever it is they are arguing about?

    Maybe they’re just going after what they see as the biggest target, first. If, for example, the tire is both out of balance and flat, which is the bigger of the two issues to be discussed and dealt with?




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  5. Michael says:

    I have three different possibilities for the downfall of the newspaper in this country:

    It’s the left-leaning content.

    It’s the left-leaning content.

    It’s the left-leaning content.

    Which explains the explosive growth of right-leaning newspapers. Oh wait….




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  6. Wayne says:

    Yes there are multiple reasons for the decline in newspapers sales but I see no reason not to point out the major reasons they are doing so. Also some of the reasons overlap. For example, the local newspaper in my area is suffering from a decline in sales and from what I hear it is due to the same cripes that I have. I use to buy the paper since I was able to get the news when I was ready to read it. Now I have the internet and cable news. I still like reading a hard copy of the news but the liberal bias and content in it was so bad I drop my subscription. Many that I know that still subscribe to newspapers only do it for the local content and local sports article. I would say the newspapers bias although not the only cause is a major cause for their decline.

    Also it amazes me the professionalism of many MSM writing. Understand my degree is in Mathematics and Computer science so my writing isn’t that great especially in quick blogs but some of the stuff I see in print is awful. Not only do they get their facts wrong but their typos and sentence structure are something most high school students would be ashamed of. It seems to be happening more and more often.




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  7. Bithead:

    The idea that newspapers are not selling because of their content seems beyond both McCain and Marshall. It’s far easier to say that the people who don’t like/agree with what the MSM is offering are just stupid, or when such as Marshall, for example are their more generous moods, ‘illiterate’. So, that’s what they do. We’re all just illiterate hicks.

    Bithead, your argument might be valid, if there were any notable increase in the circulation of conservative periodicals. But the circulation of The Washington Times has been stuck at around 100,000 for the past 10 years, despite strong population growth in the metro DC region. And you can ask the publishers of National Review and Human Events if they’ve seen any surge of readership lately.

    It’s not the content of newspapers and magazines that’s causing the decline of circulation. The reading market is shrinking. And, as James and I both note, the fact that you’re reading current events on a blog means that you are part of the literate elite, not part of the illiterate mass market.




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  8. William d'Inger says:

    For me, it’s mostly a matter of timing. Having access to the net, by the time I read something in the newspaper, it’s already yesterday’s news.

    Then too, Bithead hit the other bull’s eye. I’m sick of the leftist bias of the MSM. The Internet offers a much wider range of opinions.

    And not to be ignored is the fact that one can respond much faster. This post being an example of that.

    Someday soon, we might video our responses, and I can get rid of this annoying keyboard. Have you investigated that possibility yet?




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  9. Wayne:

    [S]ome of the stuff I see in print is awful. Not only do they get their facts wrong but their typos and sentence structure are something most high school students would be ashamed of. It seems to be happening more and more often.

    To quote Hunter S. Thompson, “Burial grounds do not attract talent.”

    Dwindling circulation and revenues for the news industry means they’re less able to attract bright young minds to the field of journalism. Over the past 20 years, I’ve noticed a steady decline in the quality of newsroom newbies. (On average, I hasten to add. There are still brilliant young journalists, they’re just a smaller percentage of the whole.) Lots of smart kids now who, if they’d been graduating college in 1980, would have pursued a news career, are instead electing to attend law school.

    Low pay, limited prospects for advancement, a declining industry, abysmal workplace morale — not many smart kids want to go into a business like that.




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  10. Michael says:

    I’m curious about what newspapers some of you guys are reading. My local newspaper manages to report on national news, local crimes, local events, sports and entertainment without imposing a left-leaning bias to any of them. Likewise the classifieds, obituaries, and even comics seem to be bias-free. I’ve tried and failed to find any left-leaning bias in the advertising circulars and supermarket specials.

    How is it that your newspaper, which presumably also covers so many non-political topics, can be so all inclusively left-leaning that you won’t read it?




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  11. Bithead says:

    Bithead, your argument might be valid, if there were any notable increase in the circulation of conservative periodicals.

    Well, while they’re not growing per se’, they do seem to be holding their own, or dropping far more slowly. Since I noted a TV parallel perhaps I should make mention of the explosive growth of Fox news.

    But the circulation of The Washington Times has been stuck at around 100,000 for the past 10 years, despite strong population growth in the metro DC region

    But what has been the demographic nature of that growth? Considering the deos in the area, particularly within the borders of the district, I’m not convinced this is a valid measurement of the overall. However, I think it may be an interesting study, demographics vs literacy, and in particular, current events literacy. I looked at that around 15 years ago, incidental to an online argument on the old GT network, but not since.

    It’s not the content of newspapers and magazines that’s causing the decline of circulation. The reading market is shrinking.

    Given the growth of bookstores, and the greater retention of readers for less liberal media, I remain unconvinced.

    And, as James and I both note, the fact that you’re reading current events on a blog means that you are part of the literate elite, not part of the illiterate mass market.

    Then how to explain the numbers of the supposedly illiterate mass market that do the same? James does a fairly decent hitcount, as do many other blogs, some of which even make a business out of things. Surely, you’re not suggesting all of these are part of some elite group.

    And by the way, I should say that I do get my news from several sources.




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  12. Michael says:

    Since I noted a TV parallel perhaps I should make mention of the explosive growth of Fox news.

    Which would only be a valid analogy if Fox News pretended to be objective news.




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  13. Brian Knapp says:

    Will this trend lead to a revival of critical debate? Or just the ability to write snarky comments in 140 characters or less?

    How novel! A question that answers itself!




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  14. Bithead says:

    I’m curious about what newspapers some of you guys are reading. My local newspaper manages to report on national news, local crimes, local events, sports and entertainment without imposing a left-leaning bias to any of them. Likewise the classifieds, obituaries, and even comics seem to be bias-free. I’ve tried and failed to find any left-leaning bias in the advertising circulars and supermarket specials.

    Given your usual POV, I wonder how much salt we need to take with your asessment of bias.




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  15. Bithead says:

    Which would only be a valid analogy if Fox News pretended to be objective news.

    Do the words ‘fair and balanced’ contain any meaning for you?




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  16. Michael says:

    Do the words ‘fair and balanced’ contain any meaning for you?

    Yes, and I trust them as much as I trust “Delicious and Nutritious”. If the newspapers you are complaining about used the same tagline, would you suddenly believe they didn’t have a liberal bias?




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  17. Michael says:

    Given your usual POV, I wonder how much salt we need to take with your asessment of bias.

    Are you seriously going to question whether or not my local paper has a left-leaning bias in it’s classifieds?




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  18. Bithead says:

    Yes, and I trust them as much as I trust “Delicious and Nutritious”. If the newspapers you are complaining about used the same tagline, would you suddenly believe they didn’t have a liberal bias?

    Beside the point. Note again your choice of the word ‘pretend’.




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  19. Wayne says:

    Doonesbury comic seems to lean left but for the most part the comics aren’t bad. Local sports as expected are usually tilted toward the local team. As for national sports they give scores and sometimes a reprint from national article. National news they lean way left. Republicans are almost always wrong and are painted with a negative brush and the opposite is true for their reporting on the Democrats or liberal causes. We have a heavy Hispanic population. A few months ago they had a pro- illegal immigrant rally and reported with a distinct bias. For example they reported on how hard the immigrants were trying to learn English. The very next the paragraph they said a 53 old lady that has been here for 30 years said through a translator, because she didn’t speak English, how she has contributed so much to the US. The same thing happen the next paragraph with a guy that has been here 20 years.

    The reporter didn’t question once any of their assertions or put one paragraph from the anti-illegal’s side.




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  20. Wayne says:

    Fox News at least has both views. Examine the time given to both side and it comes up being close. Those giving the left view can’t be considered hacks as some of the so call conservatives on other news show are. For example Pat and Joe are both conservatives but have a beef with the GOP so getting their opinions on the GOP isn’t quite fair. Also the time difference favors the left by a good margin.




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  21. Michael says:

    Beside the point. Note again your choice of the word ‘pretend’.

    Giving yourself a label doesn’t mean you’re pretending to be that. If Obama called himself a conservative and continues to act the same, that doesn’t mean he’s pretending to be a conservative. Fox News may call themselves fair and balanced, but they don’t pretend to be.




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  22. anjin-san says:

    I have three different possibilities for the downfall of the newspaper in this country:

    It’s the left-leaning content.

    It’s the left-leaning content.

    It’s the left-leaning content.

    Bit do you EVER stop whining about liberals? Just wondering. Also curious, do you actually exist in a comic book world where all America’s problems can be blamed on Democrats/liberals/the left, or is this just the only way you can get anyone to pay attention to you?




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  23. Michael says:

    National news they lean way left. Republicans are almost always wrong and are painted with a negative brush and the opposite is true for their reporting on the Democrats or liberal causes.

    Wow, all your national news involves Republicans and Democrats? It’s almost like nothing else is happening in this country.




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  24. There seems to be some inability to distinguish from the news and opinion offered on the Fox News Network, orperhaps between news on the Fox News Network and the Fox News Network itself. News is news, opinion is opinion. If Fox News has done anything right, no pun intended, it is in helping to illuminate that more clearly, rather than merging it all into the XYZ Evening News.

    My local newspaper is the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, widely regarded as the most consistently liberal (read progressive) newspaper in the country. FWIW, they do not claim to be neutral, nor do they need to.




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  25. anjin-san says:

    Just curious, if the media is a left wing tool, how come it has not been widely reported the SecDef Gates called for a dialog with Iraq a day before Obama’s “appeasement” remarks (which were reported ad naseaum for days”?




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  26. Bithead says:

    Bit do you EVER stop whining about liberals? Just wondering. Also curious, do you actually exist in a comic book world where all America’s problems can be blamed on Democrats/liberals/the left, or is this just the only way you can get anyone to pay attention to you?

    Does your knee ever stop jerking in defense?
    Do you plan to give us somehting of substance, in this discussion, or do you plan on keeping it personal?




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  27. Bithead says:

    There seems to be some inability to distinguish from the news and opinion offered on the Fox News Network, orperhaps between news on the Fox News Network and the Fox News Network itself. News is news, opinion is opinion. If Fox News has done anything right, no pun intended, it is in helping to illuminate that more clearly, rather than merging it all into the XYZ Evening News.

    Agreement. Hence, they get to be a target for the left. Witness the responses, here.




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  28. Bithead says:

    Giving yourself a label doesn’t mean you’re pretending to be that.

    Arguably correct. But that’s not what you SAID.




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  29. Bithead says:

    Just curious, if the media is a left wing tool, how come it has not been widely reported the SecDef Gates called for a dialog with Iraq a day before Obama’s “appeasement” remarks (which were reported ad naseaum for days”?

    (Sigh, thread hijack alert)

    What you brush right by is Obama wanting unconditional talks, and Gates wanting them to be conditional.

    Negotiation isn’t a policy. It’s a tool.
    But a tool used to what end? Iran has made their intents clear. What can we possibly offer them to sway hem from their stated goal? What does Obama propose we give away? He’s been rather silent on those specifics. How about you? What do YOU prpose we give away? Is it more or less than Mr. Chaimberlain negotiated away, I wonder?




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  30. anjin-san says:

    What you brush right by is Obama wanting unconditional talks, and Gates wanting them to be conditional.

    Can you produce some documentation about Gates’ conditions for talks?

    What can we possibly offer them to sway hem from their stated goal?

    If this is true, why does Gates want to talk to them at all… it would be pointless.




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  31. Michael says:

    (Sigh, thread hijack alert)

    I’m pretty sure the thread got hijacked way back at:

    It’s the left-leaning content.

    It’s the left-leaning content.

    It’s the left-leaning content.




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  32. anjin-san says:

    “We need to figure out a way to develop some leverage . . . and then sit down and talk with them,” Gates said. “If there is going to be a discussion, then they need something, too. We can’t go to a discussion and be completely the demander, with them not feeling that they need anything from us.”

    I guess Bush’s SecDef is a Chamberlain style appeaser. When is the right going to call for this terrorist symps immediate transfer to Gitmo?




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  33. Michael says:

    Negotiation isn’t a policy. It’s a tool.

    Negotiation is a policy, what we negotiate with is the tool.

    But a tool used to what end? Iran has made their intents clear. What can we possibly offer them to sway hem from their stated goal? What does Obama propose we give away?

    Are you saying that we have no option but to attack Iran? That we can’t offer them anything other than not being destroyed? Negotiating isn’t a zero-sum game, it is possible for us to gain more from giving Iran something, than by not giving them anything.

    Conditional negotiation itself is an oxymoron, you can’t unilaterally dictate the terms prior to negotiating them. You don’t say another poker player must reveal his hand before you are willing to place your bets, and you don’t ask another army to surrender their arms as a pre-requisite of negotiating a cease-fire.

    You can ask for a reciprocal showing of good faith from your opponent when you are also giving up something for the negotiating process, but what is the US giving up by talking to Iran or Cuba?




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  34. Bithead says:

    Can you produce some documentation about Gates’ conditions for talks?

    Do you suppose our operational practice will give solid enough indication?




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  35. Bithead says:

    develop some leverage, and then sit down and talk with them

    Sounds pretty conditional to me…




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  36. Michael says:

    Sounds pretty conditional to me…

    Leverage comes in the form of carrots, as well as sticks.




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  37. Michael says:

    The point I believe Gates was making is that we don’t currently have any leverage to use in negotiating with Iran. We’ve shown no carrots, and they don’t believe that we have a stick.




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  38. anjin-san says:

    Sounds pretty conditional to me…

    Only if you are hearing what you want to hear. Gates has not named any preconditions for talks with Iran.

    Anyway, I would say a carrier battle group or 2 is pretty decent leverage, and we already have these.




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  39. Michael says:

    Anyway, I would say a carrier battle group or 2 is pretty decent leverage, and we already have these.

    Only if Iran believes we will use them absent successful negotiations. Iran has good reason to believe that we won’t.

    Having a gun is useful in negotiating, unless the other guy is convinced it’s filled with blanks, then it’s as useful as a rubber chicken.




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  40. Bithead says:

    Again, I ask, since it was outright ignored on the first pass; Let’s hear it, liberals.. what carrot would you offer Iran?




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  41. Michael says:

    Again, I ask, since it was outright ignored on the first pass; Let’s hear it, liberals.. what carrot would you offer Iran?

    Lifting sanctions, light-water nuclear reactor technology, replacement parts for their mostly US manufactured military equipment, business and trade deals, a place in determining the future of the middle east, and that’s just off the top of my head.




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  42. Next time you bring a rubber chicken to a gun fight, you might want to base your next action on more than whether you believe the gun is loaded.

    FWIW, even an unloaded gun can be a decent weapon if all you are facing is a guy with a rubber chicken.




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  43. … but what is the US giving up by talking to Iran or Cuba?

    Credibility.




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  44. Bithead says:

    light-water nuclear reactor technology

    Arrrr. You’ve just disqualified yourself.

    You CAN’T be SERIOUS.




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  45. anjin-san says:

    Credibility

    Already gone…




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  46. Michael says:

    Credibility.

    I’m sure Iran feels they would be making the same sacrifice. So again, what are we sacrificing that puts the onus on them to show good faith before entering negotiations?

    Arrrr. You’ve just disqualified yourself.

    You CAN’T be SERIOUS.

    Why not? Light water reactors have been out carrot of choice to stop proliferation.




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  47. Bithead says:

    Why not? Light water reactors have been out carrot of choice to stop proliferation.

    Correct. But not with terrorists bent on imposing a world wide caliphate.




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  48. Michael says:

    Correct. But not with terrorists bent on imposing a world wide caliphate.

    Ok, putting aside the ridiculous assumption that Iran wants a caliphate, why shouldn’t we give them a light water reactor?




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  49. Bithead says:

    I will not put such concerns aside.
    How dare we judge them by both what they say, and their past actions?

    They’re sitting on enough il and natural gas to keep their country spinning at far above it’s current living standard for most of 1000 years, and we’re supposed to accept the idea that they need to use nukes for power generation?

    Please…

    That’s highly questionable even absent their long history on the matter.




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  50. Michael says:

    I will not put such concerns aside.
    How dare we judge them by both what they say, and their past actions?

    I’m sorry, when did Iran say they wanted a Caliphate? Because any Caliph supported by the majority of the Ummah would almost certainly not be Shia. Your fears don’t even make sense, let alone having any foundation in reality.

    They’re sitting on enough il and natural gas to keep their country spinning at far above it’s current living standard for most of 1000 years, and we’re supposed to accept the idea that they need to use nukes for power generation?

    Only if they don’t export that oil and gas. Having nuclear power would allow them to consume less of their own resources, making more available for export. Giving them light water reactors would let them accomplish this publicly stated goal, without giving them weapons technology or material.




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  51. Hmmm. Interesting reading, comments included. I would contest one point: “Over the past 30 or 40 years, American schools and parents have failed to inculcate the reading habit in children.” 30 and 40 years ago I was in school and everyone encouraged me to read. Maybe that time span should be 20 and 10 years ago.

    The only drawback from my generation of readers seems to be that the habitual readers among them prefer riding below the radar. Most of my great-reading friends don’t participate in any of those on-line reader review vehicles.

    As for the younger generations not reading, there’s lots of hope if they can assemble blogs. Soon enough they’ll find that they have to read to know enough to keep filling the spaces they create or to perpetuate their opinions. I’ve seen this increase in reading already among the 20-somethings with whom I work. So I have lots of hope.




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