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The fishbowl effect and the highfalutin’ fool who flirted with it

[I wrote most of this a year and a half ago, I guess, and it was out of date then. But what the hell, everything else I post is untimely. Maybe I can give Peter Millican’s page an infinitesimal bump on google for the next time this particular wingnut delusion rotates back into favor.]

One of the most entertaining little sideshows to the ‘08 election was the one about Bill Ayers writing Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father. All the shouting about how Barack Hussein is really a Muslim was (and is) revolting and stupid and the birth certificate business was (and is) unimaginably tedious, and of course stupid as well. At least with Ayers and Obama there’s a real story. Plus I lived in Hyde Park in the early 90s and I like to imagine that I was just a few blocks away while past terrorist and future president were busy palling around.

Jack Cashill is the man behind the theory. In the last few weeks of the campaign he produced a steady stream of articles about it for (there’s a handy list on his website — it seems to be growing, too). Each one is written in perky little paragraphs, many of them nearly identical to the perky little paragraphs in an earlier post, but there’s usually something new, too. Cashill is quite the salesman — his pitch has the mesmerizing feel of an infomercial, and almost as much depth.

As he reaches out to the media and to experts who might help build his case, the literary quest — a diligent search for Ayers’ fingerprints in Obama’s book — becomes a story within a story. There’s a turning point on Oct. 23 and you, dear reader, are practically a co-conspirator. Cashill “despaired of breaking this story beyond the Internet and talk radio” but then “a seriously can-do congressman intervened,” and suddenly “we are running sophisticated data-driven tests at two separate sites.” Maybe there’s a real chance to “somehow penetrate the battlements the mainstream media have built around Obama.”

Cashill returns time and again to his correspondence with Patrick Juola, an expert in literary forensics. What he learned from Juola was that no “data-driven computer analysis” would give him a definitive result, and so his best hope was to persevere with the “good old-fashioned literary detective work.” There is, as Scott Eric Kaufman points out, a rich tradition there — thanks to just that sort of sleuthing we know that “the plays of William Shakespeare were written by Roger Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley, Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser, or Edward de Vere.” (Kaufman has had a great time with this story. If you want a good laugh you should read his posts — this one links to most of the other ones).

Ultimately, though, Cashill decided the old-fashioned detective work wasn’t going to do the trick: “there was a general feeling among people interested in this story that the public would need the confirmation of science, and not just from one source.” And of course what he found, as the title of the post says, is that “Science points to Ayers authorship of Obama’s ‘Dreams’”. This is what science sounds like:

“Using the chi-square statistic,” observes one professor, “Obama’s and Ayers’s books were indistinguishable, while Obama’s book was easily distinguishable from books by other authors.”


“Under the Q-value statistic,” argues one university-based analyst who tested “Dreams” against Ayers’ 2001 memoir, “Fugitive Days,” “segments of ‘Dreams’ consistently compared as well with ‘Fugitive’ segments as it did with other segments of ‘Dreams’ itself. In contrast, ‘Dreams’ compared poorly with other documents.”

Like Mark Twain said, there are “three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

As if the work of the “systems engineer,” the “professor,” and the “university-based analyst” weren’t enough, Cashill mentions “a fifth stylometric analysis, soon to be released, this one from a British scholar of international repute…,” and that’s where the story starts to get really interesting. With the election approaching and the Obama juggernaut still cruising out front, a man named Bob Fox with $10k in hand approached Peter Millican, a Fellow in Philosophy at Oxford University. Negotiations fell through when Millican and Oxford University Consulting insisted that the results be made public no matter how they came out. A couple of days before the election, Millican told his side of the story in The Sunday Times. He pronounced Cashill’s “science” to be extremely unimpressive and added that “[he] was left with the impression that payment for propaganda was fine; but payment for objective research was quite a different matter.”

As he went down in flames, Cashill shook his fist and shouted, in so many words, “Curse you, Oxford don!” It was about 2500 words, actually — half of them blustering through his version of the Millican-Fox transaction (“No, bro, you have dissed too many of my homies to get away that easily”) and the other half regurgitating the “literary” pitch one more time. Like they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Besides the bad taste in his mouth, Millican got the results of the analyses that had already been done. He’s set up a page on his web site to go over the details. At the beginning and the end he considers some of Cashill’s literary and impressionistic observations, dismissing each one in an understated, donnish way. Near the end he takes up Cashill’s offer to “bet my house against Millican’s mailbox that the gifted writer Ayers wrote” two passages in Dreams he singled out. Millican responds, “I hereby accept the bet. Let him put up, or shut up.” I don’t know if Cashill ever put up, but he certainly hasn’t shut up.

The really good stuff is in the middle of Millican’s exposé, when he looks into the “science.” There are all sorts of obvious and fatal flaws, but the most blatant problem is the controls — the things that Cashill breezily refers to as “books by other authors” and “other documents.” The specifics are a whole lot less impressive:

Second stylometric analysis.
Claim: “The Ayers-Obama matching shows a measurable and substantial effect. It is easily and objectively distinguishable from comparison to a third document. … the initial data presented is highly suggestive that these two documents share large portions of authorship.” (that’s Cashill via Millican)
Control: Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, published in 1885.
Millican’s bottom line: “[T]he word-length frequency correlations are not remotely close enough to be ‘highly suggestive’ of co-authorship…. Nor does the ‘easy and objective distinguishability’ from Grant’s Memoirs count for anything: it isn’t the least bit surprising that two memoirs written at the end of the 20th century have more in common than one written over a century before.”

Third stylometric analysis.
Claim: Comparisons of word frequencies on a small and a large set of words, using software written by Millican, shows that Dreams is more like Fugitive Days that like the control.
Control: Free Air, by Sinclair Lewis, published in 1919.
Millican’s bottom line: “These analysts found that Dreams was more like Fugitive Days than Free Air in some respects, but that of course isn’t surprising at all (given the difference in genre and vintage). If we add more realistic controls, then the apparent similarity — which isn’t even impressive to start with — entirely disappears, as shown by the following “Principal Component Analysis” graph….” (the graph is about 2/3 of the way through Millican’s web page). “Again there is nothing to link Obama with Ayers. And all the evidence so far examined if anything points against there being any close link between them.”

So, thanks to science you can rest assured that Obama’s book is more like Ayer’s book than it is like a novel written in 1919 or the 1885 memoir by the man supposedly buried in Grant’s tomb. In his Sunday Times piece, Millican notes that the Sinclair Lewis novel was used as a “‘random control’” because it “just happened to be easily available on the web.” He also describes Bob Fox as “sincerely interested in getting to the truth” — I don’t think he’d have gone to Millican if he wasn’t. I suspect that for many of the people involved, the project wasn’t cynical and calculating as much as it was starry-eyed and inept. As far as Cashill himself is concerned, I don’t know.

Whether it’s the number-crunching or the old-fashioned detecting, a lot of Cashill’s sleight of hand is a matter of context, or the lack of it. For instance, he makes a big deal about the way both Ayers and Obama riff on the difference between “education” and “training.” If you can’t think of any similar passages from another writer, well, it’s hard to say why it’s not significant. So maybe it is, and if you really want to be convinced, the door is wide open. On the other hand, if you did a search and found all sorts of other writers making a similar point in similar terms, the Ayers-Obama parallel would quickly lose its charm. But who’s going to take the trouble to do that? (Kaufman, of course, though not on this particular point) Cashill sure as hell isn’t — he needs to keep your head in a little fishbowl with just the incriminating texts, where all sorts of things are plausible. In the stylometric analyses, the control is the context. It’s a reference point, and the trick is to put it outside the fishbowl — way, way outside, so from there the bowl is just a dot on the horizon, and boy is it hard to see any difference between those fish!

More than that, the essential trick — the secret to Cashill’s success, such as it is — is to write for people who really, really, really want to believe. If you’re in the target audience, keep in mind that the analysis by Chris Yavelow is quite a bit different from the others. Millican finds nothing impressive about it, but he does allow that it’s “the only one of the four that stands any chance of providing any basis for a more substantial case.” So keep the faith!

In fact, I know what you need to do. Head on out to Highway 61, where I’m sure you can be very easily done. Look for Mack the Finger or Louis the King, over by the “forty red white and blue shoe strings/And a thousand telephones that don’t ring.”

~   ~   ~

Kaufman’s first piece about the Cashill hypothesis generated one of the oddest flame wars I’ve ever seen (keep in mind, though, that I mostly live under a rock). In it he mocked Jeff Goldstein, prime mover of Protein Wisdom, for taking up Cashill’s hypothesis and running with it. Goldstein’s vehement response is so strange and embarrassing that I can’t resist picking it apart. Here’s a quick recap:

  1. Goldstein muses over the implications of the Cashill hypothesis. He notes first off that “[t]he charge of having one’s memoir molded into literary shape by an unrepentant domestic terrorist… is a serious one — and I do not wish to present the accusation lightly.” And he doesn’t. He writes “disinterested observations that flow from an exploration of language, the narrative process, and the differences in gradation between the author as historical figure, the author as author, and the author as ‘author.’” It’s like some late-night undergraduate effusion of fermented carbohydrate wisdom — very, very heavy:

    For if Bill Ayers has indeed ghostwritten at least portions of Barack Obama’s memoirs, as some are alleging, then it is fair to say that the “Barack Obama” of those memoirs is more even than a construct: he is at least partially a fictional character, given that it is “his” words that ostensibly create “him” — making it follow that, if the words creating him are not his own, then “he” is really a kind of living literary portmanteau, a blend of influences, an ontological hybrid insofar as he exists publicly.


    If the charges are true, and Obama’s memoirs were in fact written by Bill Ayers, at least in part, than it is clear that at least in part, Barack Obama is a creation of Bill Ayers….

    On that meta level, “Obama,” as we’ve come to know him through his memoirs, is more Ayers than he is Obama.

  2. A few days later, while he was having some fun at Cashill’s expense, Kaufman took a quick swipe at someone else. If you follow the link, you find that the someone is Goldstein:

    If, however, you only use Cashill’s juvenile musings as a hypothetical which, if true, suggests all the unsavory things you already believe about Obama, then you’ve fully embraced the Cashill Doctrine.

  3. Fun ensues when Kaufman’s post is picked up by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Goldstein is affronted that he has to “deal[] with readers of the online Atlantic” — these are people who clearly don’t appreciate his “rather academic exhortation on the various beings of agency” as a weighty work of pure literary criticism, and not only that, they have the gall to doubt the sincerity of phrases like “as some are alleging” and “if the charges are true.”

    Worse, though, is that thanks to Kaufman he was getting “unsolicited, uninformed letters” like this one, from “someone calling himself George.” Here’s the first third of George’s letter:

    He can’t be shook bitches…keep it coming. Behind closed doors he is laughing at all you pathetic needle dick motherfuckers. In your eyes he couldn’t possibly be smart enough to write his book. However, there is no denying that he is still slowly squeezing the life out of that grimy, decrepit, fish belly white, warmonger. What’s next—Obama did not graduate from Columbia, or Harvard Law. Obama was not president of the Harvard Law Review. It’s all a sham Harvard and is lying on his behalf. He is not really running for president. It’s really some white dude in black face.

It’s presumptuous of George to finger Goldstein as a person who wants to turn Obama into “some white dude in black face.” The ghostwritten-by-a-terrorist story would surely be just as attractive as a political land mine and, for Goldstein, as an opportunity to crank out some scare-quoted profundity, even if the “author” was white. And the politician as a figurehead controlled from behind the scenes is an old plot line that doesn’t need any racial subtext.

But Goldstein’s gripe isn’t really with George, it’s with Kaufman, who wrote that Goldstein “fully embraced” something when really all he’d done was to flirt ostentatiously with it. In particular, he hadn’t said anything about the evidence, except in the comments on his first post, where he was skeptical about one point. It’s a legitimate complaint that’s hard to pick out of the turgid rhetoric — I didn’t really get it until I scrolled way down to where Goldstein explains it to an especially conciliatory commenter.

Whatever the reason, Goldstein goes to extraordinary lengths to foist onto Kaufman the full responsibility for George’s email and any other ignorance inflicted on him by Atlantic readers. To do that he has to make assumptions that are wilder and more insulting than any of George’s (SEK = Scott Eric Kaufmann).

I also noted that SEK, rather than excerpting any of the post in which I purportedly suggest “all the unsavory things” I “already believe about Obama,” merely provided the link and his inaccurate and dishonest description, knowing, as he must by now, that those predisposed to read his political hackery are similarly predisposed to avoid confronting primary texts, especially those from villainous “right wingers” who, by the Atlantic’s lights, are the kinds of “low-info voters” who have no business pretending to engage in literary criticism. On my preparedness to do so I’ll let my record stand — while noting that I don’t miss the irony of those who have long been in favor of “democratizing” interpretation and sounding the death knell of authorial control in favor of an ascendancy of “interpretive communities” suddenly pretending that one needs some kind of special political sensibility in order to properly engage in textual pursuits.

The best part of that is the irony he doesn’t miss, which sounds like the answer to a final exam question in a freshman survey class. Goldstein, in a fit of really highfalutin’ foolishness, is confusing Kaufman with a whole school of thought, one that’s betrayed its own bomb-throwing manifestos. Further along in the post we learn that this insufferable pedant is Goldstein’s inner “literary critic.”

But because leftists like George are driven by outrage, emotion, and a decided lack of intellect — and are steered in a certain way by betters like SEK, who, after the revolution, will assume the role of the elect — I am in fact confronted by such idiocy and self-righteousness, which, were I to allow the literary critic in me to come out once again, is suggestive, I’d argue, of a kind of hamfisted paternalism and projection, much as one might expect from those who pretend to champion the Other (the unspoken acknowledgment being that the poor dears can’t be expected to champion themselves!) while not even fit to wipe their own asses.

Goldstein had already described “the likes of George” as “people who haven’t the capacity to read and understand on their own, but who rather rely on ‘specialists’ like the folks at the Atlantic, or SEK, to do their misreading for them.” So he may not be convinced that Obama is the creation of Ayers, but he’s definitely convinced that the likes of George are the creation of the likes of Kaufman.

In the post Goldstein mostly writes around both George and his obnoxious email — perhaps Goldstein figured his readers already knew what to think. There are a few comments that are a little more direct, and they take up a theme that’s near and dear to the hearts of culture-war conservatives: their brave defiance of the PC lynch mob. Goldstein pops up to say, “I’m as guilty as George for pointing out George’s guilt. WAIT FOR IT!” Protein Wisdom deputy blogger Darlene Click seconds: “Criticizing him makes you a racist/sexist/genderist/yadda yadda yadda.” I don’t think she read very carefully, though. It’s true that George sounds kinda black, but Goldstein criticizes him as a leftist, which is not a race, sex or gender. Does Click really think that Goldstein is so hypocritical that he’d write George off as “some white dude in black face,” an idiot being led around by the nose by his betters?

Goldstein does seem to want to prove that he doesn’t take a backseat to anybody when it comes to genital references. After all, “Needle dick motherfuckers” is so conventional. He’s got something much more original, and while he’s at it he throws in a racial stereotype that’s as bizarre as it is gratuitous. Check out this PC-mob-defying bravery:


preemptive answer: he represents one part of “you”. And you, as the intellectual vagina to his Asian gal’s ping pong ball, represent another. Deal.

I’m sure it’s just because I’m being too literal, but my mind boggles at the metaphor of a male vagina giving birth to part of himself. You have to admire the double-layered insult, though — Kaufman is not only a feminine body part, he’s a pathetic one. No doubt a real manly intellectual, when he becomes a metaphorical vagina, can pass an Aryan broad’s bowling ball.

Anyway, no abuse from the PC police was forthcoming, or at least it’s not in the comments. And there was no “HOW DARE YOU” from Kaufman, though he dropped in several times for some textual slicing and dicing.

In the end Goldstein does a fine job of making George look like a class act. Both of them indulge freely in mindless generalizations about the opposition, but George is at least forthright about it. He’s gleeful but not particularly vindictive and his insults are generic, though I guess you’re always free to take it personally if you want. He’s fairly specific about who he’s talking about, too — “Talk Radio, Fox News, … your right wing blogosphere and … your professional liars like Bill Kristol [and] Glenn Beck….” The usual suspects, in other words. For Goldstein there’s just “the likes of George” and their “betters.” The idiots like George also “seem to think themselves entitled to hurl their venomous, imbecilic rants at any who displease them.” When it comes to venomous, imbecilic rants, though, Goldstein is peerless.

{ 2 } Comments

  1. wayne fontes | August 24, 2010 at 19:23 | Permalink

    I’ve seen several of these extended flame wars from Goldstein. The time and energy Goldstein is willing to put into them is both remarkable and stupid. I must admit that I find Goldstein’s “rather academic exhortation on the various beings of agency” boring and generally skip everything he writes.

    That being said SEK, while a better critic, is every bit Goldstein’s equal as a cultural warrior.

    ~   ~   ~

    Yeah, I guess your comparison of SEK and Goldstein is fair. Looking through the threads generated by this flame war, I was amazed at how much energy SEK was willing to put into the “debate.” He must really enjoy the fight for its own sake, or else he’s a real masochist. One thing that makes him a better critic in this case is the way he backed up his rhetoric with a lot of attention to Cashill’s specific claims. And in general, even at his most polemical, it seems to me that his love of language still comes through. Maybe for those reasons I’d still enjoy or at least appreciate his writing even if I was ideologically at odds with him. Or maybe not.

  2. wayne fontes | August 25, 2010 at 21:35 | Permalink

    I don’t blame SEK in any way for engaging Goldstein at length. He had to choose between slogging it out with Jeff our simply conceding the field. My comment pertained to SEK’s predisposition to adopt the positions of the left and resort to stereotypes of the people he’s against.

    SEK would not have engaged in a debunking of similar charges against a Republican president. He would have let it go without comment.

    The question isn’t whether SEK is a better writer or critic than Goldstein (he is) but whether he is less partisan. He isn’t.

    You routinely post comments critical of the right. You’re rather reticent to criticize any one on the left. You specifically pointed out that David Thompson picked on the outliers of the left. How do you think a post on Jack Cashill and Jeff Goldstein differs from Thompson’s cherry picking of the left’s freak show elements?

    ~   ~   ~

    Don’t get me wrong, because you’re not a raving pundit, but you’re a short step away from what must be the ultimate piece of mindless hypocritical partisanship. If it was a Democrat/Republican/white/black/man/woman/heterosexual/homosexual who did that, you liberals/conservatives/feminists/Christians would have been screaming bloody murder! (for example). How many bloggers or critics or pundits out there are really non-partisan in their choice of material and their tone? I think the closest you’ll come are people who focus on particular issues. A civil libertarian like Nat Hentoff, for instance — he’s sometimes singled out as a liberal who spends a lot of time criticizing other liberals.

    I can’t speak for SEK, but I write the things that get me motivated enough to take the time to write. It’s not so much that I’m reticent about criticizing anyone on the left as that it’s usually more motivated to criticize people on the right. There is a danger in writing about people who I find not only wrong but repugnant — Cashill and to some extent Goldstein fall in that category. It can be a corrosive exercise. A little goes a long way, for sure (there’s more to come, though).

    What I criticized Thompson for was not the cherry picking but the conclusions and generalizations. He wasn’t just pointing out the outliers, he claimed to put them in context, and I don’t think he knew enough about higher education to do that. I’m not making any grand claims about Cashill or Goldstein — that they’re typical conservative pundits or threats to the fabric of democracy or whatever.