June 11, 2005

6-11-05: Special Stacy Schiff edition

Maureen Dowd is on book leave, and she can't come back too soon (I never thought I'd say that). Her first replacement, Matt Miller, had good intentions but was determined to be bipartisan if it killed him and had an unfortunate tendency to evaluate Republicans by their words rather than their deeds which, e.g., led him to assert that Republicans really do want to help the poor. Apparently massive tax cuts for the rich accompanied by deep reductions in programs that actually do help the poor (not to mention bankruptcy "reform", tort "reform", etc., etc.) are just some form of tough love. This meant that his columns often read something like "Yes, the Republicans are destroying the country, but they don't really mean it, and if the Democrats would stop being such obstructionists, we could craft a nice bipartisan compromise that would solve the problem and make everybody happy." However, compared to his successor, Stacy Schiff, Miller is a genius. Schiff combines the worst characteristics of Dowd and Brooks, mixing the former's constant flippancy with the latter's bullshit sociology based largely on anecdote. Yet Schiff might be able to overcome this were it not for the fact that she lacks Dowd's writing ability and, amazing as it sounds, Brooks's sociological acumen. Yes, she's so bad she almost makes Brooks good (but only almost, of course: such a thing is impossible). And today's column is especially egregious since it's put up against a reasonable column from Tierney. When you can't even match Tierney, you know you're in trouble.

Today's Schiff column is about the problems people have when presented with fifteen kinds of dental floss. Apparently this is a real problem, known as "analysis paralysis at the point of sale." You could have fooled me. Why Schiff feels the need to write about this is entirely unclear, but rather than attempting to plumb those murky depths, let us move on to the substance of the column. Schiff begins with an anecdote: "E. B. White claimed he knew his wife was the girl for him when she referred to dental floss as 'tooth twine.'" Now, I never knew E.B. White or his wife and I've never heard this anecdote before, so it's possible that there is some missing context, but it seems to me that this little story suggests that White was captivated by his wife's unusual word choice, an interpretation which is strongly supported by the fact that White was a writer. In other words, this story has absolutely nothing to do with the topic of the column (other than that it involves dental floss, which Schiff appears to be strangely obsessed with). And Schiff has the temerity to write "I take his point" when she clearly does nothing of the sort. But she is unfazed by the complete failure of her opening anecdote to connect to her main point and presses ahead to complain about the difficulties she experiences buying dental floss. She describes the process as "an exercise in frustration, or affluence-induced A.D.D., or option overload." I guess she must go to a much fancier drug store than I do. The CVS on the corner has three kinds of floss: unwaxed, waxed, and waxed with mint. You can also get varying amounts, and there are a couple of different brands (I always get the CVS brand, because it's the cheapest). As far as I can tell, floss is just not a very good example for her argument: it is, after all, simply a long piece of thread, and there are only so many ways to pretty it up. Toothpaste (which she does also mention), soap, or shampoo would be far superior examples. And since the only reason she starts with floss is because of the E.B. White anecdote which she obviously doesn't understand (or, even worse, in order to drag in the anecdote because of the floss connection), the beginning of the piece is calculated to make you want to tear your hair it.

The rest of the column isn't much better. Schiff asserts "We used to be one nation, undivided, under three networks, three car companies and two brands of toothpaste for all." This period lasted about 10 years. Unless Volkswagens, which I believe were reasonably popular in the sixties, were actually manufactured by G.M. and the whole German thing was just to make them appear exotic. And, of course, even if there were only three networks, there were a large number of radio stations (even larger, probably, than today when everything -- and I do mean everything -- is the same Clear Channel station). Not to mention newspapers and magazines. I have no idea what the toothpaste situation was like in the fifties and sixties, and frankly, I don't much care. Schiff then asserts that "This is a country in which 40 percent of the eligible population doesn't vote, but can be expected to maneuver its way through a sprawl of options every time it heads out for tooth twine." Because, you know, buying dental floss is approximately as momentous a decision as voting for president. Moving right along, Schiff describes the process of choosing between several product varieties as being "like a torture session with a demonic optometrist." Excuse me? What does this mean? Is she suggesting that having to read all these labels is causing an epidemic of eye strain? Does she just not like optometrists? Does she have personal experience with being tortured by a demonic optometrist to draw on? Does she have any clue what anything that she's writing actually means? (For those of you scoring at home, the answers were you're excused, nothing, i hope not, who knows, no comment, and no).

Further on, Schiff briefly mentions that there are actually good reasons for the presence of different varieties of toothpast-- "an aging population and the advent of the electric toothbrush" -- but doesn't let this stop her from engaging in further flights of fancy. "Both our refrigerators and our expectations are outsized" she opines. Apparently, she keeps her toothpaste in the fridge. And expects that she should have to choose between fifty different options. Or something. But she immediately tops this by declaring, "This is manifest destiny meets 'American Idol.'" I'm speechless. She follows with "The only thing that has not expanded proportionately is my brain capacity." No kidding.

Luckily, there's not much more of the column to wade through (or rather, to run through as fast as possible, as I can't take much more of this). "Hasn't Procter & Gamble heard about the dumbing down of America?" Schiff cries plaintively. Well, if they hadn't before, they've certainly figured it out by reading this column. One might even surmise that they're counting on it to keep people buying more expensive and fancier-looking brand name products rather than less expensive ones which are fundamentally the same. Much of the rest of the column is given over the pronouncements of some marketing guy from Harvard Business School and Paco Underhill, who probably isn't Bilbo Baggins's long-lost cousin, but should be (apparently, he studies shopping and has something called a "confusion index"). And Schiff finishes by proving conclusively that she does not understand the story she began her column with and referenced regularly throughout it, wince-inducingly writing "The market won't rest until it has located that last stalwart who isn't budging until he hears about cough-suppressing, posture-correcting, wrinkle-reducing, memory-enhancing, antioxidant dental floss. On the other hand, when he meets someone who shares that passion, he can be certain he has found precisely the girl for him." Thus ends one of the worst pieces of meaningless drivel I have read in a long time. And yet the most depressing part of the piece was not even written by Schiff. Instead, it comes below the column, and reads as follows: "Stacy Schiff, the author of "A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America" and a Pulitzer Prize winner . . . ." This woman won a Pulitzer? Well, let us hope that she won it by writing well, and that she has simply decided to throw away her chance to have columns appear on the Times editorial page -- the opportunity of a lifetime -- because, well, I don't know why she would do such a thing. However, the evidence at hand suggests that if anyone is stupid enough to do it, she is.