The 50 Worst Columns of 2012
The most noxious, wrongheaded, misleading, silly, and downright awful pieces of punditry to somehow end up in print or online this year.
"Punditry is fundamentally useless," Nate Silver recently declared. Now we don't think every hack with an inch count and an opinion is all that bad. But while sifting through opinion fodder every morning to find the day's five best columns, we've come across plenty of arguments that prove Silver's point. Coming to the end of a year when math geeks helped contextualize politics (and a lot of other things) better than talking heads, we wanted to take some time out of The Atlantic Wire's Year in Review to re-read and reflect on the most noxious, wrongheaded, misleading, silly, and downright awful columns to somehow end up in print or online in 2012.
Race to the bottom
White columnists writing about "those people."
John Derbyshire at Taki's Magazine on teaching his kids to be racist John Derbyshire wants his children to be safe. So he sat them down for a "nonblack" talk, which included such valuable advice as, "If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot)." Parents wanting their kids to grow up to be decent human beings might want to sit down their kids for a talk about never reading John Derbyshire again.
Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal on casting her own version of CSI Peggy Noonan took a trip to Tampa for this year's Republican National Convention, and she assures her readers that a non-white person was in attendance! In fact, Noonan compliments this non-white person by saying she'd be very good in a bit part on some formulaic network cop show:
I'd never seen [New Mexico Gov. Susan Martinez] speak. She came across as tough, funny, able, smart. She's like the prosecutor in a show with a name like CSI: Child Victims Unit—the no-nonsense Latina who tells the detectives to make the call and get the perp.
George Will in The Washington Post on why voting for a black President is racist To many, Barack Obama's election back in 2008 was a sign of progress on racial equality. But the way George Will sees it, MLK's dream will come true only when voters feel empowered to reject black candidates. "The nation, which is generally reluctant to declare a president a failure—thereby admitting that it made a mistake in choosing him—seems especially reluctant to give up on the first African American president," Will writes, urging voters to take a stand for diversity by voting a black guy out of office and a white guy in.
Henry Blodget at Business Insider on anti-semitism Henry Blodget doesn't hate Jews. But he really wants to know why someone might. "It's an interesting and important question," he muses, illuminating his query with shocking evidence like, "Hitler, for example, hated the Jews so much that he murdered 6 million people." No really—what's so unlikable about the Jews, Blodget kept asking until the Internet told him to shut up. "I'm asking this question seriously." For awhile, the fittingly stupid headline "Why Are the Sources of Anti-Semitism?" accompanied his post. "Well Henry, primarily herp, but also derp," answered prominent Judaism scholars.
Dick Morris on dickmorris.com on white voters Why have white people forsaken America? Obama only won because they didn't turn out on election day, Dick Morris laments. "We lost because whites stayed home!" he writes. And why didn't white voters turn out for Romney? Maybe because he insulted nearly half of them? Perhaps because they didn't think he was fit to lead? No, no. Morris argues that Romney's loss can be chalked up to: "Impact of Sandy," the same reason why his own predictions were off. "There was no way to measure the impact of Sandy since there could not logistically be any polling. Why was I wrong? I’m a pollster, not a meteorologist!"
Sometimes contrarian arguments are also the dumbest.
Megan McArdle at The Daily Beast on teaching kids to run toward the shooter There was little anyone could do to make sense of last week's tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. But Megan McArdle—desperate to draw any lesson from the senselessness, no matter how crazy—made this horrifying, counter-intuitive suggestion: "If we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once." Nope. We're not even going to try to snark on this. Just ... dear god. You too, Charlotte Allen. What the hell.
Richard Cohen in The Washington Post on why we should like politicians who lie to us Any old politician can stick to his or her word, but it takes a great one to earn the confidence of voters though bold-faced lies, argues Richard Cohen. "If that ability is coupled with no sense of humor, you have the sort of man who can be a successful football coach, a CEO or, when you come right down to it, a presidential candidate," he writes. "Such a man is Mitt Romney." Inspiring stuff.
Oliver Hudson in The Brown Daily Herald on why voting rights are wrong Here's one way to get everyone's attention: attack a cornerstone of modern American democracy. "Most of us accept and celebrate our universal suffrage. But is it a good idea? In my view, no," writes Brown undergraduate Oliver Hudson, who thinks voting rights should be determined by tax bracket (that's not a joke). "If person A contributes 100 times more than person B in income taxes, person A should have 100 times more voting power than person B." So basically, Donald Trump should get to handpick our presidents?
Matt Bai in The New York Times on Bill Clinton hurting Obama Columnists rarely agree on anything, but everyone—from the left and right—knew that Obama got a boost from Bill Clinton in the run-up to election day. Even Mitt Romney jokingly acknowledged the effect of a Clinton bump. But Matt Bai, always a sucker for contrarianism, floats the argument that maybe Clinton's influence actually hurt Obama. "In these final weeks before the election, Mr. Clinton’s expert advice about how to beat Mitt Romney is starting to look suspect." In retrospect, Clinton's advice about how to beat Romney seems to have worked.
George Will in The Washington Post on losing being the greatest victory Will took contrarianism to its logical, self-defeating end in his column "Plan B for Stopping Obama." How could the GOP win big in 2012? By not winning the White House in 2012. Instead of focusing on the presidency, "conservatives this year should have as their primary goal making sure Republicans wield all the gavels in Congress in 2013," Will writes. As our Elspeth Reeve noted, history shows that this scenario almost never pans out.
Yates Walker at The Daily Caller on why Romney needs Gingrich Romney didn't lose because he was too mean but because he wasn't mean enough, argues Yates Walker dubiously. He should've made his campaign more like Goodfellas, enlisting someone to do his dirty work. You know, a guy he could rely on for a "favor." And who's a better hitman than Newt Gingrich? "Newt is a samurai warrior," Walker writes, liking his metaphors bloody. "He has an assassin’s sense of where his opponent is weakest ... Newt has a killer instinct. He goes for the jugular ... Newt Gingrich, street fighter, gunslinger, ninja master of the sound bite."
All the bloviating that's fit to print
The Gray Lady may hold an outsized position on this list, but they really earned it this year.
Ross Douthat in The New York Times on babies Hey, women, did you know that if you're not in labor right now you're literally destroying America? And, men, every time you use a condom you're pounding one more nail into the coffin of the American dream. Considering the declining birth rate in the U.S., Ross Douthat is disgusted by "a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place." Sacrifices like doing the deed before birth control existed.
David Brooks in The New York Times on Jeremy Lin Linsanity caught up with David Brooks, but the New York Times columnist seemed confused about why the NBA phenomenon was interesting. "He’s a Harvard grad in the N.B.A., an Asian-American man in professional sports," Brooks writes. "But we shouldn’t neglect the biggest anomaly. He’s a religious person in professional sports." Yeah, we're sure Tim Tebow, Dwight Howard, and all those other notoriously atheist athletes were totally put off by this Jesus freak Jeremy Lin.
David Brooks in The New York Times on mixed metaphors According to Brooks, presidential campaigns are like:
• American Idol
• An endless game columnists play amongst themselves to see who can come up with the worst metaphor for a presidential campaign
Maureen Dowd in The New York Times on ... something In her June 2nd column "Dreaming of a Superhero," Maureen Dowd argues that Obama has a leadership problem. We think? It's kind of hard to parse her point through writing this dense: "... he admitted he’s just another combatant in a capital full of Hatfields and McCoys ... The Moviegoer prefers to float above, at a reserve, in grandiose mists ... The White House is a very hard place to go on a vision quest, especially with a storm brewing ..." Wise words, maybe.
Thomas Friedman in The New York Times making two mutually exclusive arguments about Iraq
The lesson of Iraq is quite simple: You can’t go from Saddam to Switzerland without getting stuck in Hobbes—a war of all against all—unless you have a well-armed external midwife, whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition. In Iraq, that was America.
Gotcha. You're saying U.S. intervention helped bring about Iraq's fledgling peace.
U.S. intervention triggered a civil war in which all the parties in Iraq – Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds – tested the new balance of power, inflicting enormous casualties on each other and leading, tragically, to ethnic cleansing that rearranged the country into more homogeneous blocks of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
Wait, but you just said...
Thomas Friedman in The New York Times on trying to get around in D.C. Always on-the-go Friedman had a bumpy ride from D.C. to New York, and he can't stop whining about it. "I traveled on the Amtrak Acela, our sorry excuse for a fast train, on which I had so many dropped calls on my cellphone that you’d have thought I was on a remote desert island, not traveling from Washington to New York City. When I got back to Union Station, the escalator in the parking garage was broken." And that's why Michael Bloomberg should run for president, he argues, coherently.
Thomas Friedman in The New York Times on his favorite metal Then there was the time Friedman used the word "iron" 13 times in one column. He wrote this column a week after the Iron Man 3 trailer came out. Just saying.
Bill Keller in The New York Times on moderates With Washington getting ever more partisan, Bill Keller took some time to consider moderate voters: "Swing voters tend to be fiscal conservatives," he argues. "They have nothing against the rich—but they don’t oppose tax increases ... They want the country well protected, but not throwing its weight around in the world ... abortion should be discouraged but not prohibited." Basically, average American voters have no real opinions about anything, Keller argues, not quite squaring his opinions with numbers showing we're actually more polarized than ever.
Gail Collins in The New York Times on how fracking can save the job crisis Fracking does nothing to end our reliance on oil, and public health officials remain wary of the practice. But Gail Collins has seen firsthand the wonders it did for Williston, North Dakota—a town that has low unemployment, overcrowded bachelor pads, and long lines at McDonald's. "If the place you love can’t quite climb out of the recession, think of this as consolation. At least you’re not living in a man camp and waiting half an hour in line for a Big Mac," Collins writes. We're sure all the unemployed, debt-ridden workers not in Williston appreciate the reassurance.
Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times on sex trafficking Nicholas Kristof always means well—he just flubs his facts sometimes. Kristof painted himself as a sex worker savior in his April 19th column about borderline illicit adult advertisement site Backpage.com. But some sex worker organizations said his suggestions on curbing sex-trafficking would hurt more than help. And other critics detected hypocrisy in Kristof's call to action, "online emporiums like Backpage should stop abetting pimps," arguing that The New York Times Company holds stock in companies that may also profit from this same kind of shady adult advertising.
Let's not talk about sex
No one asked.
Amity Shlaes at Bloomberg View on how sexual harassment improves the workplace Sometimes it takes a little sexual harassment to keep companies creative, argues Amity Shlaes. "There are two kinds of companies in the U.S.: square ones and wild ones," Shlaes writes. "The wild type, common in venture capital, does everything differently, starting with the open office. Over the years, creative rebels have often behaved poorly in their creative workplaces. Do most of us approve? Hardly ... But creative environments boast an advantage." Unwanted advances—that's what really drives our economy.
Amber Estes in The Red & Black on going to college to find a husband Girls now outnumber boys on college campuses, but University of Georgia sophomore Amber Estes still thinks they're only going to lock down a husband. "Every true woman knows how vital it is to find the right brilliant babe to father their children and replenish their bank accounts," she writes. We think (hope?) Estes is being tongue-in-cheek, but it's hard to tell with motivational lines like, "Keep your eye on the handsome prize, stay focused and go get that MRS degree."
Richard Cohen in The Washington Post on Daniel Craig's bod Leading men have gotten beefier, and Cohen doesn't like it one bit. No siree. He does not care for these hunky studs. Uh uh. "[Daniel] Craig is 44, but neither gravity nor age has done its evil work on him," Cohen drools after seeing Skyfall. "Nothing about him looks natural, relaxed—a man in the prime of his life and enjoying it." What ever happened to Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper, guys who never went to the gym but still won over gorgeous starlets? What ever happened to the times when skeevy 57-year-old columnists could hit on 23-year-old co-workers without worrying about a HR giving them a slap on the wrist?
Christine M. Flowers in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Sandra Fluke and Malala The Taliban's assassination attempt on a 14-year-old Pakistani girl who advocates for female education rights was decried by feminists around the world. But for Christine M. Flowers, it was just another opportunity to pour even more scorn on Sandra Fluke. "Sandy has spent so much time this summer and fall drumming up sympathy for her condom crusade that she probably hasn't heard about this Pakistani woman," she writes, saying that Fluke "makes me ashamed to call myself a woman."
Reviewing the National Review
This whole list could be filled with National Review material. We limited ourselves to four columns.
Rich Lowry in the National Review on Trayvon Martin If the Trayvon Martin shooting teaches us anything, argues Rich Lowry, it's that black people shoot each other a lot. Yup, Lowry somehow found a way to turn this tragic case of racial profiling into a story about black-on-black crime. "In America, the lives of young black people are cheap, unless they happen to fit the right agenda," Lowry writes, supposedly not about his own agenda.
Victor Davis Hanson in the National Review on Susan Rice It's a great time to be a black woman, argues a white man named Victor Davis Hanson. "In the nexus of elite universities and Democratic politics," Hanson writes about the Susan Rice confirmation holdup, "being black, female, and elite is far more advantageous that being white, male, and poor." Right. Because we have so few white guys in politics, while the number of black female Senators can be counted on no hands.
Dennis Prager in the National Review on public nudity Cover up, unclothed San Franciscans—you're making Dennis Prager blush: "When human beings walk around with their genitals uncovered, they are behaving in a manner indistinguishable from that of animals," he writes, managing to reference Jesus, Karl Marx, and Andres "Piss Christ" Serrano in a column about some aging hippies wandering around the Castro au naturel.
Mark Steyn at National Review Online on Sesame Street causing Benghazi Lest you think we're being too mean to the National Review, we're talking about a publication that more or less blames terrorist attacks on children's TV shows. "Unlike Mitt, I loathe Sesame Street," writes Mark Steyn, a real-life incarnation of Oscar the Grouch. "Marinate three generations of Americans in that pabulum and it’s no surprise you wind up with unprotected diplomats dragged to their deaths from their 'safe house' in Benghazi." That's where we stopped re-reading, but Steyn probably goes on to implicate the Count in the cover-up.
The One Columnist You Meet in Hell
Best-selling author Mitch Albom, ladies and gentlemen.
Mitch Albom in the Detroit Free Press on service industry workers Don't make the bestselling author of Tuesdays with Morrie say it again, service workers. He wants wheat toast, dammit, not rye. "Is it just me? Or does no one in the service business listen the first time you speak?" Mitch Albom asks, totally miffed by all these rude (and totally overpaid) Starbucks employees. "Today, the customer is little more than an annoyance on the other side of the glass, or phone, or counter."
Mitch Albom in the Detroit Free Press on Fifty Shades of Grey "Kinky sex. Sex with ropes. Masks. A few devices you previously only read about in Popular Mechanics. And women are loving it." That's Mitch Albom attempting to describe E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey. But it's funnier if you read it as if he were describing his own bedroom manner.
Columnists behaving badly
Plagiarism, fabrication, and other tricks of the trade.
Fareed Zakaria in Time on gun control The argument Zakaria makes here ("let's do gun control!") might be an overly familiar one. And Zakaria might state it too dryly. But the rhetoric isn't what landed this column in our hall of shame. Zakaria's glaring plagiarism of Jill Lepore's New Yorker profile of the N.R.A. got him on the list. Between Zakaria and Jonah Lehrer, we were surprised to see so many professional journalists still thinking no one would notice that they copy-pasted text right into their articles, swapping a few synonyms and tweaking sentence structures a bit. Guys, high schoolers don't even get away with this kind of stuff anymore.
Steve Merlo in The Bakersfield Californian on the Greta Trout We won't argue with your right to prank your editors with a totally made-up column about the nonexistent Greta Trout, fishing columnist Steve Merlo. Maybe times are tough at your central California paper, and maybe a little April Fool's joke might cheer everyone up, taking their mind away from lay-offs and such. But the trick with something like this is to make sure your editors get the joke before sending your bogus column to print:
The Greta Trout, well known in Nepal, India and northern Pakistan for its incredible leaps and bull dogging runs, fights especially hard when caught on appropriately light salt water tackle.
Also, if you're going to make up a mystical sea creature, was this as imaginative as you could get?
Roger Cohen in The New York Times on Twitter Gah! Don't you just hate people who clog your Twitter feed with pointless oversharing? Roger Cohen does. In fact, he's so sick of oversharing that he didn't even bother to check Twitter before writing about it. Cohen said he "came across" a few TMI tweets about zits and doctors appointments, but a Times correction informs us that he actually sought them out himself: "Both comments were taken from a Web site, www.oversharers.com, that the writer consulted as part of his research ... The writer should not have implied he stumbled across them while reading recent Twitter feeds."
At the intersection of sports and stupidity.
Phil Mushnick in the New York Post on Jay-Z Phil Mushnick isn't even capable of couching his racism anymore. "Why the Brooklyn Nets when they can be the New York N------s?" he asks, apparently not happy with the team's new direction under Jay-Z. "The cheerleaders could be the Brooklyn B----hes or Hoes. Team logo? A 9 mm with hollow-tip shell casings strewn beneath."
Frank Bruni in The New York Times on the Olympics "Amid bullets in Colorado and Wisconsin, vitriol on the campaign trail, ominously scorching heat and serious questions about whether we can and will rise to the challenges before us, the Olympics have affirmed that human potential is just about infinite and that the human soul is good," puffs Frank Bruni, because nothing puts unspeakable horror in perspective like rhythmic gymnastics.
Dan Shaughnessy in The Boston Globe on blood-lusting bloggers You know those awful fans who cheer when an athlete on the other team gets injured? That's basically what bloggers do for a living, according to Dan Shaughnessy. Oh, and their responsible for such taunts, too. "It is about fanboy bloggers who kill everyone and everything under the brave cloak of anonymity," he writes.
Mark Judge at The Daily Caller on Bryce Harper Even though Washington Nationals rookie Bryce Harper hasn't talked openly about his political leanings, he qualifies as a "conservative hero" in Mark Judge's mind. His argument here basically boils down to: Harper is good at baseball, so Republicans will reclaim the White House in 2012. "Watching Bryce Harper play is like listening to an economic speech by Paul Ryan: It’s long on reality and short on excuses."
Columnists know what the kids are watching these days. And they loathe it all, unequivocally.
Andrea Peyser in The New York Post on Kristen Stewart Some columnists like to ease their readers into an argument, maybe by setting a scene or waxing poetic on current events. Not Andrea Peyser. Here's the lede from her column about Kristen Stewart:
She's pure poison.
Well. OK then. Why does Peyser hate Stewart so much? Because she isn't as chaste as Bella Swan. "It was all an act," Peyser claims, apparently criticizing a professional actor for doing her job. "Stewart belly-flopped into the sewer, turning from skinny starlet to the worst example of female hussy—a selfish, home-wrecking bloodsucker more interested in advancing her career and satisfying a common itch than a fairy-tale romance."
James Franco at The Huffington Post on Girls Everyone wrote a "think piece" on Girls. Even people who should've been busy doing other things. People who split their time between acting, directing, composing poetry, writing short stories, creating bizarre performance art, and teaching at NYU. That's right, James Franco also had to share his opinion on Lena Dunham's divisive show with everyone. "My first suggestion to Hannah would be this: get a fucking job," he writes, helpfully.
Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian on Zero Dark Thirty Without having seen the film, Glenn Greenwald decided that Kathryn Bigelow's fictionalized account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden glorified torture. Based on hearsay, Greenwald wrote that the film "uncritically presents as fact the highly self-serving, and factually false, claims by the CIA that its torture techniques were crucial in finding bin Laden." Someone told him Zero Dark Thirty isn't meant to be a documentary, right?
The worst of the rest
Columns so bad, we don't even know where to put 'em.
Paul Carpenter in The Morning Call on tattoos Allentown, Pennsylvania, newspaperman Paul Carpenter applauds a local amusement park for refusing to hire applicants with that have visible tattoos. "As I have argued before, the heaviest concentrations of tattoos are on the skin of the lowest elements of the human race," writes Carpenter. "Pimps, pugs, prison inmates, prostitutes and the members of criminal biker gangs are the creatures most likely to have tattoos." Wait—who gave Travis Bickle get a column?
Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast on Obama's debate performance Obama seemed a tad listless in his first debate with Mitt Romney, so Andrew Sullivan called the election. That's it, Romney just won, everyone start panicking. "'I'm trying to see a silver lining. But when a president self-immolates on live TV, and his opponent shines with lies and smiles, and a record number of people watch, it's hard to see how a president and his party recover," he wrote, not very presciently.
Joe O'Connor in National Post on Canadian babies Don't think you're immune from Ross Douthat's baby shortage panic, Canadians. Conservatives' thirst for young blood transcends borders. "Happy couples that choose not to have kids are, at root, well, let’s see: selfish," writes Joe O'Connor.
Rick Santorum at World Net Daily on disabled people You know what poses a threat to U.S. sovereignty? Disabled people, according to Rick Santorum, who chose to focus on this of all issues following his failed bid for the presidency. By ratifying a sensible, widely adopted U.N. treaty on the rights of persons with disabilities, the freedoms of able-bodied Americans would be trampled on, he argues: "There is no reason for our country to give up our sovereignty to the United Nations when it comes to providing benefits and protections for the disabled in America."
George Monbiot at The Guardian on dumb conservatives George Monbiot isn't the first columnist to insult his opponents' intelligence instead of taking on their actual arguments. But he was one of the few who defended his ad hominems by appealing to science. "We have been too polite to mention the Canadian study published last month in the journal Psychological Science, which revealed that people with conservative beliefs are likely to be of low intelligence," Monbiot chastised his fellow liberals. Well, maybe they actually read the study, which links low intelligence with racism and homophobia specifically, not voting behavior particularly.
Newt Gingrich in The Washington Post on being powerless Newt Gingrich is human too. His power went out when derecho hit his Virginia suburb this summer. He worried about his groceries going bad. He felt trapped in his mansion. He sat in the dark, sweating, coming up with existential metaphors for his own waning hold on Washington: "Without power, the comforts of home become worthless. You sit in the sweltering heat, realizing you are living in a box that, without electricity, is a trap." Way to channel Sartre, Newt.
Cindy Adams in the New York Post on strolling through the city This might be a hackneyed (and possibly racist) column, basically arguing that New York's bustling multiculturalism leads to loneliness. But it's great if you pretend Cindy Adams is detailing an acid trip she took through Manhattan: "A biker in a sleeveless tank and cutoff jeans who thought he was Lance Armstrong sideswiped an elegant dowager transporting her caged parrot. I pushed my Yorkies in a stroller since one wasn’t up to walking." Far out.
Michael Arrington at Uncrunched on Silicon Valley rock stars All those start-up CEOs desperately seeking venture capital funding totally aren't in it for the money, argues TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington. "I know a billionaire that drove an old Honda until recently, for example," he writes. "Another that lived in a small apartment so he didn’t have to bother with the hassle of a home." Tech millionaires—they're just like you and me.
Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal on Romney's victory vibes Nate Silver might have had finely tuned statistical models, but Peggy Noonan had vibrations, and she was picking up good ones that told her Romney would win: "All the vibrations are right," she wrote after tuning into Fox News for a while. "Looking at the crowds on TV, hearing them chant 'Three more days' and 'Two more days'—it feels like a lot of Republicans have gone from anti-Obama to pro-Romney."