“Truth is the first casualty of war.” I leave it up to you, dear reader, to decide if our current times are war or the prelude to war, but that these are times of upheaval and uncertainty seems to be beyond question.
The primary battleground of our current whatever-it-is happens to be the media, but not in the sense of the White House versus the media (though that is a battleground). No, the war is being fought literally at the end of our noses. The most valued commodity in 21st century America is the public’s undivided attention. Much of our attention still goes to our jobs, our families, our schooling, our friends (if we still have any true face-to-face friends, that is), and what few social institutions still exist in meatspace. The rest of our attention goes to any of various forms of mass communication, which we refer to generally as “the media.”
It is a great danger to assume that “the media” refers only to “the news media.” The lines between information and entertainment were blurred in the 1980s, moved in the 1990s, stayed mostly in place during the 2000s, and have been completely obliterated in the 2010s. It is no more an overreach, then, for an entertainer to use his or her visibility to spread personal viewpoints than it is for the news to report on things that aren’t news (e.g., the lives of entertainers), package the news in a way to trick you into consuming more of it (“Is there a hidden killer in your refrigerator? Tune in tonight at 10.”), or refuse to distinguish between news, opinion, and dogpiling (see Rush Limbaugh, The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, that stuff your great-aunt posts on Facebook, etc.).
Eliminating the lines between news and entertainment makes it harder to turn off our primitive “lizard brains” that invoke the fight-or-flight response to any stimulus we encounter. We react first, then our human brains construct a justification for what our lizard brains have already done. (For more on this, please see Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book The Righteous Mind.) In times where there is a lot happening, our human brains quickly fatigue of processing all the stuff our lizard brains throw at us. Keeping sanity thus requires us to know when and how much to engage with the various media stimuli we encounter. It’s a critical task in two sense of the word “critical”: It’s important, and it requires us to make judgements.
I have worked in the media and, though I was but a barnacle on a very large ship, I’ve seen the inside of the sausage factory. I am also a member of the clergy who has spent almost two decades living in “flyover country,” one of many bubbles in American culture. I’ve obviously seen the inside of that, too. I’ve been a disseminator of information, and I have seen the effects of our media-rich culture. Some of those effects are highly beneficial. The rise of digital media has democratized information and made us all feel a little less lonesome.
It has also corroded many useful things, not so much due to consumption as overconsumption. With that in mind, I offer these guidelines for how to maintain your sanity in an environment where every form of media is fighting for your attention during all of your waking moments. (When they figure out how to get into your dreams, they’ll fight there too.) To begin:
- Your attention belongs to you until you give it to someone or something.
- In our media-rich environment, most media requests for your attention are illegitimate, rude, and deceitful, because such requests work better than polite and honest ones.
- Therefore, the first rule for keeping your sanity is to limit your exposure to commercialized media in any form. This means anything that has an advertisement before it, in it, or on it, or anything you have to pay for before you can access it.This doesn’t mean that all such forms of media are illegitimate; they obviously aren’t. But it does mean that you need to be vigilant about efforts to keep you locked in on one source (or group of sources) to the exclusion of others.
- The primary form of illegitimacy in requests for your attention is a claim to have exclusive information which cannot be found anywhere else. Not all such claims are false; only about 99.93% of them are. Good luck figuring out that 0.07%.
- Thus, the second rule for keeping your sanity: Nothing is trustworthy until a number of sources report it.
- Though media ideological bias exists (how could it not?), its effects are often overstated. Nonetheless, a savvy media consumer can use the reality of bias to his or her advantage in sorting out legitimate and illegitimate requests for your attention.
- The third rule for keeping your sanity: If you suspect a source is biased, give more credibility to its reporting of things you suspect that source wishes it didn’t have to report. You don’t have to trust a biased source’s actual reports, but if they’re reacting to a thing, then it’s probably actually a thing. If sources with a diversity of ideological backgrounds agree on basic facts, those facts are almost certainly accurate, no matter how hard the sources try to spin them.
- It isn’t universally true, but biased mainstream sources tend to be more accurate reporting disparaging information about their own side and flattering information about their opponents than vice versa. When a Democrat screws up, look to The New York Times; when a Republican screws up, turn to the Wall Street Journal. But this is only true when it’s something that can’t be swept under the rug.
- Which leads to my fourth rule: The primary form of ideological bias in media is omission. This isn’t necessarily a sign of malicious intent, or even any kind of intent.. We all have our blind spots, and a camera can only see what it’s pointed at. But sometimes this omission is malicious and/or intentional.
Malicious and/or intentional bias means turning our attention to the odious question of the term “fake news,” which has almost immediately become a catchall of garbage and yet another way the lizard brain outsmarts the human one. Whatever information we instinctively don’t want to hear or deal with can be dumped in the black hole called “fake news.”
Overuse of that term erodes its meaning and eats at the very concept of truth, however, and that’s a huge problem. So let’s take a moment to distinguish between actual “fake news” and two other problematic media requests for our attention: pushy news and journalistic malpractice.
By fake news I mean media sources (or reports within those sources) that serve no other purpose than to engage our lizard brains to provoke an immediate reaction. The hallmarks of fake news are many but include:
- Single words or phrases in headlines rendered in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS
- Video clips in which one can “Watch x DESTROY y!”
- Stories that lead with shocking graphics, often depicting violence
- Bold stands in favor of things no sane person is against, or vice versa
- Calls to share information virally
- Unusually dire proclamations of things that must be stopped now
- News reports accompanied by requests for donations to the reporting source
- Sources whose actual names contain lizard-brain words like “angry,” “fed-up,” “pissed,” or, sadly, even “truth” (this emphatically does not apply to The Truth About Cars, though you should be aware I wrote for them over a decade ago).
It’s a sad commentary, but the more strenuously a media source asserts itself as a lone voice of truth, the less likely it is to be one.
By pushy news I mean content where presenting the news is just an excuse to pontificate and thereby shape the audience’s human mind by constantly engaging the lizard brain. You can spot pushy news thusly:
- The presenter doesn’t just tell you what the news is but also how to feel about it; this is usually presented as telling you “what this means for you.” When they say this, they’re not asserting that they understand you; they’re telling you who they want you to be.
- The source, over time, draws lines in such a way that there is always an “in group” and an “out group,” the membership of those two groups seldom if ever changes, the “out group” is the cause of all the trouble in the world, the “in group” is the world’s only hope, and the audience is always in the “in group.”
- There is an excessive focus on the out group’s supposed evil and/or hypocrisy.
- The out group is never actually heard from except under unusual circumstances.
- The in group’s personal experiences of the out group is given more weight than the out group’s personal experiences of the in group.
- The in group’s personal experiences of the out group is given more weight than the out group’s personal experiences of the out group.
- Any in group evil/hypocrisy is hand-waved away by the existence of out group evil/hypocrisy. This actually has the name of Whataboutism; it’s an old Soviet propaganda technique.
- It doesn’t necessarily engage in outright conspiracy theorizing, but the same few bogeymen keep cropping up, like the Koch brothers or George Soros.
(It should be obvious that much cable news programming is what I consider “pushy news.” That’s just the nature of the beast; if I ran a cable news channel, I’d do the same thing. Pushy news isn’t useless but it needs to be treated more critically than straightforward news presentations.)
By journalistic malpractice I mean stuff that’s so badly handled it’s impossible to tell if it’s fake news, pushy news, foreign propaganda, performance art, utter incompetence, or deliberate sabotage. Its hallmarks are:
- Obviously bad editing
- An abundance of unidentifiable (as opposed to unidentified) sources
- False balance (as opposed to the false equivalence of pushy news)
- Playing “devil’s advocate” for positions no sane person would hold
- Spinning facts to fit a preconceived narrative, rather than adjusting a narrative to fit the provable facts
- Equating far-fetched possibilities with the most likely explanations
- Refusal to correct errors (all news sources make errors from time to time, but an error doth not “fake news” make; reputable sources correct their errors and responsible consumers allow them to do so)
The classic example of journalistic malpractice in our time is the Killian documents fiasco that ensnared Dan Rather and CBS News. I don’t believe that CBS ran with the story because Dan Rather wanted to do a hit piece on George W. Bush; I do believe that the company’s desire to do a hit piece on George W. Bush caused them to be sloppy in their fact checking. They did correct the error and Dan Rather paid the appropriate price for it, but the lack of objectivity was clear and a sign that at least some mainstream media reporting is (or at least was) driven by ideological bias.
Fake news plays to our passions and prejudices. Pushy news tries to addict us and shape us. Journalistic malpractice makes us distrust all forms of reporting. Awareness is important, but honestly, the best defenses against being driven insane by media and its competing truth claims is this:
- Healthy people don’t spend more than maybe 90 minutes a day watching or listening to the news.
- Healthy people avoid snap judgement about the truth of reported news, because, while it can be too late to be right, it’s always too early to be wrong.
- Healthy people accept that their ideological opponents are not automatically mentally ill, cannot always be wrong about everything, and are as likely to be acting in good faith as their ideological allies.
- Healthy people are aware that they can be deceived by flattery and can be induced to bigotry.
- Healthy people know there are no perfect solutions, only perfect problems.
Keep these things in mind as you try to negotiate this highly charged media environment. “All you can eat” was never meant to be a challenge.
14. And they have reason to be. The establishment doesn’t do a goldang thing for them.
15. The cost of healthcare is a problem. A big one. Obamacare didn’t solve it. That’s due to GOP sabotage, but still.
16. Exactly TWO people in this race–Trump and Sanders–understood that the system is rigged. Not the way you think.
17. It’s rigged to protect privilege. If you make it to the six-figure income class (and yes, that’s all it takes), you’re home free.
18. What @#$@ing sense does it make that health insurance least protects the people who needs it most?
19. What good is a $7500 deductible when you make $46k a year? NONE. Might as well be no insurance at all.
20. The people who voted for Trump weren’t voting to oppress the different. Okay, a few blithering idiots were, but …
21. … for the most part, this election was about disposable income. And class. But mostly disposable income.
22. Clinton couldn’t admit that health care costs (insurance and bills) were going up too fast. But everyone knew they were.
23. If you think Trump and our useless lump of a legislative branch will do anything about that, you’re nuts.
24. Two people told us the truth about how our ruling class let us down. One wanted to fix it. One never will.
25. Again, I didn’t vote for Trump, for the same reasons a lot of you didn’t. But be real careful about assuming that …
26. … the people who DID vote for him did so because they’re in favor of all the things about him you don’t like.
27. For every person who squawked about Clinton’s emails, there were 5 who just thought she’d find a way to take $ out of their pockets.
28. To paraphrase Roger Ebert (God rest his soul), elections aren’t about what they’re about, they’re about how they are about it.
29. This was a class-and-culture election. A “why did Firefly get canceled?” election. It just looked like it was about immigration.
30. And a bunch of other things. “Deplorables” is the new “47%.” It was over at that point.
31. This was the Big Bang Theory audience, the Chili’s patrons, and the Guy Fieri fans reminding you they outnumber you.
As we head towards the 2016 presidential election, the pace and tone of the think pieces regarding the awfulness of the upcoming decision and the crumminess of the campaign season is unrelenting and unwavering. I am willing to grant that we have never seen candidates as unlikable as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But this is hardly the first time we’ve faced a choice between two candidates nobody really liked. It’s not even the first time it’s happened in my life.
Rewind with me now to the heady year of 1988, twilight of the Reagan era and apotheosis of our hair-metal captivity. Eastern Europe was only beginning to wake up to the notion that freedom might not be so distant. Terrorism was caused mostly by Libyans acting under Moammar Last-Name-Unspellable’s direction. The stock market had crashed hard the previous fall and the end of what we’ve come to call “the go-go Eighties” — the yuppie era — was close at hand. A new America was coming, and nobody really knew what it was going to look like.
The bloom was falling off Reagan’s rose by ’88. The Iran-Contra scandal in particular was particularly damning to the president’s reputation, as it should be when you’re caught selling arms to one of your putative enemies in the name of financing revolution in another country that you’re hoping to turn into a client state. But it was clear at that point that the game had passed Reagan by and his staff was running the nation even more than they used to. This is in contrast to now, as Obama is becoming more popular as his term nears an end.
The Republicans expected George H.W. Bush to be their nominee. But he was scarcely the only person who ran. The field also included:
- Bob Dole
- Pat Robertson
- Jack Kemp
- Pete du Pont
- Alexander Haig
- Donald Rumsfeld (!)
- Paul Laxalt
- Harold Stassen (of course)
… and a couple people I’ve never heard of. Despite Bush’s presumptiveness, he actually finished third in the Iowa caucuses. (Bob Dole won and Pat Robertson had 30% more support than Bush, proving that my beloved home state should not be allowed to serve as America’s Sorting Hat.) Bush attacked Dole on voting for tax increases (something every responsible politician must do when the circumstances warrant) leading to Bush’s infamous, politically fatal “Read my lips: No new taxes” pledge.
Why were people not solidly behind Bush the Elder? It seems strange given that he’s become well-liked as an ex-president, sort of America’s goofy great-uncle, but at the time he represented a thread of Republicanism (Eastern traditional elitism, not overly concerned with traditional moral values but not opposed to them either) that many in the party wanted to move beyond. Robertson was a bad choice but represented the direction the party would move as the power of conservative Evangelicals began to grow.
So it was a muddled mess on the GOP side, but the Democrats weren’t doing much better. The epic face-grind they’d suffered in 1984 when Walter Mondale won only his home state of Minnesota and his other home state, the District of Columbia, had not yet been fully absorbed or understood. Nobody really knew what was coming next. So their slate included:
- Michael Dukakis
- Jesse Jackson
- Al Gore
- Dick Gephardt
- Paul Simon (no, not that Paul Simon, the other one)
- Gary Hart
- Joe Biden
- Bruce Babbitt
- James Traficant (!)
- David Duke (seriously)
- Lyndon LaRouche (of course)
… and, again, a couple people I’ve never heard of. Absent from the list was New York governor Mario Cuomo, who was at the height of his popularity. Gary Hart was the favorite. Unfortunately, he was a tomcat, and you couldn’t get away with that in 1988. Biden got flushed for plagiarizing a British politician’s speech (which was a speech worth stealing) in a foretaste of the feast of political dog vomit that was to come over the ensuing decades.
I’ve heard it said that when a committee can’t settle on a preferred choice, the winner will be the thing that nobody wants. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but the nomination went to Michael Dukakis, a decent, principled Massachusetts governor who could not have been a better embodiment of “Massachusetts Democratic governor.”He’d gone back on a promise not to raise taxes and had commuted the sentences of criminals who hadn’t been reformed. He’d also antagonized public employee unions by reducing the state bureaucracy, meaning that lots of people had it in for him. Still, he served three nonconsecutive terms as governor. He wasn’t incompent at governing. There just wasn’t a lot to get excited about, but there were things about him to not get excited about.
So at this point the matchup was set: a former political opponent of the sitting president turned close associate whose stances were malleable and generally closer to the center than the party’s, versus an opponent who represented everything the average American feared to be true about his party. The only way this could get closer to the situation in 2016 is if one of them was a horrible campaigner and the other ran a janky campaign full of dog whistles.
Which is exactly what happened.
Bush hammered Dukakis on Massachusetts’s high tax rates (which weren’t high enough to dissuade a number of high-tech startups, but I digress), his membership in the American Civil Liberties Union (this is where “card-carrying member” reentered the American political lexicon; the ACLU was not very popular in the late 1980s), and most notably his “furlough” program of letting prisoners leave prison early on occasion. That’s not the greatest idea, of course, but the way Bush attacked it was by calling attention to a prisoner named Willie Horton who committed a sexual assault in Maryland while on furlough from Massachusetts. I’ll give you three guesses as to Willie Horton’s skin color, and the first two don’t count.
To make the parallels even creepier, Bush’s running mate, Dan Quayle, was a political lightweight from a state the GOP couldn’t afford to swing, while Dukakis’s was a well-regarded senator, Lloyd Bentsen, with whom he probably should have switched places on the ticket.
But the main problem was that both candidates had the same fatal flaw: they were both wimps. Now, obviously, Bush the Elder is a well-decorated war hero. Nobody doubted his courage under fire, but in most other areas of public life he was notably wishy-washy. Any merely competent opponent should have been able to take advantage of this. Dukakis, unfortunately, was an even bigger wimp. He famously froze up when asked if his rehabilitation-oriented stance towards criminal justice would change if someone had attacked his wife. (The correct answer for him would have been something like “If I abandoned my principles the minute something bad happened to me, I’d be just like my opponent,” but again, I digress.)
Nobody bought George H.W. Bush as an apex predator, but Dukakis’s response was as tone-deaf as his entire campaign: a risible photo-op behind the controls of a tank. Dukakis had actually served in the Army as a radio operator in postwar Korea. This wasn’t the worst example of inflated military experience in the 1988 campaign; Pat Robertson turned his time as a Marine booze-fetcher into combat experience.
Did I mention that Bush’s speeches were almost comically incoherent? Or that the Yalie Bush attacked Dukakis’s Harvard background as being “elitist?”
Obviously it’s not a perfect match between 1988 and 2016. Firstly, the parties are flipped; secondly, Michael Dukakis has actually held elective office; thirdly, Trump is running Bush’s aggressive campaign while Clinton is running a slightly less stultifying version of Dukakis’s. And neither Clinton not Trump is a wimp. But they’re both liars, albeit of a different sort. Clinton is a dissembler; she spins and evades and tries to run out the clock. Trump, on the other hand, is a prevaricator; he says stuff he has to know just isn’t true. Small matter. A parallel doesn’t have to line up exactly. But know what happened in 1988: Bush won a giant electoral landslide and took the popular vote by 10 points. On his watch, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union came undone, and the US won a decisive victory in the first Gulf War. He was the last US president to be voted out of office, because nobody really wanted him in the first place. He was just marginally closer to acceptability than his original opponent was.
I’m not saying such a fate awaits next week’s winner. I’m not saying it doesn’t.
Late in 1987, Tom Wolfe published his greatest novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. In it, the life of a rich New Yorker in particular and all of New York in general is revealed to be impossibly fragile when an unfortunate accident sets off a feeding frenzy among political opportunists and media vultures. Nobody wins in the end but it’s apparent that the high competitiveness of the political and media environment made things much worse than they should have been.
Mr. Wolfe, I know you’re secretly writing the story of 2016. It has your fingerprints all over it. Please tell me this one ends with something good happening, even if I don’t know what that “something good” is.
“We did everything we were supposed to. Why didn’t it work?” So said the young couple carving their first Thanksgiving turkey together, the first turkey either of them had ever cooked, the one their guests were waiting for. But even though it looked golden brown and delicious outside, inside it was so raw they couldn’t be quite certain it was actually dead. Now they didn’t know what to do; are there even any pizza places open at noon on Thanksgiving Day?
“I did everything I was supposed to. Why didn’t it work?” So said the young father just past midnight on Christmas Eve as he struggled to assemble his child’s most wanted Christmas present, now nearly all put together except for a small collection of unused parts. He’d love to know where they go but the instructions appear to have been translated through three or four languages before they made it to English. Now it’s late and he’s sleepy, but somebody really wants this, so out of love he keeps going.
“I did everything I was supposed to. Why didn’t it work?” So said the college senior just after opening a thin envelope from the admissions office at yet another medical school, the last one she hadn’t heard from yet, and the news wasn’t good. “Thank you for applying. We’re sorry, but we cannot offer you a place in our class at this time …” Now what? There is no plan B. Does her dream of being a doctor die just like this? Where does she go from here?
“We did everything we were supposed to. Why didn’t it work?” So said the middle-aged couple not long after arriving in a far-off city to visit their daughter, not yet a year out of college. They were impressed by her ability to find a job and a place and a roommate and her way and everything just seemed to be coming together so nicely for her … but it seemed like she and her (female) roommate weren’t just roommates. And this was a possibility they’d never considered. Didn’t their church teach those kids anything?
“I did everything I was supposed to. Why didn’t it work?” So said the young health-and-fitness enthusiast, the one who avoids processed foods, saturated fats, salt and sugar, the one who’s out there running, lifting weights, swimming, sticking a 50.1 decal on the back window of his vehicle, just about the 26.2 and the 13.1. But the doctor just called and the biopsy was positive. He thought all this attention to his health was supposed to keep him healthy.
“I did everything I was supposed to. Why didn’t it work?” So said the single mom in the inner city when she came to realize that, while she could have her 13-year-old stay home from school to take care of her sick 6-year-old, it couldn’t work in the other direction, so she was going to have to call in to work again. And her boss was already growing impatient. So she was probably going to lose this job too. There’s no one to ask. No one in this building dares talk to their neighbors, and who can blame them? And she was never going to stay off welfare. And they were never going to get out of the projects. And why does she even keep trying? She might as well resign herself to her fate. She’s poor, she’s a single mom, she’s supposed to be on welfare. And it’s so tiring, the feeling of unworthiness, but she just can’t make it on her own; doesn’t anybody understand that? Nope. All she ever hears about is choices, like she can unmake hers now.
“I did everything I was supposed to. Why didn’t it work?” So said that single mom’s 13-year-old son as he watched his mama trying not to cry and almost succeeding. It wasn’t his fault he started throwing up — it wasn’t anybody’s fault. But Mama was going to get treated exactly like she’d done it on purpose. “Act respectable and you’ll be respected.” That’s what she always told him. But there was no one more respectable than Mama. And she gets no respect. Her boss doesn’t respect her. He just uses her. He agrees she needs a break and he thinks someone else should really give her one. His father doesn’t respect her. He tries to respect her but he’s 13 and trying to find his own way and she’s all there is to rebel against. Plus he’s started to notice things. He gets followed around in stores. The police slow down when he and his friends are out walking on the street. And he wonders what the point of being good is when he gets treated exactly like he isn’t. Nobody sees him as a person. Just a skin color and a gender. And that’s never going to change. No matter what choices he makes. You can’t break the cycle when the cycle is trying to break you.
“I did everything I was supposed to. Why didn’t it work?” So said the man in his late fifties as he packed up his belongings in his workplace — now his former workplace, as of a few minutes ago — with a security guard looking over his shoulder, telling him to hurry up. He walks out into the sunlight, knowing that he’ll out of work for a few months, then he’ll be working retail for $9 an hour, since no one is going to hire a man his age for anything else. He tells himself he just lost his good job — 35 years of his life, flushed down the drain — because the government told his company they had to give his job to a woman, or a minority, or preferably a woman who is also a minority. It’s easier than facing the truth that he’s just too expensive and difficult to control for a company trying to compete.
“I did everything I was supposed to. Why didn’t it work?” So said the father of the refugee family as they struggle, fruitlessly, for a new place to call home, just for a little while, but it won’t come because everyone is afraid they’re just trying to perpetrate the same sort of brutal, stupid violence they’re trying to get away from. Meanwhile “they” are after him saying “See? They’ll never accept you. They don’t want you. They don’t want people like us. We tried to tell you. Come and join the fight. We can win it! The Prophet says so.” He doesn’t want to but the choice is joining them and all the horror it means, or watching his kids sleep on the street forever?
“I did everything I was supposed to. Why didn’t it work?” We all have to answer that question eventually, and how we answer that question says a lot about our character.
“I did everything I was supposed to. Why didn’t it work?” So said God, through the prophet Isaiah, pondering how the people of Israel could turn so quickly after being delivered from captivity in Egypt, given a promised land, and seeing it almost magically cleared out right before their eyes. But did they have a thought for the One who did all this for them? Not at all, or at the very least, they only paid lip service. There was no relationship, just a sick, depressing sense of duty that accompanied all their trips to the temple. Well, that was enough. Time to tear their playhouse down and show them who’s boss.
“I did everything I was supposed to,” said Jesus, and he died.
It was recorded in one Gospel as “It is finished” and in another as simply “a loud sigh” but what it meant was “I did everything I was supposed to.” And this time it worked. He wasn’t delivering the people a trouble-free life but he was solving the biggest problem they’d ever have. Never more could they or would they wonder if God really cared about them. Never more would they have the luxury of going through life thinking they were doomed no matter what. Never more could anyone lord their religiosity over them, treating them as undeserving, because who could deserve this kind of sacrifice? If the people refused to treat one another as equals, well, let them figure out how they deserve this but their neighbor certainly doesn’t.
“I did everything I was supposed to, Jesus. Why didn’t it work?”
And the answer comes: “Because you did it. Let me take it from here.”
He takes our failures, our disasters, the smoldering wreckage of our attempts to be good, decent, respectable people, and he makes something beautiful out of them. But he can’t do it until we let go. Until we accept how the cards fell in our life, turn that jumbled mess of aces and eights over to him, and watch as he reassembles it into a winning hand.
1. Clemson. I have no idea if they’re truly the best team in the country. Neither do you. And neither do you know they’re not. And neither do I. They’ve just been getting it done, that’s all.
2. Alabama. Yes, they lost to Ole Diddly-Dang-Dum-Doodley Miss Y’all, and that loss looks worse now that the Rebs have lost to Arkansas (which isn’t even supposed to be any good) and Memphis (which previously beat Ole Miss) lost to Navy. I still wouldn’t want to play the Crimson Tide right now. Would you? At some point you have to look a little less at resume and a little more at trajectory. Bama’s trajectory? Straight freakin’ up.
3. Ohio State. I have seen a team go from having an embarrassment of riches at quarterback one season to struggling without its starter the next. I’ve never seen that happen when the three QBs who were on the roster last year are still on this year’s roster. If not for a ferocious defense, tOSU would have lost a game by now. (Just don’t ask me which.)
4. Oklahoma State. See ‘trajectory’ under No. 2, above.
5. Baylor. Struggled against K-State in Manhattan on the same weekend TCU lost and Okie State shone. That lets me pretend that I moved them down for a reason other than that I don’t like Art Briles very much. Yes, Baylor was using its second-string quarterback. K-State was using its third. Thanks for playing.
6. Iowa. The Hawkeyes beat Indiana by one more point than Ohio State did. I don’t want to be skeptical about this team but no matter how much my heart says “they really are pretty good” my brain reminds me they haven’t killed a giant yet, and every great team has to.
7. Notre Dame. Pitt’s very good, so we have to give proper credit to Brian Kelly’s team for a quality win.
8. Stanford. Recovering nicely from the Northwestern loss, which is good, since Northwestern is starting to play like that victory wasn’t actually a fluke for them.
9. Florida. I’m kind of guessing at this point. I think Florida is to the 2015 SEC what Purdue was to the 2003 Big Ten: the team that wins a couple it shouldn’t have but can’t quite break the rock.
10. LSU. I still can’t make up my mind whether Les Miles is a good coach or not. But if he had it in him to coach a truly elite offense, he’d have done it by now.
As we all wait for our children to return with a bag full of goodies this afternoon/evening, here’s a quick round up of the stuff that’s more trick than treat.
- Milk Duds. There has never been a more aptly named candy.
- Smarties. Beloved by one of my three kids and tolerated by the other two, these pills of pastel-colored drywall are good for one thing only: Close your eyes, have someone put one in your mouth, and see if you can guess what color it is. (Spoiler alert: You can’t.)
- Peanut Butter Kisses. These haven’t actually been manufactured since 1973. We’ve almost burned through all the old stock, after which these will disappear forever.
- Chocolate eyeballs. But big ups to whoever finally figured out something to do with crayon stubs: Melt them down, shape them in to balls, wrap them in eyeball-print foil, and pass them off as chocolate!
- Tootsie Rolls. It’s not that they’re so bad, though you never hear anyone say “I could really go for a Tootsie Roll.” It’s that they just seem to appear out of nowhere, like they hide in the bushes by people’s front doors and leap into treat bags when your kids are distracted. Your kids won’t remember being given Tootsie Rolls, but they’ll bring home at least three dozen.
- Three Musketeers. I like these fine, but these have always been the most disappointing candy bar to get on Halloween. All the more so now because somebody once decided these were “healthy” since they have slightly less fat than the average candy bar.
- Krabby Patties. Young kids will be thrilled to get these since they’re from SpongeBob. Then they take one bite, spit the rest into the trash, and go find something else to do.
- Raisinettes. Another candy I like just fine that nobody really wants to find in a treat bag. Like Three Musketeers, they suffer now from a “healthy” image, since technically raisins are fruit.
- Unidentifiable Petrified Gummi Masses. You know what I’m talking about, and you don’t know what they are either. Nor do you know when they were manufactured. Or if they were manufactured. Do clods of gummi just drop from the sky? Spring up from the ground after rainstorms? The world may never know.
- Chick-O-Sticks. These are actually delicious, but they don’t look like they’re going to be. Also, your kid will think they’re actually chicken and thus won’t touch them. Not only that but they’re peanut butter and somewhat loosely wrapped so they have the potential to ruin a whole bag of treats for the allergic. If this is your thing, give out Zagnuts instead.
- Ohio State. It’s like this: Unless a defending national champion loses a metric boatload of key contributors (which tOSU didn’t) then I think they get the benefit of the doubt until they lose a game. The Buckeyes have not dazzled at any point this season but in my frame of reference they don’t have to. But good luck convincing me Urban Meyer didn’t make some sort of a deal with Cardale Jones to keep Jones in Columbus. J.T. Barrett is so obviously better for this team.
- Clemson. Because they can score points and play defense too. Granted, Miami’s not wonderful, but still, 58-0!
- Baylor. Because sooner or later they’re going to go up against a team they can’t just outscore. It won’t happen until the playoffs, though. And I am curious what effect losing Seth Russell will have. Also, even in the rain, great teams don’t give up 27 points to Iowa State.
- LSU. I can never decide if Les Miles is a genius or not. I’m still leaning towards “not,” though I admit he could just be the brilliant weirdo college football always needs. They get a bye week to prepare for Alabama, who also gets a bye week to prepare for them.
- TCU. They’re essentially Baylor, but a Baylor that scores ten fewer points per game. It’s a long time until Black Friday when the Bears and Horned Frogs meet. One of those teams will not be undefeated when they meet. Hey, they might both lose one. But I’d take Baylor as slightly more likely to win out until then.
- Alabama. This is not Nick Saban’s best Bama team and it shows but the Tide are clearly the best one-loss team in the country. People unimpressed by Saturday’s narrow victory over Tennessee should bear in mind that this is the best Tennessee team in years–even though it still isn’t very good.
- Michigan State. Sparty should have lost to Michigan. There, I said it. If they had, they wouldn’t be on this list. As it stands, the Spartans are apple crisp: nobody’s first choice of a great team, but not a choice you’d ever regret either.
- Notre Dame. I’m surprised to see them here too. But their only loss is to Clemson, a team that I think is powerfully good. The Irish lack a dazzling win but with three currently-ranked teams left on the schedule, they’ll have a chance to move up. After all, most of the teams above them play at least one other team in my top seven.
- Stanford. At some point you have to recognize the Northwestern loss as the opening weekend snakebite it was. The Cats are not great but the Cardinal were just flat and unprepared in that game. Hold it against Stanford if you must, but as the season goes on, that becomes more like using a friend’s unflattering high school nickname when you’re both pushing 40 and gainfully employed.
- Iowa. So there are three teams on this list with a common opponent. All three teams are undefeated. Versus this common opponent, two teams scored ten points or more below their season average; the third scored pretty much on its season average. That third team also allowed fewer points than the other two and is indeed the only team to hold that common opponent under 21 points all year. The common opponent is Iowa State. The first two teams are Baylor and TCU. The third team is Iowa. In case you were wondering if the Hawkeyes actually belong on this list, they do.
(This is my ballot for this week’s Campus Pressbox Mock College Football Playoff poll.)