Where Have You Gone, Roger Ebert?

roger-ebert-2006-self-portrait

It breaks my heart to write this article.  Roger Ebert has been a part of my love for cinema since I was eleven years old.  When I was in the hospital for two months at age 19, I devoured his entire book of movie reviews.  I even met him at the 2002 Conference on World Affairs when he dissected David Lynch's masterpiece Mulholland Drive (though I thought he needlessly threw in the towel regarding the film's meaning).   I don't need to expound on his contributions to film education and his championing of truly great movies.

Nevertheless, I don't know the man. I only know his words. Yet I have to wonder if the physical and mental trauma Roger has endured has taken a toll on his mind.  He always seemed apolitical to me.  He just wrote great movie reviews.  However, he started a political journal on his website in the past year.  It's full of the same clap-trap expected from those on the Left: false premises, poorly constructed arguments, and replies to comments which dodge legitimate challenges.

What really concerns me, though, is that it actually makes less sense than the normal clap-trap.  It's nonsense.   Suddenly, all the great analysis directed at thousands of films - obviously pouring forth from a great intellect - has vanished.  Is it because Mr. Ebert shuts his mind off when discussing politics?  Is it because the anger he must have concerning his condition is being projected onto the Right? After all, the journal started after all the physical damage had been done to his appearance.

Or has Roger Ebert actually lost his mind?

His bizarre screed from September 1 stems entirely from, "a Harris poll in which 57 percent of [GOP] party members believe he is a Muslim, 22% believe he "wants the terrorists to win," and 24% believe he is the Antichrist".

There's just one wee problem.  Mr. Ebert's outrage relies on results from a polling entity that is as ridiculously unscientific as is possible.  Harris polls are not random surveys across broad demographics.  Harris polls incentivize participation by awarding cash and gifts.   The particular pollcited by Mr. Ebert was rightly taken apart by ABC news polling director Gary Langer, who called the poll's problems "fundamental...and carry a heavy dose of...acquiescence bias".

I also found it distressing that Mr. Ebert railed against the financing of a great Right Wing Conspiracy, yet failed to note that Harris Interactive is itself a public company, in severe distress likely because of its own flawed data mining methods.  They make it very clear in their annual report just how unscientific their polling is (Page 12 of the 10-K filing from August 31):

"Our success is highly dependent on our ability to maintain sufficient capacity of our online panel... response rates vary with differing survey content, and the frequency with which panelists are willing to respond to survey invitations is variable...We are not always able to accommodate client requests to survey low-incidence, limited populations with specific demographic characteristics...our business will be adversely affected if we do not achieve sufficient response rates with our existing panelists or our panel narrows and we are unable to spend the funds necessary to recruit additional panelists".

Now, armed with this knowledge, doesn't Mr. Ebert's next paragraph reach uncomofortable heights of irony?

"These figures sadden me with the depth of thoughtlessness and credulity they imply. A democracy depends on an informed electorate to survive. An alarming number of Americans and a majority of Republicans are misinformed".

And I think we know why!

Okay, so thus far it can be chalked up to the usual debate style of the Left.  But here's what concerns me about his state of mind: In responding to one of his commenters, who also questioned his reliance on Harris' data, he said:

"The entry isn't about the accuracy of polls. It's about a belief widely shared by too many Americans.  Unless you're telling me Harris finds that Americans don't believe Obama is a Muslim, what difference does its precise accuracy make? That's off-topic."

This strikes me as weird because his entire article is based on polling data!  He says it right up front!

"We already know the numbers. Pew finds that 18% of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim. A new Newsweek poll, taken after the controversy over the New York mosque, places that figure at 24%"

Nor did Mr. Ebert actually examine the breakdown of the Pew Poll.  In it, 10% of Democrats believe Obama is a Muslim.  Somehow 10% is not an alarming number, but 31% is.  I'd think, given the severity of the religious issue Mr. Ebert has raised, that even 1% would be alarming.  But 10% isn't.   Interestingly, he also fails to mention that 43% said they don't even know what President Obama's religion is.

Alas, there's plenty more unintended irony to be found.

"This many Americans did not arrive at such conclusions on their own. They were persuaded by a relentless process of insinuation, strategic silence and cynical misinformation".

Mr. Ebert seems to only reserve his scorn for  Republicans and "misinformed Americans" who apparently are "misinformed" because they listen to right wing radio talk show hosts. It's the typical elitist statement - how Liberals cannot fathom that people can actually think and act for themselves.  That maybe - just maybe - people take the time to research what's actually behind things like, you know, polling results before making up their own minds?

Mr. Ebert's conclusion - insisting that, "prominent Republicans reiterate that they do not believe Obama is a Muslim" - is more than just ridiculous from a political perspective (I'm sure we can expect prominent Democrats who voted for the Iraq War to reiterate their support of it).   It's also based on a flawed premise.

Furthermore, Mr. Ebert does not seem to believe that Mr. Obama is capable of defending himself.   And why should it matter?  Even if the Harris poll were accurate, it's Republicans that allegedly hold these beliefs.  Is Mr. Ebert afraid these beliefs will somehow spread to Democrats?   Since he believes people cannot think for themselves, perhaps that is the case.  After all, 10% have already been "misinformed".

I really wish Mr. Ebert would just stop writing about politics.  His errors are so fundamental.  To say, "our political immune system has only one antibody, and that is the truth" denies an actual fundamental truth itself: politics has nothing to do with the truth. Another of my fallen heroes, Chris Matthews, said it all in one of his terrific books:  "Politics is about survival."

The only truth I know is that Mr. Ebert's line of thinking is just so uncharacteristic of the man I know that loves cinema and write so articulately about it.  I don't care what his political beliefs are, ultimately.  I care about his mental faculties, and how he is undermining his own legacy as one of cinema's great champions.

I really wish he would return to the balcony.

Crossposted at Big Hollywood