THE EMPATHY FILES: Perfect forgiveness, plus human resilience!

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 17, 2014

Part 2—Kristof’s account feels good:
In his latest New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof told a morally-uplifting story.

In one way, it’s a perfect story of perfect forgiveness. It’s also a story of human resilience. For part 1 in this series, click here.

Kristof’s story, which is familiar, tugged at the heartstrings. Judging from reactions in comments, it made many liberal heartstrings soar.

The story, which seems to be largely accurate, basically went like this:

Back in 1990, a young woman named Debbie Baigrie was attacked in the streets of Tampa by several teenagers one night.

One attacker, Ian Manuel, was only 13 years old. Despite his tender years, he had already been arrested sixteen times.

As part of a gang initiation, Manuel shot Baigrie in the face. The injuries required “10 years of repeated, excruciating surgeries” to Baigrie’s face and mouth, according to Kristof’s account.

Manuel was soon arrested again; he admitted shooting Baigrie. Despite his age, he was sentenced to life in prison without hope of parole.

Here’s where the story gets heartwarming. When Manuel was 14 or 15, he placed a collect phone call to Baigrie from prison. Baigrie accepted the call. A correspondence ensued.

From there, Kristof tells a perfect story of perfect selfless forgiveness. Based on comments, many readers were deeply moved by this perfectly shaped moral tale:
KRISTOF (12/14/14): Thus began a correspondence that has lasted through the decades. who would write to a person that’s tried to take their life,” [Manuel] wrote in one letter. “You are about one in a million who would write to a person that’s tried to take their life,” [Manuel] wrote in one letter.

Over time, Baigrie became friendly with Manuel’s brother and mother.
Baigrie began to feel sympathetic because, as she says: “When you’re 13, you do stupid stuff.”

“I wish I was free,” he wrote in another. “To protect you from that evil world out there.”

Baigrie was also troubled by the racial dimensions of the case. “If he was a cute white boy at 13, with little dimples and blue eyes, there’s no way this would have happened,” she says.

Her husband and friends thought Baigrie was perhaps suffering from some bizarre form of Stockholm syndrome. “People were saying, ‘you’re an idiot,’ ” Baigrie recalls.

Yet she persevered and advocated for his early release. When the Supreme Court threw out life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who had not committed murder, she testified at his resentencing and urged mercy. It didn’t work: Manuel was sentenced to 65 years. He is now scheduled to be released in 2031.
“Thus began a correspondence that has lasted through the decades.” Or at least, so Kristof said.

This is a perfect story of perfect saintly forgiveness. Baigrie, who is one in a million, rejects the skeptical reactions of her husband and her friends.

She becomes friendly with Manuel’s mother and brother. This being a column by the new-and-improved, racially-conscious Kristof, she’s inevitably troubled by what she takes to be the racial discrimination involved in Manuel’s original sentence.

Baigrie becomes the advocate for her assailant’s early release. Even today, twenty-four years later, she is working on Manuel’s behalf.

This story is built on an unusual base—the sentencing of someone who is just 13 to life with without hope of parole in an adult prison. As Kristof continues, the story becomes even more disturbing, then becomes a story of human resilience:
KRISTOF (continuing directly): Manuel, now 37, did not adjust well to prison, and his prison disciplinary record covers four pages of single-spaced entries. He was placed in solitary confinement at age 15 and remained there almost continually until he was 33. For a time, he cut himself to relieve the numbness. He repeatedly attempted suicide.

Returned to the general prison population, Manuel did better. He earned his G.E.D. with exceptional marks, including many perfect scores. He drafts poems and wrote an autobiographical essay, which Baigrie posted on her Facebook page. His mother, father and brother are now all dead; the only “family” he has left is Baigrie, who sometimes regards him as a wayward foster son.
The story becomes more horrible here. Manuel isn’t just sentenced to life without hope of parole. He then endures roughly 18 years of solitary confinement. Based on other journalistic accounts, Kristof underplays the psychological horrors of this type of confinement.

In obvious ways, this is a terrible story—but this is where the perfect story of human resilience starts. Kristof pleases us with his story of Manuel’s personal improvement, which is captured by Manuel’s “perfect scores” and those “exceptional marks.”

Can we talk? Everyone has seen this movie a hundred times. Unfortunately, it’s a Hollywood movie. In many ways, it’s brainless and simple-minded.

We don’t mean that people who are 13 years old should be sent to adult prisons. We don’t mean that they should be sentenced to life without hope of parole.

We don’t mean that someone who is 15 should spend the next 18 years of his life in solitary confinement. We agree with Baigrie’s statement about the stupidity of 13-year-olds.

(Depending on where the 13-year-old lives, the stupidity to which he finds himself drawn may even involve use of guns.)

We don’t mean that Baigrie was wrong to advocate for her assailant. We aren’t judging Baigrie here. We’re judging Kristof’s journalism, which we think is very poor.

What was “wrong” with Kristof’s journalism on this heartwarming occasion? So many things that we won’t be able to examine them today.

For today, we’ll only say this. In our view, Kristof’s column was simple-minded in many ways, some of which we haven’t even mentioned.

This column was also perfectly built to divide the nation’s tribes—to drive a wedge between groups of people who bring different instinctive reactions to stories of this type. In our view, it’s easy to fashion a column like this—and it tends to make it harder for the nation’s warring tribes to come together to fashion improvements in the society’s practices.

What makes this column so thoroughly simple-minded? Tomorrow, we’ll look at the way Kristof takes us back to the 1970s—back to a set of simplistic, simple-minded bromides which helped create a conservative era the last time they were bruited about by lazy thinkers from within our own liberal tribe.

Kristof is a former Rhodes Scholar from Harvard. In our view, it’s very hard to discern these facts from his lazy, unhelpful work.

Tomorrow: “It’s our fault more than his,” Kristof unhelpfully said


Health costs: The New York Times does it again!

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 16, 2014

Arranges to hide the big picture:
On the front page of today’s New York Times, the paper has done it again.

Elisabeth Rosenthal writes her latest lengthy report concerning the outlandish costs of American health care. In the process, she hides the big picture—“buries the lede”—in familiar, remarkable fashion.

In today’s report, Rosenthal focuses on the wildly varying cost of a certain medical procedure. Headline included, this is the way she starts:
ROSENTHAL (12/16/14): The Odd Math of Medical Tests: One Scan, Two Prices, Both High

Len Charlap, a retired math professor, has had two outpatient echocardiograms in the past three years that scanned the valves of his heart.
The first, performed by a technician at a community hospital near his home here in central New Jersey, lasted less than 30 minutes. The next, at a premier academic medical center in Boston, took three times as long and involved a cardiologist.

And yet, when he saw the charges, the numbers seemed backward: The community hospital had charged about $5,500, while the Harvard teaching hospital had billed $1,400 for the much more elaborate test. “Why would that be?” Mr. Charlap asked. “It really bothered me.”
The more elaborate echocardiogram was billed at $1400. Earlier, at a community hospital, the patient had been charged four times as much for the same procedure.

On its face, that’s a remarkable difference. Rosenthal devotes 2357 words to questions about the way this procedure gets billed.

Along the way, very much in passing, she drops a genuine bombshell. This tiny paragraph passes so fast that a reader might not grasp its truly remarkable content:
ROSENTHAL: In other countries, regulators set what are deemed fair charges, which include built-in profit. In Belgium, the allowable charge for an echocardiogram is $80, and in Germany, it is $115. In Japan, the price ranges from $50 for an older version to $88 for the newest, Dr. Ikegami said.
Say what? Elsewhere in the developed world, this procedure costs $115 or less, Rosenthal mentions in passing. Those prices include a built-in profit!

In Belgium, the procedure costs $80. That is stunning fact. Rosenthal includes that fact, but it passes by so quickly, with so little hype, that readers may barely notice. Much later, in paragraph 27 (of 42), Rosenthal briefly expands this startling international comparison:
ROSENTHAL: Claims data shows that Japanese patients received 6.6 million echocardiograms last year, about five times the rate per capita in Britain.

Despite Japan's fondness for testing, its health spending is about $4,000 a year a person, or 9.6 percent of gross domestic product. By contrast, the United States spends more than $9,000 per person annually, more than 17 percent of G.D.P., although some studies indicate that health care spending is leveling off.

The difference is in part because Japan decides the value of each test and medicine, sets a price and demands that it decrease over time.
It isn’t just that Americans may pay vastly more for that one procedure. In paragraph 27 of a lengthy report, readers are finally told, very much in passing, that Americans spend vastly more per person for their overall health care than people in Japan.

Good grief! Americans spend $9000 per person per year on health care; the Japanese spend only $4000. This is a much larger, much more important story than the narrow tales about health care spending Rosenthal has presented in the past two years.

Rosenthal has done a series of front-page reports about the costs of American health care. Persistently, she focuses on the cost of some particular procedure.

In the process, she completely ignores the overall cost of our health care. Or she cites this matter in passing, in paragraph 27.

As we’ve noted for years, Americans are massively looted in the costs of health care. This looting affects liberals and conservatives alike. Correctly understood and explained, it could provide the basis for political agreement across our current tribal lines.

Americans spent vastly more per person on health care than people in any other nation. But so what? You never see that remarkable fact explained in the New York Times. You never see it discussed on MSNBC.

In these ways, the American middle class gets looted—and the health industries thrive. This morning's front-page report is just the latest example of the way the “journalism” works.

Why does the Times report this topic this way? We can't tell you that. But liberal heroes on corporate TV are never going to ask.

THE EMPATHY FILES: Helping us care!

MONDAY, DECEMBER 15, 2014

Part 1—Kristof’s latest story:
Ma Joad, Tom Joad and Preacher Casey? These were fictional characters.

The events of their lives were described in The Grapes of Wrath, a prize-winning book which everyone knew was a novel.

Those events were meant to capture the experiences of a great many people. But no one thought the Joads’ experiences had happened to actual people bearing those names out in the actual world.

No one tried to find Rose of Sharon so they could help her with her baby. No one tried to find Tom Joad to give him a place to hide.

You can learn a lot about the world from a well-written novel. A novelist’s story can help you conceive the real events which take place in the world.

That said, a journalist shouldn’t invent a novel—a perfect story—then present that story as fact. That may be what Sabrina Rubin Erdely did with the story she presented in this month’s Rolling Stone.

To a lesser extent, it may be what Nicholas Kristof did in yesterday’s New York Times.

Erdely told a perfect story about heinous misbehavior on a college campus. Kristof told a perfect story about a saint-like victim of s shooting who knows what it is to forgive.

Kristof’s story starts in 1990. In Florida, a 13-year-old boy with sixteen prior arrests shoots a woman in the face as part of a gang initiation.

The woman in question is horribly wounded; her youthful assailant is soon apprehended. Despite his youth, a judge sentences him to life without hope of parole.

In this passage shown below, Kristof describes the saint-like act of forgiveness which drives his perfect story. The youthful shooter was and is named Ian Manuel. Debbie Baigrie is the person he horribly wounded:
KRISTOF (12/14/14): Manuel found himself the youngest, tiniest person in a men’s prison—by his account, abused and fearful. One day as his second Christmas behind bars approached, he placed a collect phone call to Baigrie.

Baigrie debated whether to accept the charges. She said her dentist had wept when he had seen her jaw, for the bullet had torn out five teeth and much of her gum. She faced 10 years of repeated, excruciating surgeries, requiring tissue from her palate to rebuild her gum.

Still, she was curious, so she accepted the charges. Manuel said he wanted to apologize for the shooting. Awkwardly, he wished her and her family a Merry Christmas.

“Ian,” she asked bluntly, “why did you shoot me?”

“It was a mistake,” he answered timidly.

Later he sent her a card showing a hand reaching through prison bars to offer a red rose. Baigrie didn’t know whether to be moved or revolted. “I was in such pain,” Baigrie remembers. “I couldn’t eat. I was angry. But I’d go back and forth. He was just a kid.”

Thus began a correspondence that has lasted through the decades. “You are about one in a million who would write to a person that’s tried to take their life,” he wrote in one letter.

“I wish I was free,” he wrote in another. “To protect you from that evil world out there.”
“Thus began a correspondence that has lasted through the decades,” Kristof writes. A bit later, he describes Baigrie advocating for Manuel’s release from prison:
KRISTOF: Her husband and friends thought Baigrie was perhaps suffering from some bizarre form of Stockholm syndrome. “People were saying, ‘you’re an idiot,’” Baigrie recalls.

Yet she persevered and advocated for his early release. When the Supreme Court threw out life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who had not committed murder, she testified at his resentencing and urged mercy. It didn’t work: Manuel was sentenced to 65 years. He is now scheduled to be released in 2031.
Kristof uses his story to illustrate a wide array of points. In comments, many liberals praised Baigrie for her act of forgiveness, thanked Kristof for telling her story.

One commenter said something different. She said she had clicked on the links Kristof provided in his column. When she did, she found a somewhat different story being told about this case in Florida newspapers.

Kristof offers a range of ideas in this column. Some are straight from the 1970s, which doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. Some of his (apparent) ideas are very poorly explained, quite lazily argued for.

How should society treat Ian Manuel now that he's in his mid-30s? More generally, how should society deal with children like Manuel, who had been arrested a dozen times by the age of 13?

Those are important questions. They’re also hard to answer. We wish Kristof had spent a bit more time giving those answers, a bit less time tugging our heartstrings with his perfect story.

Rolling Stone told a perfect story about heinous misconduct on campus. As it turns out, the heinous events Rolling Stone described may not have occurred.

Kristof tells a perfect story about forgiveness. In its basic outlines, his story is certainly true, though he may have improved the facts a bit to make his tale more perfect.

Steinbeck told a great story too, but he told us it was a novel. In this, our brave new polarized age, many “journalists” no longer do that.

Final point:

Debbie Baigrie has shown a great deal of empathy for the person who shot her. Much of our broken politics turns on an important question:

Among all the people and groups in our sprawling society, how many people, how many groups, can you feel empathy for? Can you empathizes with some? With others, not so much?

Tomorrow: Clicking Kristof’s links