Al Franken

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Roger Ebert

Tea and empathy

The Tea Party and the Wall Street demonstrators share the same conviction: They are the victims of theft by powerful institutions. The Tea Party blames government taxation. The demonstrators blame corruption in the financial industry.

The concern about taxation is perplexing, since U.S. tax rates are at a historic low. Indeed, there seems little chance that we can ever begin to pay off the American deficit without raising taxes. Many millionaires, led by Warren Buffet, have volunteered to pay higher taxes. A belief persists, however, that the middle class bears an unfair tax burden. In repeating this charge the other day, Mitt Romney included himself in the middle class.

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"Oh yeah? Well, I criticize you back!"

If critics have become irrelevant, it has little to do with how many people say they pay attention to them or how many movies get press screened before they open. No, I submit it's because so many people don't even know what criticism is. They think it means "saying something bad." Listen to the way they reason argue with one another. Watch the talking heads on TV. Listen to the little kids on the playground, or the couple in the bar having a marital spat. News reporting or blog commenting. It's all the same. Critical thinking is not a value prized by our culture.

"I criticize something!"

"I disagree! So, I criticize you back! You are a criticizer!"

Never mind specifics, subtleties, reasons -- they're superfluous. All that matters is point-of-view, pro- something or anti- something else. A "debate" is merely a series of unrelated expressions of agreement or disagreement -- usually expressed as disparaging characterizations of the other person. Republicans say this, Democrats say that, nothing else exists outside of their opinions. In this climate, that quotation from Daniel Dennett in the upper right column is indecipherable. See Monty Python's "Argument Clinic" sketch, where argument is hopelessly confused with abuse and contradiction.

So, say whatever you want about "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" or President Obama or Michael Jackson or Bill Maher (to cite a few recent topics hereabouts). What matters is only whether the remarks are critical (in which case you will be characterized as a naysayer) or approving (in which case you will be characterized as praisegiver). In either case, what you actually said will be considered trivial by many, if it is considered (or noticed) at all.

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Politics, celebs and movie critics

"You should learn to keep your opinions OUT of your reviews!" Every critic I know has received at least one letter like that from an indignant reader. Of course, it's an absurd proposition; critics are paid to express their opinions, and the good ones (who exercise what is known across all disciplines as "critical thinking") are also able to cite examples and employ sound reasoning to build an argument, showing you how and why they reached their verdict.