The boiled frog problem


For those of you whose work environment/Amish fundamentalism prevents you from watching a YouTube video all the way through, that’s Glenn Beck boiling a frog alive on national television. He’s attempting to illustrate “the old saying,” that if you throw a frog into boiling water he’ll jump right out, whereas if you start the frog in lukewarm water and gradually heat it to boiling, “the frog won’t realize what’s happening and die.” Nietzschean aphorist Glenn Beck is not. Huck Finn-ean frog catcher he ain’t, either, and the several seconds he spends trying to get hold of one of the frogs—which turn out to be alarmingly small and cute—give the viewer a chance to realize that this is something he actually intends to do. “Barack Obama has galvanized this country,” Beck says, citing the number, size and urgency of the bills the President has ostensibly proposed. “He’s forced us to wake up and think.” I wouldn’t go that far, but okay. Unlike John McCain, who’s been slowly heated, the American people have been thrown into our present political situation all at once. “And what happens when you throw ’em in?” Beck demands. Then he throws his frog into his kettle of boiling water, from which it completely fails to jump out, possibly because its skin and outer layers of musculature have been flash-cooked and its eyeballs have burst. Beat. “Okay, forget the frog,” Beck says. Then he tells us to forget about both Democrats and Republicans, too, because they are fake. And…scene.

The clip raises a lot of questions, not the least of which is, “What the fudge? I mean, seriously?” Presumably, Glenn Beck’s television show is not produced by Glenn Beck setting up a Handicam on a tripod and just going for it; he must have technicians and line producers and other responsible adults around him who would insist that he do a test run before throwing a breathing animal into boiling water on live TV. Also, even if frogs did leap from boiling water without injury 100% of the time, it seems unlikely that the various codes governing the use of animals in film and television would ever allow such a stunt. “They can’t be in boiling water, even for, like, a second,” is probably a rule. Then, of course, there is Beck’s thoroughly unnatural response to the failure of his trick, which reintroduces the perennial problem of interpreting his voice and facial expressions. Beck appears to be a man who manufactures emotions so regularly that he no longer checks first to see if he’s actually experiencing them, like a person whose fake laugh gradually becomes his response to things he thinks are genuinely funny. Beck looks remarkably unfazed that he has just done something on television that got Ozzy Osbourne banned from Des Moines, but then again he’s also a man who can make himself cry by talking about income tax structures.

Let us assume that the whole thing was faked. That’s the contention of Jason Linkins over at Huffington Post, who says that Beck concluded his list of fake things with “And forget about the frog, because it was fake.” That part doesn’t appear in the video I saw, or in the one Linkins includes with his HuffPo report, but it is in this segment Beck did explaining that he used a rubber frog. Watching third-party-posted and -edited clips of the same episode of the Glenn Beck show on the internet until I have conclusive video evidence that Fox News did not broadcast the boiling of a live animal is not something I want to do on Monday morning, so I’m going to assume that Beck is not engaging in an elaborate cover-up of what he did the day before but is instead, you know, telling the truth. Which raises two questions:

1) What the hell point was Glenn Beck trying to illustrate, exactly? and

2) Why did HuffPo and the Christian Science Monitor and the LA Times all report a story that could be easily refuted by watching two minutes of video?

The answer to (1) is unclear, as usual. It seems likely that Beck heard the old saw about how best to boil frogs and it struck him as a particularly apt metaphor, at which point he told his staff about it and someone with sense said, “That isn’t true.” (N.B.: It’s not.) Beck was sufficiently enamored with the parallel that he did it anyway, but sufficiently aware of the truth (or laboring under a sufficiently low production budget that he couldn’t have some sort of CGI frog jump out of the pot and then sing “The Sons of Liberty” while he watched in wide-eyed wonder) that he gave it the frog-dies-in-boiling-water ending, which represents, um, complacency or something. No political commentator ever let the truth get in the way of a good metaphor, and the superheated steam of socialism will kill us all.

That also seems to be the principle at work in (2).* Beck boiling a frog on live television was a story too good to pass up, even if the whole thing was about as believable as a Cub Scout magic show. When the honorable venerable venereal Ben Fowlkes first told me about it, I immediately composed a long analysis of how Beck’s willingness to demonstrate the Boiled Frog Principle on live TV without testing it first reflected his unquestioning acceptance of folk wisdom, and his general preference for the rhetorically interesting over the true. Irony of ironies, that assessment turned out to be more interesting than true, too. It took me approximately 20 minutes of research to figure that out. Either Linkin, et al are taking less time than that to write current events pieces with far greater readership than mine, or they’re remaining willfully ignorant in order to preserve a good story.

That’s not what they should be doing. The electro-blogi-mediasphere is there so we can talk about real life, or at least what we can discern about it. If real life doesn’t conform to our fascinating analyses, that’s indicative of a flaw in our thinking; we should think some other way, not introduce ambiguity into our assessments of events until our theories seem reasonable again. The commentariat has a Boiled Frog Problem. Like the old myth about how a frog will jump out of etc. etc., their ideas are poetic and satisfying but not, you know, true. And I submit to you that a wrong idea is not mitigated by its being useful to make a point. If anything, that makes it more wrong.

We have blogs and opinion columns and TV shows about politics for a reason, and it’s not just to give us something to do. The whole point of informed debate is that it pursues the truth. Two smart people argue not to determine which one of them is right but to arrive at what is right. Once we start spreading the truth rather than discerning it, we’re lost. Ironically, the prime symptom of that is feeling like we know exactly where we are.

* The truth-getting-in-the-way-of-a-metaphor part, not the superheated-steam-kills-us part. I cannot stress enough, though, that both are equally valid principles for navigating the modern world.

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  1. “…remaining willfully ignorant in order to preserve a good story” is the essence of tribalism. Tribalism is the unoriginal rediscovery of Karl Rove and his legacy to 21st century American politics. It’s the meat and potatoes of the Balkans, the Middle East, Upper Manhattan, north Georgia, racism, Tea Parties, Town Meetings, most politicians …the mind reels.

    Sarah Palin gives us Death Panels and Chuck Grassley goes along because “his constituents are worried about it”.

    It leads to Amin Malouf’s “Identites Meurtrieres” (no accents, iffy spelling) when it’s real and Glenn Beck boiling amphibians when it’s manufactured for a buck. Fake frog. Fake tears. Real sad results.

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