Horoscope-ed page

by John Quiggin on February 3, 2004

The ‘Gray Lady’ nickname of the NYT implies the kind of conservatism and caution that’s appropriate to a journal of record. But in what is, as far as I know, a newspaper first, today’s NYT brings the astrology column onto the Op-Ed page, providing horoscopes for the Democratic Presidential hopefuls.

I’m bemused by this. If the implied view is that astrology is so patently silly that no-one would take it seriously, isn’t this rather a juvenile trick to play on Erin Sullivan, noted as the author of Saturn in Transit and the forthcoming Astrology and Psychology of Midlife and Aging., who appears to have contributed her column in all seriousness? If the implied view is anything other than that astrology is too silly to be taken seriously, isn’t this insulting to every reader of the NYT who has even a high school level of scientific literacy? No doubt there is some ironic postmodern stance that is appropriate here, but I can’t quite locate it.

Update The Letters page ran three letters on this, one tongue-in-cheek supportive, one critical and one, from an astrologer, concluding

I hope that Ms. Sullivan’s intelligent presentation of astrology is just the first for The Times. Perhaps we now know what we’ve suspected all along: the Gray Lady always reads her horoscope like everyone else.

I think we have to conclude that the NYT is “having two bob each way”* on this one.

* This Australian idiom refers to a horesracing bet that pays off for either a win or a place.

{ 20 comments }

1

bad Jim 02.03.04 at 8:45 am

One might argue that it’s an improvement upon commentary on their haircuts, attire and wives, but perhaps only another Virgo would agree.

2

Keith M Ellis 02.03.04 at 8:56 am

They are halfway taking it seriously because a very large portion of the American public takes astrology seriously. It’s a mystery to me. I think the history of it was that around the turn of the (20th) century it was quite popular, perhaps worldwide along with the general interest in the occult at the time; (and of course it’s ancient) but by mid-century it had almost disapeared from American life. Then, in the late sixties, it made a big return. Isn’t it the case that it didn’t get as big again in Europe?

But too many people take it seriously or semi-seriously that I don’t think you can reasonably expect that an intelligent, informed person would necessarily think it’s bunkem. I stopped worrying about this long ago and just added it to the list of ways in which people mystify and frustrate me. When people ask me my sign I sometimes (falsely) tell them I don’t know what it is. When they continue to talk about it, I plaster a half-smile across my face hoping they’ll get the hint. Usually, they don’t.

I’m the kind of person who offers to read people their horoscopes from the paper, and then reads them the wrong one.

I’ve studied Ptolemaic astronomy, which contemporary “professional” astrologers continue to use for this purpose. How ironic is that? That I’ve studied it and that they use it, I mean.

3

Brad DeLong 02.03.04 at 8:58 am

I think you are behind the times. The Grey Lady has changed. She has broken into the liquor cabinet and sauced herself up. Why, I remember reading an article about “cameltoes”…

4

raj 02.03.04 at 12:39 pm

Um, this is a joke, right? “Journal of record”? Don’t believe everything you read, even in the so-called “journal of record.”

I guess they impressed you with their press releases.

5

Ghost of a flea 02.03.04 at 1:27 pm

I don’t recall my high school science classes making a case for or against astrology.

6

Barry 02.03.04 at 1:31 pm

Hmmm. Horoscopes for the Democratic candidates, but none for the President. One might think that his horoscope would be the most important, if one believed in astrology.

Now, if I were a suspicious person, living in a world where the NYT found that no lie was unfit to print about a Democratic president, I just might think that this is a way of diminishing the Democratic candidates.

7

Paul 02.03.04 at 1:49 pm

I’ll take quasi-patronizing joke for 100. Running Ms. Sullivan’s column generates several different “buzzworthy” reactions from the NYT readership: annoyance, amusement, smug superiority and genuine interest. As there’s nothing to say about it, everyone can say something. Besides, Erin Sullivan’s prophesies are probably at least as accurate as David Brooks’.

8

WillieStyle 02.03.04 at 2:34 pm

Dude,
John Edwards and I were born on the same day (26 years apart). We, like, have the same sign AND he’s my favourite Dem. This is, like, blowing my mind man.

And Dude,
all the Dem Horoscopes exactly match the conventional wisdom, sound-bite representations spewed by the punditocracy. Who said astrology isn’t a science.

9

Ophelia Benson 02.03.04 at 3:21 pm

Yeah, what Raj said. What journal of record? Just because it says it is? It’s a newspaper like any other newspaper; nobody anointed it. And it has an insanely inflated view of its own excellence and importance, both. It could be a hell of a lot better than it is – could and should, especially if it’s going to go around calling itself a journal of record – claiming it contains all the news that’s fit to print. What a joke!

10

des 02.03.04 at 3:31 pm

Of course the really serious problem with the NYT is that it doesn’t have cartoons. In the past this has only contributed to the aura of humourless self-importance it projects, but putting jokes in the op-ed section is the opposite of an improvement.

On the other hand, I am delighted to learn from the ghost of a flea that US high school science classes could leave one open-minded on the question of whether an account of the movement of nearby celestial bodies from the point of view of ptolemic astronomy is likely to allow accurate predictions of the future.

Maybe the alleged administrations alleged fiscal policy is based on transmutation of lead into gold, also.

11

Maccabee 02.03.04 at 3:36 pm

problem is, they didn’t pick a winner

12

David W. 02.03.04 at 3:37 pm

The Onion does this sort of thing much better, because they aren’t as coy about their satire.

13

Theophylact 02.03.04 at 4:35 pm

One of the things I always liked about the Times was that it didn’t have an astrology column. It also didn’t have a political cartoon or a comics page. Can I hope, now that it’s taken the first step, it might take the next two?

Seriously, though, reading the op-ed piece shows the problem with astrology: it’s all post facto. There isn’t a single thing there about any of the candidates’ characters or styles that couldn’t have been garnered from reading the coverage of them so far. No need to check the star charts, just the pundits.

14

JRoth 02.03.04 at 5:28 pm

Ophelia-
I’ll put my rants againt the Times up against anyone’s, but “Journal of Record” is something that one must concede, because, frankly, who else competes on that field? Who else publishes every word of the State of the Union and the opposition response? What other paper in the States can be relied upon for cricket & rugby scores (and, at the end of the year, the champions of virtually every sport imaginable, worldwide)? What other paper gets convicted innocents sprung from prison 1500 miles away?

The Times does many things poorly, and never admits its mistakes (Wen Ho Lee is still owed an apology, and Jeff Gerth still has a job). It protects the Convential Wisdom with a fierceness second only to the Washington Post’s. Its politics are by turns overwrought and pusillanimous. And yet the simple, unarguable fact is that both on reputation and on merit, the Times is unequalled (in terms of breadth and comprehensiveness) as a source of news and reportage in this country.

15

Kevin Drum 02.03.04 at 6:04 pm

My take is that this is a subtle dig at standard issue campaign reporting. Basically, it’s so absurd most of the time that you might just as well read a horoscope instead…..

16

DJW 02.03.04 at 6:06 pm

Well, if you ignore the op-ed pages, I think the Post and the WSJ do a better job with day-to-day news (not that the NYT op-ed page, with three regulars worse that Freidman, is giving us much there). And the WSJ does a much more thorough job of reporting on SCOTUS decisions.

But I’m inclined to agree with jroth that through some combination of reputation and merit (heavy on the former) it must be considered the de facto paper of record, to the extent that term has any meaning. Which, come to think of it, isn’t much.

One point of confusion, though: I always thought “grey lady” referred to the NYT Sunday Magazine, not the paper as a whole. Am I completely off base?

17

Jon H 02.03.04 at 10:06 pm

Maybe they’re following the lead of CNBC.

CNBC occasionally checks in with a financial advisor who bases his planning on astrology.

18

Ophelia Benson 02.03.04 at 11:40 pm

Yeah, I’ll agree that there aren’t any better papers in the US, at least at certain things. But I was comparing it with what it might be rather than with the others. Also with papers in other countries. Well one other country.

19

John Quiggin 02.04.04 at 1:32 am

Kevin, I think you’re right about the intent, but I would have thought the appropriate way to do something if this kind (if you’re so minded) is to run a tongue-in-cheek piece from one of your staff or regular commentators, not to bring in someone who seriously believes in this stuff.

20

dsquared 02.04.04 at 9:50 pm

It is traditional at this point for me to remark that astrology meets all the Popperian criteria for being a science; in particular, it makes twelve testable predictions every day, which is more than you’ll get from climatologists. I don’t know why I like that joke so much that I recycle every time there is the slightest pretext, but I do.

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