It’s All so Difficult

May 12th, 2003 12:12 am | By

Another thought or two on the fabulating reporter. The whole story, at least as presented by the reporter’s colleagues (and there are no doubt further stories behind that, or further truths), is a case study in how difficult it can be to get at the truth. Difficult in a variety of senses – difficult just in the sense of grind, slog, graft; difficult in the sense of having to overcome obstacles; difficult in the sense of beset with uncertainites, doubts, confusing evidence; difficult in the sense of painful, ethically and emotionally; difficult in the sense of stumbling in the dark, of not even knowing there is a truth to be found.

The investigation suggests several reasons Mr. Blair’s deceits went undetected for so long: a failure of communication among senior editors; few complaints from the subjects of his articles; his savviness and his ingenious ways of covering his tracks. Most of all, no one saw his carelessness as a sign that he was capable of systematic fraud.

It happens all the time. Afterwards, of course, with perfect 20/20 hindsight, everyone can see what went wrong, but life doesn’t happen afterwards, and it’s often not obvious which person is having problems but doing better and which is a dedicated fabricator. So Blair’s editors didn’t tell the editors on his new assignment about his record of mistakes, and as a result the new editors didn’t check up on him as they would have if they’d known.

Mr. Roberts and Mr. Fox said in interviews last week that the statements would have raised far more serious concerns in their minds had they been aware of Mr. Blair’s history of inaccuracy. Both editors also said they had never asked Mr. Blair to identify his sources in the article. “I can’t imagine accepting unnamed sources from him as the basis of a story had we known what was going on,” Mr. Fox said. “If somebody had said, `Watch out for this guy,’ I would have questioned everything that he did. I can’t even imagine being comfortable with going with the story at all, if I had known that the metro editors flat out didn’t trust him.”

And then of course it’s just plain hard work, isn’t it, getting out there and talking to a lot of people, traveling, hanging around in airports, checking facts, asking questions. It’s so much easier to stay home and make it up, even if you factor in all the trail-covering that involves. So the reporter apparently took a shortcut, and then another, and then a whole bunch. All very trendy, in a way. The readers didn’t know the difference, they got their story about Jessica Lynch’s family on the porch overlooking the non-existent tobacco fields, and their heart-warming story about the injured soldier in the military hospital who said the bravely self-deprecating thing that he never said. The readers probably enjoyed the story. One wonders if the reporter thought of it that way.

And when there were serious suspicions at last – when the San Antonio Express-News complained about plagiarism of one of its stories – Blair made the truth as difficult to find as he could.

In a series of tense meetings over two days, Mr. Roberts repeatedly pressed Mr. Blair for evidence that he had indeed interviewed the mother…”You’ve got to come clean with us,” he said – and zeroed in on the mother’s house in Texas. He asked Mr. Blair to describe what he had seen. Mr. Blair did not hesitate. He told Mr. Roberts of the reddish roof on the white stucco house, of the red Jeep in the driveway, of the roses blooming in the yard. Mr. Roberts later inspected unpublished photographs of the mother’s house, which matched Mr. Blair’s descriptions in every detail. It was not until Mr. Blair’s deceptions were uncovered that Mr. Roberts learned how the reporter could have deceived him yet again: by consulting the newspaper’s computerized photo archives.

It’s simply an unending, impossible, unforgiving chore, figuring out what the truth is. No wonder some people would like to do away with the task altogether.

Truth and the Times

May 11th, 2003 7:11 pm | By

The New York Times has a compellingly if morbidly fascinating story today. I feel a little ashamed at being so fascinated: it seems like Schadenfreude, the matter being obviously such a nightmare for the paper and for so many editors who supervised the perpetrator. It’s such a basic malfunction, like those mortifying occasions when fast food restaurants serve up E-coli-laced hamburgers or salmonella in the salad. But I can’t help it, La Rochefoucauld and Burke (‘I am convinced that we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others’) notwithstanding, or do I mean confirmed, fascinated I am.

And it’s fair enough. There is plenty of human interest or gossip appeal in the story, but the core issue is of course entirely serious and at the center of Butterflies and Wheels’ reason for existence: truth. It is interesting and encouraging even if not altogether surprising that at a time when the very hippest and most knowing and (in their own eyes at least) sophisticated intellectuals like to smile skeptically at the very word ‘truth’, the Times forthrightly announces that truth is their most basic commitment.

Every newspaper, like every bank and every police department, trusts its employees to uphold central principles, and the inquiry found that Mr. Blair repeatedly violated the cardinal tenet of journalism, which is simply truth.

There you have it. No hedging, no raised eyebrows or smirks, no scare quotes, no bows to the deities of situatedness or anti-Eurocentrism or social construction, no playful ruminations about solidarity or what we can all agree on or what works for us to believe, just a flat-footed assertion that journalism is supposed to get it right as opposed to making it up.

And they keep saying it, too. Quite stubbornly. Over and over, as the story unfolds, as various editors try to teach and discipline their productive but ‘sloppy’ reporter to make fewer mistakes.

“Accuracy is all we have,” Mr. Landman wrote in a staff e-mail message. “It’s what we are and what we sell.”

What haunts Mr. Roberts now, he says, is one particular moment when editor and reporter were facing each other in a showdown over the core aim of their profession: truth. “Look me in the eye and tell me you did what you say you did,” Mr. Roberts demanded. Mr. Blair returned his gaze and said he had.

And the whole story is also an interesting object lesson in the fact that the truth is not necessarily easy to find, as juries, law enforcement investigators, prosecutors and defence lawyers, historians, scientists and many others know perfectly well, and as in fact all of us know perfectly well via everything from differing memories of shared events to differing ideas about childcare or politics. The reporter’s supervisors knew he made a lot of mistakes, but then all reporters make some, and he was very energetic and productive, and he seemed to be improving, and…so it goes.

But it’s good to have this little reminder that everything is not just a story, that we don’t get to make it up when we don’t know, that history isn’t just whatever someone decides it is, and that it’s not good enough to write an eye-witness account of events in Cleveland or D.C. or West Virginia by means of a laptop and a cell phone in Brooklyn.

Whither Poetry?

May 10th, 2003 9:07 pm | By

The Condition of Poetry is a perennial subject, and for good reason: there’s a lot to say. So, prompted by Barney McClelland’s trenchant essay on the woolly confusion of poetry with self-expression, I thought I would mention, and where possible link to, a few more jeremiads on the topic.

We could begin with Plato’s notorious dissing of poets in The Republic, or we could leap forward to the 16th century and compare Philip Stubbes’ Anatomy of Abuses with Philip Sidney’s derivative but eloquent Apology for Poetry. Or we could start with Peacock’s mocking Four Ages of Poetry and Shelley’s reply in the brilliant though far less amusing Defense of Poesy. Or we could start with Edmund Wilson’s ‘Is Verse a Dying Technique?’ of 1934, or Joseph Epstein’s ‘Who Killed Poetry?’ in Dissent in 1988. I would have liked to begin with Epstein, but alas it’s not online, so instead I’ll start with Dana Gioia’s 1992 ‘Can Poetry Matter?’, which is.

Gioia argues that poetry has become damagingly narrow and insular. Poets used to live and survive in a variety of settings and by a variety of means, everything from banking, insurance or medicine to odd jobs and poverty in bohemian enclaves. They were read by a broad educated public, and they wrote about a range of subjects and ideas. But with the rise of creative writing programs there also rose a dreary mutual backscratching arrangement whereby poets produce journals and fat anthologies of each other’s work. The operating principle is inclusion rather than judgment and the result is an ocean of mediocre poetry in which the good poetry gets lost.

In art, of course, everyone agrees that quality and not quantity matters…But bureaucracies, by their very nature, have difficulty measuring something as intangible as literary quality. When institutions evaluate creative artists for employment or promotion, they still must find some seemingly objective means to do so. Poets serious about making careers in institutions understand that the criteria for success are primarily quantitative.

Philip Lopate wrote a brief essay in the New York Times Book Review in 1996, in which he said that he found nine out of ten poems he read disappointing.

I open the pages of a literate weekly, stopping at a poem barely longer than the traditional sonnet. The poet ”botanizes” for about eight lines — that is, acts as though it were some kind of miracle his clematis is in full bloom — then he mentions a phone call from his former wife and the twinge of retrospective guilt or regret her voice gave him. I think: That’s it? If a prose writer tried to get away with so unformed a vignette or so few ideas in a paragraph, he would be in trouble. Perhaps the chiseled language makes the poem worthwhile, I tell myself; but the language seems, on closer inspection, more cautious than eloquent.

And finally, Thomas Disch wrote a witty essay for the Hudson Review, ‘The Castle of Indolence,’ examining the smugness and sense of entitlement that writing workshops tend to foster.

Being accredited poets, they know themselves to be above reproach: their hearts are pure, and they wear them on their sleeves. For if the workshops have taught them nothing else (which is usually the case), they do know that if they have written what they really, really feel, it’s poetry, and as such, beyond odious comparisons.

There is too much of it, it’s not good enough, many of its practitioners mistake it for therapy or primal scream. Other than that, poetry is in good shape.

Clothes Make the Academic

May 4th, 2003 12:30 am | By

In the very first Note and Comment of this year I linked to a heart-warming little story (the link is now dead, unfortunately) in the New York Observer about those wonderful hip folks at the Modern Language Association, which featured the profound, almost Gnostic aphorism, ‘Theorists are the snappiest dressers.’ What is it about lit crits these days, people often, often wonder; why are they so full of themselves, so grandiose, so deluded about their omniscience? It couldn’t be mere physics envy could it? Surely they’re too wised up and knowing to fall into that old trap!

Leonard Cassuto takes a look at the issue in this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He had to talk to scientists about a very technical subject recently, and was surprised at how friendly, helpful and non-condescending they were. It is not like that among the humanists, he says mournfully, and includes himself in the indictment. He attributes much of the difference to the peer-review system.

Physicists told me that peer review in the sciences has an ethical code built into it. There can be personality conflicts, of course, but the scientists share the belief that the peer-review system can deliver trustworthy assessments of their work. That enables them to relax and treat each other with respect.

It is different in the humanities because of the subjectivity of the work. The ‘softer’ fields, Cassuto says, are conspicuous for their social hierarchies, their status anxiety, their celebrity culture, and their jargon and turf-protecting.

Attempts to popularize have often been met with the special hostility that attends defense of hierarchy — consider the philosopher Judith Butler’s assertion on the op-ed page of The New York Times that her ideas were so complex they couldn’t be expressed in a way that regular people might understand.

Rebecca Goldstein includes an amusing riff on this subject in her 1983 novel The Mind-Body Problem:

Observers of the academic scene may be aware that there are distinct personality types associated with distinct disciplines. The types can be ordered along the line of a single parameter: the degree of concern demonstrated over the presentation of self, or “outward focus.”…At the low end, with outward focus asymptotically approaching zero, we find the pure mathematicians, closely followed by the theoretical physicists…At the other end, with the degree of outward focus asymptotically approaching infinity, we find sociologists and professors of literature…The degree of outward focus is in inverse proportion to the degree of certainty attainable within the given methodology. The greater the certainty of one’s results, the less the concern with others’ opinion of oneself.

So there you are. Literary theorists are the snappiest dressers.

L.A. Book Festival

May 1st, 2003 8:15 pm | By

There was a tiny local skirmish in the ongoing battle between scientists and their various critics, teasers and self-appointed scourges a few days ago at the Los Angeles Book Festival, which was shown on the defiantly uncommercial tv channel Cspan. The critic was one Jeffrey Schwartz, who made a bizarrely impassioned, over-emphatic near-oration on the perils of ‘scientism,’ the putative belief of scientists that only what can be measured is real and that science claims it knows everything worth knowing. Schwartz spoke fervently about the importance of inner experience (do a lot of people dispute that nowadays? Isn’t behaviorism kind of, like, over?) and claimed that it too should be treated as science, that there were ways (not specified) of making it measurable and reproducible, and that it’s very very important. (Odd – he’s against scientism and yet wants science to encompass inner experience and inner experience to be made measurable and reproducible – isn’t that kind of ‘scientistic’ itself?)

The other panelists were David Baltimore, John Maddox, Timothy Ferris, and Brenda Maddox, and they all disagreed with Schwartz, though Ferris also thanked him for making the discussion more interesting than it would otherwise have been. Ferris also advised Schwartz not to try to get published in Nature, to which Schwartz replied, laughing a good deal, that he had tried, several times, and been rejected. John Maddox was the editor of Nature for many years, and he did indeed seem particularly unimpressed by Schwartz’ comments. He wondered how one would go about making inner experience measurable and reproducible, and he pointed out that there are many things science doesn’t know yet, such as how life began and how the mind works. Timothy Ferris talked about seeing a panel of scientists line up to ask hostile, probing questions of researchers and remarked that one would wait a long time before seeing that happen at a panel of theologians. In short it wasn’t much of a victory for the anti-science team.

Bigger, Realer America

May 1st, 2003 12:04 am | By

I generally do my best to ignore political commentary and rhetoric, especially of the right wing variety, because all it does is annoy, not to say infuriate. But once in awhile I bump into some by accident, and it’s invariably even worse than I had imagined. A few evenings ago for instance I tripped over some absurd person on tv (and not even on Murdoch’s Fox channel, but on Gates’ msnbc) ranting about those liberal elitists who dare to disagree with President Bush. That’s the definition of elitism? Disagreeing with Bush? Because…what? Bush was born in a mud hut? Bush is the twelfth child of Mississippi sharecroppers who got where he is today by sheer force of brains and talent? Bush wouldn’t know an elite if it sat down next to him and thanked him for eliminating the estate tax? Is that how that is?

And then last night I heard Geoff Nunberg on Fresh Air discussing a piece by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal that was even more ridiculous, not to say downright sinister in places. All about the ‘stunning’ patriotism of good old ‘bigger and realer’ America.

American journalists still fear that, being called biased in favor of America. So do intellectuals, academics, local clever people who talk loudly in restaurants, and leftist mandarins of Washington, Los Angeles, New York, and other cities. For all cities have them. But there was always another America, and boy has it endured…They came from a bigger America and a realer one–a healthy and vibrant place full of religious feeling and cultural energy and Bible study and garage bands and sports-love and mom-love and sophistication and normality.

It gets even worse, with a lot of drivel about the pope, but I’ll spare you. I’ll spare you so that I can give myself plenty of room to look at Noonan’s sly, nasty, and frankly sick-making rhetoric. Note that intellectuals and clever people are from a smaller and less real America than the one those other, Good people inhabit. Note that cities are bad places. And note (if you can without turning pale and having to rush for a basin) the cheerleading for religious feeling and ‘Bible study’ and…sports-love? and…mom-love? mom-love?? Philip Wylie where are you when we need you. Chatting with Norman Bates, probably. And then of course the clincher. Normality. Ah yes. Normality. Because of course all those other, bad, wicked, urban, eddicated people with their mandarin leftism and their fear of patriotism, they are not normal. They are weird. Odd. Strange. Or, not to put too fine a point on it, abnormal and perverted and sick.

And there is, again, the question of why it is intellectuals who are mandarins, whereas overpaid CEOs who pocket huge bonuses while cutting the pay of their workers are the salt of the earth. There is the even more pressing question, do Republicans never talk loudly in restaurants? I’m not absolutely sure that conforms to my experience of the world. There is the slightly Talibanish air of the desired bigger America – religious feeling and Bible study? One wouldn’t have been enough?

But most of all there is the horrible blinkered narrowness of it, the suffocating parochial smallness, and the disgusting message to the readers: stay as sweet as you are, be little, don’t try to be more, don’t leave, don’t learn, don’t become curious, don’t expand, don’t aspire. Just stay right there in your healthy, vibrant, religious world and never change, or else you will become abnormal and unhealthy. This is particularly repellent coming from someone who herself writes for the Wall Street Journal and other big city publications. She seems to be having an interesting and (sort of) intellectual life, so why all this sneering, why the attempt to discourage other people from broadening their horizons beyond dear mom and the garage? If Peggy Noonan, former White House speechwriter and now columnist for the WSJ, is not a mandarin, who is? Intellectuals and academics? Please.

I wonder how long this is going to go on before all those bigger realer Murkans start to see through it. Start to wonder why it’s intellectuals who are the elitists and mandarins, while rich people are the salt of the earth. Why buying and selling elections and allowing lobbyists and corporate lawyers to write legislation is perfectly fine but disagreeing with George W. Bush about anything is corrupt mandarin city behavior. But then I would wonder, wouldn’t I, because I’m just a sick abnormal citified mandarin myself. Where’s my Bible…

A different, and very minor point that Nunberg made in his commentary is that Noonan uses a rhetorical device in this piece that is more popular with rightists than with leftists. It is that string of ‘ands’ (and Bible study and garage bands and). It’s called polysyndeton. This interests me because it’s a device I use a lot myself, as a friend and editor of mine likes to point out. It could even be said, he hints, that I overuse it. I am now more convinced than I was. I looked it up in a literary dictionary, which said that Hemingway ‘was particularly addicted to this device’ and that ‘in the more extreme instances of his pseudo-biblical style (ouch!) it becomes the equivalent of a verbal tic’. Oh dear.


Apr 25th, 2003 7:10 pm | By

There was an interview with John Brady Kiesling on Fresh Air last night. He is the former mid-level diplomat who wrote a letter of resignation shortly before the war in Iraq started. The interview was both interesting and depressing, though not very surprising. Kiesling thinks nation-building and democracy-establishing in Iraq will require far more money and attention than the US has any intention of bestowing on them, that the tensions between Kurds and Shiites are going to be even worse than Saddam was, that the US has thrown away the good relations with Europe that the State Department has spent years and the efforts of people like Kiesling building up, and that the US fails to realise how much it benefits from the UN.

His dissent is all the more interesting in that he is not an across-the-board anti-interventionist. In fact he was one of a group of twelve diplomats who wrote a document in 1994 urging the Clinton administration to intervene in Bosnia to prevent the genocide there. The administration in fact did listen and did change its policy, and Kiesling and the others won an award from the American Foreign Service Association for ‘constructive dissent’. He is neither a pacifist nor an ideologue, he is apprently in fact someone who learns from experience, observation, evidence and other such bits of the world around him that don’t always agree with our preconceptions or wishes. He is correspondingly unimpressed by the president who doesn’t share that ability. He was more explicit about these criticisms in an interview in Salon recently [the interview is premium content but can be read after watching a brief and not-too-revolting advert].

But what I’ve discovered from the people who’ve searched me out is that there seems to be this incredible unhappiness in the traditional American internationalist foreign policy community that the president, just out of ignorance and ideology, is taking apart what these people had built through careers…Since he is not intellectually equipped to understand why such a huge part of the world could have these negative feelings about us, he’s looking for a simple answer…a president who apparently tunes people out if they disagree beyond a certain point.

Butterflies and Wheels is all about not letting our preconceptions and wishes, our entrenched positions (as my colleague says) and even our loyalties, get in the way of our ability to notice and understand things like changing circumstances, complicating factors, evidence, competing goods. Kiesling mentions the notion that loyalty may be over-valued in this administration.

So much of the debate in the United States is not a debate over interests, but a debate over loyalty; are you loyal to the president or not? And put in those terms, the sort of pack mentality does prevail. I guess you could argue that the good of the group requires solidarity in the group, even though that solidarity leads the group to do something insanely stupid.

I have to agree. Particularly, loyalty to someone who is not intellectually equipped, who looks for simple answers, who is both ignorant and ideological (what a godawful combination), who tunes people out if they disagree with him beyond a certain point. Those may be good qualifications for some kinds of work, but they simply aren’t for the line of work Bush II had the conceit and temerity to think he was fit for.

Simple Gifts

Apr 22nd, 2003 9:52 pm | By

I linked to this essay about George Bush in the Atlantic Monthly a few days ago. I was and still am particularly interested in the depiction of Bush’s narrowness that Richard Brookhiser gives.

“Practically,” Brookhiser writes, “Bush’s faith means that he does not tolerate, or even recognize, ambiguity: there is an all-knowing God who decrees certain behaviors, and leaders must obey.” While this clear-cut belief structure enables him to make split-second decisions and take action with principled confidence, it also means that he is limited by “strictly defined mental horizons.”…”Bush may be a free-range animal, but he has a habitat, in which he stays. If he needs to know some facts that his advisers don’t know, he can discover them. But if he needs to think some thoughts that they can’t, he may have a hard time doing it.”

But Brookhiser claims that Bush is a ‘reasonably intelligent man’ despite all this. But is that right? Surely someone who cannot even recognize ambiguity, who stays permanently in a mental habitat, who has a hard time thinking unfamiliar thoughts…Surely that is a pretty good working definition of stupidity? Because it’s wrong, it’s obtuse, it’s unobservant and myopic and unhelpful, to oversimplify things. Isn’t it? Doesn’t that stance indicate a fundamental and damaging mismatch between a person’s ideas about the world and how the world in fact is? How can someone who doesn’t notice something so blindingly obvious – that the world is a complicated, multifarious, difficult, patchwork place, not a simple single easy one – be considered ‘reasonably intelligent’? The world is not a simple, easily grasped, easily managed place, is it. It’s vast, complicated, confusing, contradictory, unpredictable, dangerous. Simple solutions obstinately adhered to no matter what happens or what new research shows or what new evidence reveals is not only a mistake, something that gets a tick in the margin, it’s likely to be the wrong bad harmful destructive thing to do. Which is not to say that leaders should go on pondering forever and never do anything, it’s simply to say they should have the kinds of minds that are aware of a range of possibilities from the beginning.

Iraqi History and Archaeology

Apr 19th, 2003 7:48 pm | By

The story of the looting of the Iraqi National Museum and other museums in Iraq is an interesting and deeply discouraging one. A giant hole has been blasted in the world’s stock of available knowledge that will never be completely repaired. Even if all the missing artworks do eventually turn up on the black market (a highly unlikely if), that still leaves all the books and manuscripts that went up in flames at the National Library, and all the artworks that are not missing but smashed. Whatever the neglect or indifference of the Pentagon in not protecting the sites, the damage is done now, and people who think history and knowledge are good things are in shock.

Slate has a thorough story here. The Guardian has one on the warning the Pentagon had here. The New York Times reports some further details here. The Wall Street Journal gives its own peculiar view of things here and here. There are useful pages here, here, and here.

The Washington Post reports the Pentagon was warned of the risks to Iraq’s archeological heritage and the National Museum in particular here. The San Francisco Chronicle reports here that the Pentagon did warn the military to spare archaeological sites where possible. The Washington Post reports here that there were not enough troops to do the job.


Apr 19th, 2003 6:00 pm | By

Ian Buruma says in this article in Prospect that the source of the bitterness between France and the US is that they are the two great missionary-revolutionary countries, the two great believers in universals, only they have different ‘universals’ (quite a paradoxical outcome). Both are idealist nations, both are the proud inheritors of institutions and values born in violent revolution, but the ideals and institutions and values are not the same ones. So we come to Liberty fries and Liberty toast and a deluge of Francophobe jokes on the Internet.

But it’s possible that Buruma overestimates US idealism at times.

Unless one believes, like Noam Chomsky, that the war was fought for the sake of corporate interests, that too was at least partly the result of American idealism. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson thought they were protecting Asian dominoes from falling to communist tyranny.

Well, that’s debatable. It’s debatable whether they really thought that at all, and how large a part the thought played in our ending up there, and how idealistic the thought was even if they really did think it. How much room did ideas about protection from tyranny have among other ideas about great power rivalry and ‘credibility’, along with thought-free zones of inadvertence and ratcheting effects (send just a few thousand troops to help the South Vietnamese, then send a few thousand more to help the first ones, then…)? And above all how much breathing room did they have among thoughts about domestic politics and the next election? There is a sobering conversation between Johnson and McGeorge Bundy in the summer of 1964, in Michael Beschloss’ book and tape Taking Charge, recordings and transcripts of Johnson’s phone conversations. Johnson expresses deep misgivings about sending young men, sons of people he knows, off to war, but then says he can’t possibly give the Republicans a chance to call him weak, and possibly lose the election.

And then there is the vexed question of how genuinely ‘idealistic’ the anti-communist stance really was. It can’t have been a purely idealistic opposition to totalitarianism or dictatorial rule, can it? Because if it had been, we wouldn’t have supported so many ferociously anti-communist but also just plain ferocious dictators, would we. Surely the anti-communism-trumps-everything policy had some roots whose idealism was at least debatable, such as hatred of atheism and secularism, and even more, hatred of economic egalitarianism. Communism was always hated and feared because it was a threat to profit and property rights and rich people. Some choose to see that as idealistic, but the matter is at least debatable. Ronald Reagan liked to get starry-eyed over the US as a place where someone can always get enormously rich. Other people are not so moved by a place that rejoices in by far the largest wealth and income gap in the industrialised world. Economic egalitarianism may be wrong-headed, foolish, an economic poison-pill, but I still find it hard to see devotion to markets and profits and vast inequality as idealistic.

Democracy or Freedom?

Apr 18th, 2003 7:00 pm | By

Sometimes it can seem as if Americans have a special gift for naïveté – something to do with living in a huge country bordered by oceans, thus distant from the rest of the world, and also to do with our dreams of exceptionalism and being the City on a Hill, and maybe also to do with vague notions that people who live right in the place where Levis and Hollywood movies and Big Macs actually come from have no need to do a lot of heavy lifting-type thought, that that kind of thing is for those poor deprived people in other countries who have to import their Jurassic Park and Kentucky Fried Chicken from us. Whatever the reason, we’re not awfully good at noticing the blindingly obvious.

One bit of common knowledge that always seems to come as a big shock, not to say an appalling violation of taboo, is the notion that democracy could be good and valuable in many ways, could be the best available possibility, and still have some aspects that are troublesome, still not be compatible with all other possible goods. Americans ought to know this if anyone does, given our history, the longevity of our democracy, our oddly mixed role as beacon and bad example, and a little book some French (Liberty?) guy wrote by the name of Democracy in America that took a good hard look at the subject. That little book inspired another, equally influential little book by John Stuart Mill, called On Liberty. And yet it still comes as a great surprise when anyone tells us that there could be tensions between democracy and other goods, particulary if the other good is our beloved freedom.

Fareed Zakaria is the latest to point this out in his new book The Future of Freedom, which is reviewed by Niall Ferguson in the New York Times. Zakaria was interviewed on Fresh Air a few days ago. I was particularly interested in what he said about his dismay at seeing India turn farther and farther away from its proud founding heritage of secularism over the last twenty five years. That’s another thing Americans don’t like to notice: that religion can be highly coercive. Democratic, yes indeed, but not necessarily anything to do with freedom.

Abstract, Imaginative Thinking

Apr 10th, 2003 7:24 pm | By

It is not very astonishing, but it is nonetheless highly unfortunate, that science is under attack, given an incurious, narrow, semi-educated, fundamentalist god-botherer in the White House. Some of the battlegrounds in that attack are discussed in this article in The Guardian, which points out the rhetorical skill with which the anti-science moves are dressed up in ‘scientific’ clothes.

…these aren’t the old wars of science versus religion. The new assaults on the conventional wisdom frame themselves, without exception, as scientific theories, no less deserving of a hearing than any other. Proponents of ID – using a strategy previously unheard of among anti-Darwinists – grant almost all the premises of evolution (the idea that species develop; that the world wasn’t necessarily created in seven days) in order to better attack it.

Intelligent Design, which soberly discusses cells and eyes and complexity in order to argue that there must have been a Designer (without, of course, answering the obvious next question, So who designed the Designer then?). An apparently scientific but evidence-free claim that viruses are small enough to get through condoms, in order to divert funding away from condoms and toward abstinence. Keen admiration for research, the more the better, in fact an indefinite amount is not too much when it comes to global warming, let’s keep doing research for years and years before we take any action. On the other hand when it comes to cloning, then we listen to the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics Leon Kass, who believes and says that we should go with our intuitive disgust-reactions in these matters.

Cloning proponents like Howard Garrison, director of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, say that when they sit down with sceptics they go a long way in convincing them. But the president “listens selectively”, says a source close to one of the national academies, the learned societies which represent the elite scientists in the US. In the White House, an embryo is an embryo and must be protected at all costs.

Well, the president would listen selectively, wouldn’t he. That’s the kind of guy he is. The historian Richard Brookhiser, a conservative, says as much in the Atlantic.

Bush’s worldview is extremely rigid, circumscribed by the good-versus-evil religious convictions to which he has adhered since his recovery from alcoholism seventeen years ago…While this clear-cut belief structure enables him to make split-second decisions and take action with principled confidence, it also means that he is limited by “strictly defined mental horizons.” Abstract, imaginative thinking, Brookhiser emphasizes, is not the President’s strong suit. And though Bush does take care to draw upon the counsel of intelligent, informed advisors, each with a different point of view, those varying viewpoints tend to fall only within a range of perspectives that reflect his pre-existing inclinations.

And that range of pre-existing inclinations probably does not include a lot of that ‘abstract, imaginative thinking’ which is not Bush’s strong suit, but which is science’s. Unfortunate.

Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings

Apr 7th, 2003 6:25 pm | By

This is an interesting but irritating essay in the Guardian. It takes a look at the question of what books ‘everyone’ should have read by age eighteen or twenty, and also at the teaching and study of English literature at the secondary school level. It contains some peculiar albeit doubtless popular ideas about what literature is, what kind of people like it and why, what it tells us and does for us.

English is perceived as a “girly subject” and it struck me that the essence of the subject lies in being honest about your feelings – your personal response to texts. As Kate in the upper sixth says, it is about “empathy”…For me, this explained a great deal about why English was so much more popular among girls. Boys on the whole don’t want to articulate their feelings or be forced into the dangerous situation of having to confront texts and respond personally to them. The rules of physics are so much safer.

Excuse me, but that’s crap. For one thing, literature is very far from being exclusively about ’empathy’. Is ‘Paradise Lost’ about ’empathy’? Is ‘Don Juan’? ‘Gulliver’s Travels’? ‘The Frogs’? ‘Emma’? ‘Lucky Jim’? Literature is more than just the novel, and even novels are not always about empathy. Satire, epic poetry, Aristophanic comedy, much lyric poetry, and many other genres have little or nothing to do with empathy. And then for the other thing, ‘feelings’ [pardon me while I gag] are not the only possible ‘response’ to texts. Dang, you know what? It’s also possible to have thoughts about texts! Imagine that! One can just sit right there in English class, even one composed entirely of girls, and think about what one has read rather than just emoting over it. And as a matter of fact one will probably get a great deal more out of what one has read if one does think as well as feel. The best literature is not just some emotional waterfall, it is deliberately crafted, using that highly cerebral medium, language. Language requires thought, and thought is often the better for language. Boys are perfectly at liberty to think about literature without having to articulate their wretched tedious feeeeeelings. Can’t we ever get out of this dratted Barry Manilow song?

But at least the teacher agrees with me about good old Stephen King.

This was the class that had just so thoughtfully dissected the war poem, and which had soundly argued opinions on the English syllabus – too much of the canonical and academic, not enough contemporary material, why not some Stephen King (no thanks, says the teacher).

Two elitists in the world, then.

Hutton and Kagan

Apr 4th, 2003 5:41 pm | By

I usually whinge a lot about the mediocrity and tameness and blandness of the US public television network, but it does have one excellent show (no, two, Nova is a frequently-good science show): Frontline. It outdid itself last night with its account of Tony Blair’s struggle to keep George Bush and his neoconservative advisers from attacking Iraq without UN sanction. And today it offers an array of fascinating interviews, debates, email arguments on its website.

This one for instance between Will Hutton and Robert Kagan, in which Hutton reminds Kagan that the US is an Enlightenment product too, not a strange Martian novelty.

For what needs to be said as loudly and clearly as possible is that the U.S.A. is a quintessential expression of the European Enlightenment — hardly surprising in that the country for the first three centuries of its life was peopled largely by European immigrants. Yours is a republic of laws. The majority of Americans are as law-abiding, peaceable, and as horrified by violence as any European.

Speaking as a Yank, it’s a relief to be reminded of that. Sometimes I think I’m living on a strange new planet invented by mutants from Texas and various Texases of the mind, with ideas like these:

American neoconservatism is a very idiosyncratic creed. Its pitiless view of human nature, its refusal to countenance a social contract, its belief in the raw exercise of power — “full spectrum dominance” — its attachment to Christian fundamentalism, its attitudes towards abortion and capital punishment, and its deification of liberty of the individual are a mishmash of ideas that have no parallel anywhere.

But then Kagan reminds us of the depressing realities.

Polls conducted by Gallup and other polling organizations since the war began all show more than 70 percent of Americans favoring the military action in Iraq. These percentages have not budged, moreover, even though the perception of the war’s progress has moved from optimism in the early days to pessimism in the past week.

Yes, so we keep hearing. I have a hard time believing it though, Gallup notwithstanding. The most conservative, tax-phobic, Clinton-hating, Bush-voting Republican I know is passionately against the war, and I must say, if she is, then anyone might be. I keep saying ‘70%? But there are all those anti-war signs everywhere!’ And then remembering, Oh but this is Seattle. But then I hear from a rock-ribbed Republican, and I have to wonder.

Two of Them

Apr 2nd, 2003 9:08 pm | By

So there (see below) are two of my operating assumptions. That many words important for our understanding and conversation are not transparent, not self-evident – indeed are worse than that, are apparently self-evident and straightforward but in fact not. Thus we have a false sense of security when we use them, we take them for granted and at face value, and assume that everyone understands them exactly as we do. But such is not the case. My second operating assumption is that this matters, it’s a problem, it causes problems, and should never be lost sight of.

Elitism is one of those words. I have a running argument with a friend, who is forever telling me that I’m an elitist and he’s not. But he’s quite, quite wrong. He’s thoroughly confused, and as far as I can tell his confusion stems from my failure to admire the writing of Stephen King. But I take that to be a very odd definition of elitism.

This musing is relevant to Butterflies and Wheels because conflicting ideas about elitism are central to a lot of Fashionable Nonsense. There are people for instance who like to accuse scientists, all scientists, scientists by definition, of elitism, and they like to do it in pointlessly clotted arcane jargon that seems to serve no other purpose than exclusion of outsiders. Who exactly is the elitist? It all depends how you define the word…

Operating Assumptions

Apr 2nd, 2003 6:53 pm | By

We all have our operating assumptions, and it can be interesting and even useful sometimes to figure out what our own and other people’s are. One of my own that I often notice is not universal, is that Things Could Be Better. That improvement is needed, that there are errors and misunderstandings that need pointing out and fixing. Of course, in one sense, that’s too obvious to need stating, and everyone knows it: no one is fool enough to think everything everywhere is perfect at all times. But some people do seem to have a default assumption that the world is all right and
straightforward and self-evident and easily managed, that problems and confusions and mistakes are the exception not the rule. One could call it optimism, which is (for some reason) widely considered a good thing, but I must say it seems to me more like obtuseness and willful refusal to notice and pay attention.

For instance yesterday in a conversation about the war an acquaintance of mine announced confidently: ‘Intelligent people can see through propaganda.’ Even apart from the obvious question, is that really true, is it really that easy simply to ‘see through’ and be uninfluenced by propaganda? there is the more fundamental question, what is propaganda? How do we distinguish it from non-propaganda? From persuasion, advertising, public relations, editorials, journalism, political speech, rhetoric, reportage? Surely it’s obvious if one thinks about it for two seconds that my propaganda may be their patriotic address, and our rallying the troops is almost certainly their flaming propaganda. Propaganda is not (obviously – surely?) a self-evident category, or even one with some good clear-edged specifications we can all agree on like those that differentiate species or elements, it is in fact far less of a useful descriptive than it is a boo-word. (Well, so is Fashionable Nonsense! I hear you exclaim. Yes, we know!)

So that’s one of my operating assumptions: that our language and conversation and writing are full of these fuzzy, ill-defined, debatable, often emotive words and phrases, that their meaning is far from self-evident, that the different meanings they convey to different people is often not peripheral but at the very center of whatever is being debated, and that it’s lazy and obtuse and willfully unobservant to take words like ‘propaganda’ as straightforward and self-evident to all.

Some More

Apr 1st, 2003 12:11 am | By

In ‘The New Yorker’ Seymour Hersh tells of the disagreements between the military and the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. There is some of this in every war, and a lot of it is just each side protecting itself or as we put it in the vernacular, covering its ass. But it may be worse than usual this time. Or it may not.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of last week was the failure of the Shiite factions in southern Iraq to support the American and British invasion. Various branches of the Al Dawa faction, which operate underground, have been carrying out acts of terrorism against the Iraqi regime since the nineteen-eighties. But Al Dawa has also been hostile to American interests. Some in American intelligence have implicated the group in the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, which cost the lives of two hundred and forty-one marines. Nevertheless, in the months before the war the Bush Administration courted Al Dawa by including it among the opposition groups that would control postwar Iraq.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend, the saying goes. At least, until a little more time passes and the enemy of my enemy becomes my worst enemy of all, as with those dear darling beloved pious freedom-loving god-fearing mujahaddin in Afghanistan a few years ago. ‘Courting’ Al Dawa sounds like a similar sort of arrangement. And it hasn’t worked after all. Maybe if the US had done a better job of hanging on to its friends it wouldn’t need to be ‘courting’ terrorist religious fanatics.

The Independent takes a look at Rumsfeld and the unfortunate arrogance of the US tone.

Mr Rumsfeld is not, therefore, the sole architect of America’s counter-productive posture of arrogance in this war. But his tenure at the Department of Defence does not help. He was openly contemptuous of the United Nations and has always asserted that the US can go it alone – without the British, at one recent stage.

Arrogance and contempt towards the UN, France, old Europe, and even the UK, and sucking up to terrorist groups. Possibly a somewhat flawed approach.

Some Opinions

Mar 30th, 2003 10:15 pm | By

The war is in its 11th day, and it’s clear that the cheery expectation of a Blitzkrieg was ill-founded. Apparently shock and awe have succeeded only in turning Saddam Hussein from a hated tyrant to an admired resister of the invaders, a result fraught with horrible implications for the future, including the future of Tony Blair. It is a profoundly dispiriting thought that this war could well end up entrenching the ignorant callous provincial talentless Bush more firmly in power than ever while it undoes the vastly more worthwhile Blair. Jonathan Freedland comments here on Blair’s backbreaking efforts with the UN and Bush’s smug indifference to the whole matter. There is something intensely degrading about watching a person of Bush’s calibre lording it over someone of Blair’s. (That’s why I don’t watch it.)

Abdel Bari Atwan here describes the reversal of fortune Saddam Hussein’s reputation has undergone at the hands of the US president.

President George Bush has at least one achievement to his credit in his war against Saddam Hussein. He has transformed Saddam into a heroic champion in the eyes of many in the region and might elevate his status into that of a mythological figure if he succeeds in killing or capturing more British and American soldiers and in turning Baghdad into an Arab and Islamic Stalingrad…The allies committed a dangerous mistake when they relied on information supplied by the Iraqi opposition regarding the state of affairs within Iraq. They made an even bigger mistake when they spoke of installing a US military governor over Iraq, as this will serve only to stir up patriotic feelings among Iraqis and encourage them to bury their differences with Saddam and unite forces to repel an American occupation.

Depressing enough. After that perhaps a touch of wit would be refreshing, so try Alexei Sayle’s piece on Bush. There is plenty of sober truth along with the wit though. I was particularly struck by the observation that Bush is a ‘dry drunk,’ because a friend of mine has been fulminating about that (along with the more usual complaints) since long before the election. She is a judge who has decided a great many domestic abuse cases, so she knows what she’s talking about. Sayle tells us the dry drunk is one who has forcibly wrenched himself off alcohol without dealing with whatever caused the alcoholism to begin with, so is forever in pursuit of other outside fixes, such as shopping, religiosity, or military adventures.

If we look at the nation that President Bush leads, it also behaves in many ways like an addict. The United States is a gigantic John Candy of a country, straining its oversized elasticated pants from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The country is addicted to more or less everything, constantly craving greater and greater quantities of petrol, electricity, pointless sports, empty patriotism, fatty hormone-crammed meat, gigantic pedestrian-crushing four-wheel drive trucks, ever more baseball caps with nonsense written on them and unquestioning obedience from every nation on the planet.

And finally there is this one about the bottomless horribleness of US hard right politics and the tragedy of Blair’s alliance with it. I know the idea is that Blair has restrained Bush and made him that little bit less dangerous than he would have been otherwise. But surely he has also provided him with a tiny veneer of respectability that he wouldn’t have had otherwise, has enabled him to look that little bit less unilateral than he in fact is. Maybe it will prove to be for the good in the end, but I must say, I’m not very optimistic.

What Does Porn Do?

Mar 30th, 2003 6:24 pm | By

Well, here’s an intriguing little item by way of a break from war news. The abundance and popularity of porn on the Internet, and what that may do to men’s attitudes to women, and how strangely little attention the subject gets.

For a political perspective you would have to search to the very margins of feminist debate. It is as if an entire generation of research into the emotional effects of porn has simply been forgotten, leaving us with porn galore and not the faintest idea what it does.

The most sinister aspect of the whole subject is how inextricably confused lust seems to be with hostility, at least in this kind of pornography. (And is there any other kind?) Judging from the description (I have to be honest: I’ve never looked at this kind of, er, material) it’s not even slightly erotic, it’s more like assault. Slut this and slut that. It appears to be all about treating women as toilets (very literally) and hating and mocking them at the same time. It’s hard to see how that can help poisoning men’s attitudes to women…and the stuff is ubiquitous. Not a happy thought.

But the emotional consequences of casual porn use, or the effects of its cultural ubiquity, are completely ignored. Whether porn might be harmful to a non-addict is never even examined…Here is some evidence. Experiments were carried out on ‘normal’ men, not addicts, for research by Edward Donnerstein, a prominent academic and author. ‘On the first day,’ he reported, ‘when they see women being raped and aggressed against, it bothers them. By day five it does not bother them at all. In fact, they enjoy it.’…Even porn which wasn’t violent made the men twice as likely to say they felt aggressive towards women. This is not to say that porn turns men into rapists; it doesn’t need to, for it trespasses on the mind more subtly. The evidence proves that porn invites its audience to view women differently – as inferiors, as objects, only good for sex. This is the problem with pornography; it alters the way men look at women…and it even alters the way women look at themselves.

And this isn’t even Fashionable Nonsense. In fact if the author is correct it’s only ‘the very margins of feminist debate,’ which can be fertile territory for FN, that notice at all. That’s one of the worst aspects of FN: the way it can discredit useful, necessary, original lines of thought and inquiry. I used to like those margins of feminist debate, until they got cluttered up with touchy-feely irrationalists and earth mothers and science-haters.

Maybe a Lottery Would be Better?

Mar 23rd, 2003 10:08 pm | By

Richard Dawkins likes to outrage people. He’s not the only person in the world who likes to do that, in fact it’s just barely possible that there are one or two people connected with Butterflies and Wheels who don’t mind irritating. However that may be, Dawkins has done it again.

Evil is not an entity, not a spirit, not a force to be opposed and subdued. Evil is a miscellaneous collection of nasty things that nasty people do. There are nasty people in every country, stupid people, insane people, people who should never be allowed to get anywhere near power. Just killing nasty people doesn’t help: they will be replaced. We must try to tailor our institutions, our constitutions, our electoral systems, so as to minimise the chance that such people will rise to the top…And we democracies might look to our own vaunted institutions. Are they well designed to ensure that we don’t make disastrous mistakes when we choose our own leaders? Isn’t it, indeed, just such a mistake that has led us to this terrible pass?

Leaving aside what he says about the war in Iraq (because my colleague doesn’t agree with him on this point, while I think a thousand and one contradictory things), I do think he’s absolutely right about the US method of electing a president. We do keep electing shockingly embarrassingly unqualified people. I’ve often thought we ought to think about the UK system, where the parties choose the candidates and the voters choose between them. Here we choose the candidates ourselves and boy do we do a crap job of it. But then again maybe it wouldn’t help. Over there it seems to be accepted that a candidate with brains and skill and competence will be more electable than a bumbling inarticulate folksy mediocrity with ‘family values’, but here that is not the case. In the last election I heard with my own ears people rejoice at the fact that George Bush II was an ordinary guy just like the rest of us. Not, as Richard Dawkins points out, the way a CEO is chosen, so why this job? Who knows.

It’s not new though. We started off this way. There was much irrelevant nonsense in the very first election, Jefferson being slagged off as a Frenchified intellectual who had children by a slave concubine (which turned out to be true, confoundingly enough). Richard Hofstadter tells of the anti-intellectualism of the Jackson-Adams elections. We elected one military ‘hero’ after another, most of them with no civilian talent at all.

And yet this, as our folksy head of state keeps reminding the world, is the world’s only superpower. So the single most powerful human on the planet is chosen by a process that mingles elements of a high school popularity contest, an ad campaign for the newest most macho SUV, and good old-fashioned backroom bribery. It is a bit of a mismatch.