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June 27, 2004:
It is unpleasing to represent our affairs to our own disadvantage; yet it is necessary to shew the evils which we desire to be removed.
— Samuel Johnson: Introduction to the Political State of Great Britain Link
In an election year, incumbents running for re-election typically choose one of two paths. (Sometimes both.) They run like this:
Challengers, however, use the basic pitch that no matter how we are, we would be better off with a new leader.
That's essentially what it boils down to, and because each side knows it, they try to disguise legitimate complaints as politicking.
For instance, the Bush-Cheney campaign has been trying to innoculate its supporters against John Kerry's complaints by charging him with pessimism. Vice President Cheney has been sounding this theme on the campaign trail (see here, for instance; note also that while the Bush campaign charges Kerry with having no programs, a quick visit to the Kerry web site would tell you otherwise). And, in a newsletter to its supporters (no link available, it was emailed), the Bush-Cheney campaign wrote:
Fear is of course a powerful basis for an appeal, and advertisers have known about it for decades and conducted scads of research. It's just interesting to see the Bush campaign accusing the Kerry campaign of fear-mongering. In October, 2002, President Bush said:
Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.
A nuclear weapons program was the least sustainable argument one could make for invading Iraq, and the argument soon shifted to chemical and biological weapons — stockpiles of materials which could annihilate us all if put into the wrong hands — and these stockpiles have not been found.
Don't let the politics of the occasion provide context when judging the validity of campaign arguments; judge the arguments for yourself, on their own merits.
June 13, 2004:
Whatever has various respects, must have various
appearances of good and evil, beauty or deformity; thus, the
gardener tears up as a weed, the plant which the physician
gathers as a medicine; and "a general," says Sir Kenelm Digby,
"will look with pleasure over a plain, as a fit place on which
the fate of empires might be decided in battle, which the farmer
will despise as bleak and barren, neither fruitful of pasturage,
nor fit for tillage."
Two men examining the same question proceed
commonly like the physician and gardener in selecting herbs, or
the farmer and hero looking on the plain; they bring minds
different notions, and direct their enquiries to different ends;
they form, therefore, contrary conclusions, and each wonders at
the other's absurdity.
We tend to interpret the world from our context. Johnson gave a full explanation in the passage above, and a much shorter one in his introduction to Milton's poems (Lives of the Poets) when he wrote, "No man forgets his original trade: the rights of nations and of kings sink into questions of grammar, if grammarians discuss them."
Last week's discussions of Ronald Reagan's presidency are a sterling example of this phenomenon. No one had spoken to Reagan in the ten years since he announced his Alzheimer's disease, and so everything which was written, and all the discussion which responded to what was written, came through the veils of memory and perceptions.
For brevity's sake, I'm leaving much of Reagan's record out of this discussion: history doesn't matter on this page so much as discussing the points of view which create history. (Personally, I'm of the liberal persuasion, and I reject the Reagan deficits, the unfounded Star Wars program, the defense of Bob Jones academy, the simplistic characterization of the Soviet Union as an evil empire, the over-burdening of states in his federalization schemes designed to "balance" the federal budget, trickle-down economics, abandoning 'seasonally adjusted' unemployment figures in an effort to make the economy look better, the trip to Bitburg... I should stop here.) I'm merely trying to demonstrate how our perceptions are driven by how we already see the world.
This is why history is important, and not to be taken lightly. History drives our perceptions, and therefore drives the interpretations of history which follow afterwards. Think twice — thrice — about what you read.
May 30, 2004:
This week, a two-fer.
"...whoever would complete any arduous and intricate
enterprise should, as soon as his imagination can cool after the
first blaze of hope, place before his own eyes every possible
embarrassment that may retard or defeat him. He should first
question the probability of success, and then endeavour to remove
the objections that he has raised."
"What is easy is seldom excellent."
The New Seekers may have liked to teach the world to sing, but I'd like to teach the world to read more Samuel Johnson. Maybe much of the current mess in Iraq could have been avoided if we didn't underestimate the task of rebuilding Iraq? It's rare, I think, to have such an explicit record of deceit, overstatement, and mistaken understandings. (All emphases below are mine.)
May 23, 2004:
Regarding Arepagitica, a Speech of Mr. John Milton for the
Liberty of unlicensed Printing: "The danger of such
unbounded liberty and the danger of bounding it have produced a
problem in the science of Government, which human understanding
seems hitherto unable to solve. If nothing may be published but
what civil authority shall have previously approved, power must
always be the standard of truth; if every dreamer of innovations
may propagate his projects, there can be no settlement; if every
murmurer at government may diffuse discontent, there can be no
peace; and if every skeptick in theology may teach his follies,
there can be no religion. The remedy against these evils is to
punish the authours; for it is yet allowed that every society
may punish, though not prevent, the publication of opinions,
which that society shall think pernicious: but this punishment,
though it may crush the authour, promotes the book; and it seems
not more reasonable to leave the right of printing unrestrained,
because writers may be afterwards censured, than it would be to
sleep with doors unbolted, because by our laws we can hang a
Striking the right balance between public safety and freedom of expression is less of a challenge than Johnson would have us believe. The danger comes when people make it look more challenging than it really is. When Donald Rumsfeld said that he saw the availability of digital cameras, and the photos getting out, as part of the problem with the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, he was confusing the messenger with the message; the problem, of course, was that the abuses seem to have occurred, not that photos were taken. Not surprisingly, Rumsfeld's misguided speculation served as a springboard the fancy of various administration defenders. Jonah Goldberg, for one, questioned whether or not CBS had been irresponsible in publishing the photos, and recommended that their own standards should have stopped them (self-censorship, as opposed to government censorship).
A new law which has been proposed for New York City subways — and already being enforced, in spite of its "proposed" status — would ban the taking of pictures. The argument here is not a question of standards so much as protecting the infrastructure against terrorist attacks. The good news is that moderation is being called for, even by the Mayor: tourists aren't likely to be apprehended, but someone taking detailed shots of support beams might.
It's not clear whether or not a ban on sketch pads will be next, though.
May 16, 2004:
Pleasure is very seldom found where it is sought. Our
brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected
On May 16, 1763, Samuel Johnson wandered into Thomas Davies' bookshop. Doubtless he expected his time would be rewarded somehow — if not from coming upon a new volume that might interest him, perhaps merely from browsing and whiling away some chunk of time. Two years earlier, he had written his friend Baretti, "Surely life, if it be not long, is tedious, since we are forced to call in the assistance of so many trifles to rid us of our time, of that time which never can return." And he once told Mrs. Thrale, "Why, life must be filled up."
The pleasure he found that day was not only unexpected, it also took him years to appreciate its fullness. A Scot named James Boswell, long an admirer of Johnson's work, had been trying to meet him. And by chance, this was the day. (You can read Boswell's account here, from an extract of Boswell's Life of Johnson which has been put up by Jack Lynch.)
Their friendship grew quickly, so fast and intensely that when Boswell went off to Holland, Johnson not only rode with him to meet the ship, but they embraced as they parted.
If there's a lesson here, I guess it's that you should buy more of your books at the local bookstore and not online.
May 9, 2004:
"Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections
must be first overcome."
I hate to be a pain, but I wrote about this earlier this week on my web log. I'd rather link and have you click than duplicate my efforts here. Thanks.
May 2, 2004:
It is ... the business of wisdom and virtue to select, among
numberless objects striving for our notice, such as may enable us
to exalt our reason, extend our views, and secure our
Wisdom: wisdom is the final stage of that chain which starts with data —
I'm struck, you see, by the huge differences between Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies and Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack. Their subject matter is very different, of course (Clarke deals mostly with the years leading up to September 11, while Woodward deals with the events after that date, on the road to war against Iraq), but there are other great differences between the two books, and I honestly think Clarke's book is superior.
Clarke doesn't write sentences as well as Woodward does, which shouldn't be a surprise given Woodward's long experience as a journalist. Yet Clarke's book is vastly superior to Woodward's, because, although they both tell their stories chronologically, Clarke is more willing to step aside from chronology to weave in context and perspective. He is, in a sense, adding the wisdom which Woodward doesn't provide, making much more of his data and information than Woodward does. Finally, he takes stock of international situations and provides an assessment of where Bush's 9/11 reactions went wrong, what nations were higher priorities than Iraq, how we should grapple with compromises involving personal liberty, and suggestions for future foreign policy decisions. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, he makes a significant effort to elevate his information to wisdom. And not just at the end, but throughout.
It's not clear how Woodward has selected from the numberless objects of his story to exalt our reasoning; in fact, as he layers in bit after bit from his interviews, he doesn't even bother to tell you the significance of each step along the way or what was done. It feels very much like listening to a baseball game on the radio where the color man had to call in sick: you get the play-by- play, and the play-by-play is fine for what it is, but you don't have a sense of anything but what happens at the moment; no sense of whether risk exists at the moment or whether one team has momentum. Woodward does have a significant advantage over Clarke in that, as a well-known Beltway journalist, he had access to 75 participants/witnesses of the war planning, and was able to conduct interviews with them — so you have a sense of being there — except that participants had a better understanding of the context, and approached their circumstances with more wisdom than Woodward contributes.
All that having been said, a book which has been on far too few people's radar screens outdoes both Clarke and Woodward in terms of applying wisdom to understanding Bush. That's The Book on Bush, by Eric Alterman and Mark Green. Why? (I mean, neither was an insider, nor had access to the insiders...) I hate to say it so simply as this, but Alterman and Green use the tried and true format of beginning each chapter on a different Bush failing with an overarching perspective which introduces all the details which follow. Wisdom begins each chapter, and it ends each chapter. In between the beginning and the end, data and information support the wisdom. It's not as formulaic as the presenter who concludes with "here are the three things I want you to take away...", but the structure helps, as well as both authors' long careers in the public sector, as participants and evaluators. Wisdom aplenty. And, as a result, it is a powerful tool to use when arguing with your friends about the November election.
What to buy? The best of the three is Alterman and Green's; Clarke's is breezier. Woodward's will be overshadowed by later historians, who will bring much more wisdom to the party.
April 25, 2004:
Photo courtesy of www.thememoryhole.org
The most important events, when they become familiar, are no
longer considered with wonder or solicitude; and that which at
first filled up our whole attention, and left no place for any
other thought, is soon thrust aside into some remote repository
of the mind, and lies among other lumber of the memory,
overlooked and neglected.
Johnson noted that familiarity robs us of our sensitivity to what goes on in the world, and his essay eventually touched on our coldness regarding death — a coldness resulting from the constant news of another friend or acquaintance dying. How often had he heard people react calmly to such news, with surprise perhaps, but with resignation mixed in?
A sensationalist press, if it couldn't find a thousand Kitty Genoveses to shock us, might fill the gap with thousands of other deaths in order to sell the news. Eventually the tabloid headlines become a blur, and the mind, as a defense, fails to distinguish and ceases to care.
Personally, I don't think that was the danger that the Administration felt with respect to our soldiers who have died in combat, and the ban on coffin photos. The argument is that the 1991 policy was instituted out of consideration of the families of the fallen, but without any identification of whose coffin is whose, no single family could feel as if their privacy were being abused by any specific photo. The photos which thememoryhole.org obtained through a Freedom of Information request aren't morbid (to me, anyway), and suggest nothing but respect for the fallen.
We are, however, at a different end of the spectrum with respect to images of those soldiers who gave so much: just as our (our meaning here in the US — there are many international visitors here, so I should clarify) networks limited graphic images on our televisions during the first stage of the war, we have been sheltered from images of our dead soldiers. There is no shame for these fallen; if there is shame, it should be for ourselves, who have been sheltered from this reality, just as if our parents felt we weren't ready.
April 18, 2004:
Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.
— Samuel Johnson: Rambler #103
Is the phrase "failure to connect the dots" still allowable? Does it still bear the strength of its meaning, or have the "ins" developed some acronym like FTCTD to dampen the severity of its meaning? Because more and more there are reports about the dots' availability. In a wonderful summary, today's New York Times points out not only that there were many dots, but that they described a good portion of the potential scope of the September 11 attacks: hijacking commercial aircraft, buildings in lower Manhattan, Al Qaeda cells in the US, and so on. So when President Bush complained that the August 6 2001 PDB ("Presidential Daily Brief") lacked specificity — saying "Had I known there was going to be an attack on America I would have moved mountains to stop the attack" — you have to ask what it would have taken for the government to be aware and show sufficient initiative to uncover what it didn't know.
Defending his initial reactions to the August 6 PDB, Bush said, "There was nothing in this report to me that said, 'Oh, by the way, we've got intelligence that says something is about to happen in America.'" And Tuesday night, asked if he felt he'd been falsely comforted by the FBI, he said:
But doesn't he see that, beyond the 9-11 commission's job to uncover the failings, it was the job of both his administration and the prior administration to see that these failings didn't occur? It is not enough for the 9-11 Commission to make recommendations: responsibility needs to be accepted. I'm not talking about subsuming Osama Bin Laden's responsibility so that his activities are forgotten, I'm talking about sacking the person who was supposed to lock the bank vault each night, whoever that might have been. This is not just a Richard Clarke recognition; it's a recognition which CIA Director George Tenet also voiced in front of the 9/11 Commission:
"As a country you must be relentless on offense, but you must have a defense that links visa measures, border security, infrastructure protection and domestic warnings in a way that increases security, closes gaps and serves a society that demands a high level of both safety and freedom. We collectively did not close those gaps rapidly or fully enough before September 11." (Emphasis mine.)
Now, as for imagination, I once read a book by Miles Copeland called The Game of Nations. (Miles Copeland was in the CIA — a famous higher-up, as a matter of fact. You may have heard of him because of his son, Stewart, drummer in the Police.) I used to have a copy of this book and am not sure where it is, so I am working on memory here, but if I recall correctly Copeland described an effort within the CIA where the need for spontaneous decision making would be limited thanks to role-playing games. Someone would pretend to be Gamal Abdul Nasser, for instance, and act through what would happen following a coup; the player would be fed profile information, current situations, etc., and respond to other players as well. Through these simulations, the US government would become more aware of potential outcomes.
In short, it seems as if this activity was missing with respect to various data points from 1996 on... And since it is the job of the National Security Advisor and her staff to make the connections between CIA and FBI information which could not have been made by those departments (due to existing laws), it somehow seems an insufficient explanation on her part when she said, "Yet, as your hearings have shown, there was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks." One could dispute whether or not the Commission has even drawn that conclusion yet — the New York Times reports that several commission members think it could have been prevented — and even if it took more than one single effort, the suggestion of those who look to excuse themselves by asking for a silver bullet — perhaps a number of brass bullets could have been combined into something more sterling? When she read from the chatter that had been picked up ("Unbelievable news in coming weeks" etc.), and complained "they don't tell us when; they don't tell us where; they don't tell us who; and they don't tell us how," she didn't highlight what had been done to identify the sources of the chatter or to make it more concrete. Did she expect someone to walk in the door with the plans?
April 13, 2004:
The book which is read most, is read by few, compared with those that read it not; and of those few, the greater part peruse it with dispositions that very little favour their own improvement.
— Samuel Johnson: Adventurer #137
I imagine practically every writer and publisher is envious of the success which Richard A Clarke and Free Press are enjoying with Against All Enemies.It sits atop the New York Times Non Fiction Bestseller list, has done so for two weeks, and is likely to continue for more. Yesterday I heard on CNN Crossfire that movie rights have been bought by Sony Pictures.
Just how great is this success? And can you assume that we have such an informed populace that you don't need to read the book for yourself?
Currently in its ninth printing, there are supposedly 700,000 copies in print. While in the publishing world that's a monster, when you compare it to 180 million adults (roughly the number in the US population) you see how little impression the book itself makes even if you assume copies are shared. (If none are shared, less than four-tenths of one percent will have read it; even if you assume each copy is read by three people on average — which feels high to me — it's just over one percent of the adult US population.)
Thus, we get a better sense of Johnson's point, that even for a huge best seller like Clarke's, far far more won't read it than will. (This phenomenon of the overwhelming "non-readership" population helps to calm fears that Red State citizens and Blue State citizens have different political reading lists: they are more common than different, because most people aren't reading either conservative or liberal books. It's only the wonks in those states that have different reading lists!)
And so for even this important book (few can understand national security issues without thinking about its charges) very few people will grapple or draw conclusions based on it. Meaning, of course, that of those who draw conclusions, most will draw them based on what they have heard second-hand. It's definitely dangerous, since the media has tended to focus on the thirty or so pages that deal with the behavior of the Bush administration, giving little attention to what happened in the Clinton years (or those of Bush I, for that matter).
Essentially this has provided a clean slate for the current Bush administration and its supporters to characterize the Clinton years as they choose. One example is whether or not Clinton really had three opportunities to ice Bin Laden: there may have been three occasions where it was discussed, but characterizing them as opportunities requires greater familiarity with the constraints of the situations and actionability of the intelligence at the time. (But these details are discounted by conservatives as nuances, and thus they disregard them.) Readers of the book of course know more, but as has been demonstrated, there are too few of them to impact the character of the national debate.
When the President takes questions from the press on Tuesday night, how many Americans will recognize spin or evasion when it occurs? This is a concern under all presidencies, not just the current one.