May 31, 2005
The day before he began blogging here, Neil tagged me with the Caesar's Bath meme. Fun. This one makes you name five things everyone else thinks are great but you just think are kinda, well, nice enough. Plus, I've got a nice, controversial last one that you'll all flay me alive for. Off we go:
The New Yorker: Really, what's the fuss? I recognize that the writing is often inspired, but the topic choice rarely is, meaning I'm only occasionally interested in whatever the magazine has decided to spend that week's 40,000 words on. The latest issue wastes half its time reestablishing John McCain's credentials as a lovable, cuddly outsider whose tough as nails when the situation warrants and has the genetic makeup to live until 170 and the rest inveighing against the scientific bankruptcy of Intelligent Design. Fine articles both, I guess, but I could have absorbed the same information in less time elsewhere, and indeed, I did so years ago. I guess that's my problem with the New Yorker, other magazines feel they need to break stories, or find new angles on them, The New Yorker instead believes in legitimating them. At great length. When I no longer care.
Everybody Loves Raymond: This show been winning critical acclaim and a variety of awards for years now. How? I can't, offhand, think of anything quite as forgettable as this vanilla sitcom. The characters are stereotypes, the jokes are throwaways, and the plots aren't, well, there. Don't get me wrong -- I like my sitcoms, I thought Friends was terrific end-of-the-day entertainment, and even Will & Grace throws out the occasional worthwhile one-liner. But Everybody Loves Raymond? It's the quintessential Caesar's Bath show: nothing really wrong with it, just undeserving of its success.
Blogs: Look, they've been very good to me, I quite like reading them and lord knows I enjoy writing mine, but someone turn off the hype. We don't break stories, we don't fact check ourselves, we rarely challenge our reader's biases, we don't encourage bipartisan conversation, only a few among us write well, only a few among them think well, and, if all that's not enough, I've managed to ascend to a high tier. Shouldn't that prove the medium's at least a little overhyped? Maybe as TPM Cafe comes online, Democracy Arsenal continues to mature, and a few politicians get the hang of them, they'll mature into a much-needed, unfiltered channel of communication between those on the inside and those on the outs. Until then? We're just marginally awake folks with keyboards and time on our hands.
Google Library: As a project, this seems merely cool, not revolutionary. After all, does anyone really want to read Dostoevsky on their computer screen? How about Proust? And I can't imagine we're going to start printing out 400-page books -- at this point, it's cheaper (in ink and paper) to buy the Penguin edition. Moreover, my streamline stapler is just not an adequate replacement for binding. In the future, I could see digitized text becoming useful through, say, in-bookstore kiosks that allow you to choose most any book written, download the text, print it, bind it, make a nice cover, and, for 10 bucks, take it home, thus making bookstores repositories for most every book ever written, both obscure and popular. Indeed, maybe home versions of these machines will eventually come online, making Amazon transactions instant. But until then, the digitization of millions of texts strike me as a highly effective timesaver for college students who forgot where a particular quote was, but little else.
The Downing Street Memo: I promised controversy, right? This has been blowing a few minds on the left and creating some pretty ambitious calls to action (notably Shakespeare's Sister's Brass Blog Alliance, dedicated to supporting the efforts of Conyers and After Downing Street to find impeachable offenses in it and begin proceedings). The memo itself is essentially the minutes from a meeting of Blair and his principals from 2002, wherein they talk about Bush's desire to go to war, about how to sell it to the public, and basically prove that the whole run-up with the UN and the rhetoric around the inspectors and all the rest were crap -- war had already been decided on.
This is nasty stuff. And when historians review the War in Iraq, it'll attain Gulf of Tonkin significance, no doubt about it. But it's just not that significant now. First off, most everyone watching knew that the rationale for war was trumped up. The Bush administration wanted to knock off the Iraqi regime for ideological reasons, not because they were deathly afraid Saddam would launch warships on Florida or pass his nonexistent nuclear weapons off to his longtime enemy Osama bin-Laden, who'd recently declared that good Muslims should undermine Hussein's apostate regime. Both then and now, the question was whether or not you thought Bush's central purpose -- deposing Saddam -- was desirable. Even if every American was told that Bush withheld information as he led us to war and protested that our path was uncertain when it wasn't, you'd change few minds. Either folks believe the war was worth it or they don't, but few think Bush only came to his conclusion after deep soul-searching and Iraqi intransigence.
More to the point, what do Democrats or liberals gain from pushing this story? The last thing they should want is to refocus the debate on whether American should have gone to war and return to the safer -- for Republicans! -- ground of gassed Kurds and regional aggression. Our incompetence once we got there and the poor way the Administration has handled the conflict are much more effective and, indeed, important. Beyond that, we're there now. Recriminations can be handled once the war is over, but few in this country are going to stand for an extended debate on the righteousness of the conflict's beginnings until we're done securing Kirkirk. For evidence of that, take Britain, where the populace is broadly antiwar and wholly irritated at Blair, and yet the Downing Street Memo, which enjoyed extremely wide play, did nothing but shave a few more seats off his winning margin. It's a shame, but I fear folks just don't want to hear about it, and the left will pay a political price if we force it to the fore.
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"For evidence of that, take Britain, where the populace is broadly antiwar and wholly irritated at Blair, and yet the Downing Street Memo, which enjoyed extremely wide play, did nothing but shave a few more seats off his winning margin. "
I think you're misreading that. In Britain, pretty much everyone (left and right) already thought Tony lied the country into war, and that Bush was determined to invade from the start. Now a lot of people didn't care enough about that to override their desire for a Labour government(and given that the only real alternatives were the Lib Dems and the Tories, who can blame them), and the rest had already made up their minds. So there wasn't much the memo could change. Bear in mind that the general atmosphere - the "chatter" in the press, the broadcaset media, the pub, on the doorstep - is vastly different in the UK. The baseline is that Blair lied/misled, the war was almost certainly illegal, that the whole situation is a disaster. The only questions are how important that is on the grand scale of things and how to salvage the situation.
I think you're wrong on Google Library, too, or rather I think you can't see the wood for the trees. For a start, something that is enormously convenient for students (and other academics, mind) is in itself good. Secondly, it's not about reading an entire text on, or off-screen. It's about someone saying to you "Oh, it's like that bit in x where...." and you being able to google it. It's about being able to read primary sources yourself instead of relying on somebody else's citation.
Posted by: Ginger Yellow | May 31, 2005 8:57:20 AM
Insofar as the New Yorker goes, didn't Sy Hersh break the Abu Ghraib story there simultaneously with 60 Minutes expose? I realize this is a weak argument by anecdote that the magazine is all about breaking news, but given that your example is simply the contrary of this, maybe a larger sample size is necessary.
Posted by: Edge | May 31, 2005 9:01:02 AM
You are probably right about the Downing Street Memo. Bush pulled a real bait and switch. Now most Americans seem to want to beleive that we invaded Iraq out of humanitarian concern for the Kurds. Of course, this is not the reason pushed to the fore when we went in, but now it stands as the main rationale.
Now if you bitch about getting defrauded into war you come across as soft on genocide.
It is incredibly ironic that most flag waving Americans really coudn't care less about the Kurds, but now they are left to justify this war in terms of saving them. Also Ironically, more lefty anti-war types are being forced to defend Saddam's government and its depradations or at least explain why we shouldn't have ended them.
Much better for Democrats to look forward and push an agenda for ending the invasion that improves on Republican efforts. The only hitch is developing such and agenda.
Posted by: Neil Paul | May 31, 2005 9:51:49 AM
Edge: Indeed true. But that's the exception that proves the rule: The New Yorker rarely, rarely breaks stories. Their general M.O is deep, long pieces on topics of commonly acknowledged importance. Take their recent, three-cover series on global warming. Important topic that the New Yorker didn't say anything new about, and spent an enormous amount of time saying much that could be better absorbed elsewhere. And don't get me wrong, I like the New Yorker (I'm even getting a subscription), but I find it nice, not superlative.
Ginger: doesn't that prove my point, though? They believed the guy lied, they thought the whole thing was illegal, and it stil lwasn't enough to turn out his government. I'm arguing that in America, where Bush is substantially more popular and the populace significantly more pro-war, the affect will be even less impressive.
Posted by: Ezra | May 31, 2005 9:57:09 AM
The Downing Street Memo addresses the issue of lack of prewar planning as well as the shaping of intelligence. This makes the document relevant in showing the Bush administrations incompetence in fighting the war in Iraq and the larger war on terror.
Posted by: michaelw | May 31, 2005 9:59:27 AM
Re: The New Yorker
Funny, your reasons for thinking the New Yorker is so-so are pretty much my reasons for liking it so much. I don't buy the New Yorker for articles about things I already know about; I buy it for articles about things I've never heard of. Naturally that's a bit hit-or-miss ("Oh boy...another 10,000 words about shad fishing from John McPhee...."), but excellent writing about a wide range of topics is a good way to expand your interests.
And then of course there's the cartoons.
Re: The Downing Street Memo
I know many people are incredulous that this memo hasn't had a greater impact. I find that sort of touching. I think that these people believe that if the public only knew The Truth, there would be a great uprising and life would become a lot tougher for Bushco. But I don't think it works like that. I think most people pretty much know The Truth already. We attacked Iraq because it seemed like a plausible threat, and anyway we were angry and scared and Saddam was a ready-made villian. I mean, it's not like this country was dragged kicking and screaming into war. Yes, the Bush administration deceived us, but a lot of people wanted to be told it was OK to go whomp someone.
Unpleasant truths like the Downing Street memo may tilt public opinion, but they're just confirming what many people - maybe even most people - really kinda sorta already knew. They're not going to cause many Damascene conversions. But I'm pleased this stuff will be part of the historical record, because people need to know the type of lying bastard that inhabits the Bush administration.
Posted by: hubcap | May 31, 2005 11:01:19 AM
Either folks believe the war was worth it or they don't, but few think Bush only came to his conclusion after deep soul-searching and Iraqi intransigence.
Have you been to a Red State lately? ;-)
You're mistaken that there aren't a lot of Americans who don't remain convinced that Iraq was associated with 9/11, and that Bush is a good man who went to war as a last resort. I know, because they're my neighbors, my family. There are people who would be shocked to find out this is not the case.
And just as a quibble, "dedicated to pushing the story out and using it to impeach Bush" is a little simplistic. The Big Brass Alliance was formed to support the efforts of Congressman Conyers and After Downing Street, who are pushing for a formal inquiry into whether impeachable offenses were indeed committed. Congressman Conyers is seeking 100,000 signatures; After Downing Street is seeking support in disseminating information. That's what we're doing.
And as a side note, in response to your question, what do Democrats or liberals gain from pushing this story?, I can only speak for myself, not every member of the alliance, but for me, it's a personal feeling of seeking accountability, a response to my utter disdain for the secrecy and underhandedness of this administration. I want to feel good about the people running my country, and right now, I don't. I wanted to feel like I was doing my part, small though it may be, to open the window and let in the sunlight--that great disinfectant, so we're told. Maybe I am being foolish, but it isn't in me to not care.
Posted by: Shakespeare's Sister | May 31, 2005 11:11:28 AM
Edited to better reflect your efforts. I guess I've come to accept that I hate the people running my country, but post-2004, they're the elected leadership and my attention is on elections. In that way, I think, a focus on the Downing Memo can hurt.
Posted by: Ezra | May 31, 2005 11:23:02 AM
I suppose so, in the sense that I agree the memo won't have much effect in America either. But the point I was trying to make is that the reasons are very different - in Britain, it was basically a case of "What's new?" In the US, where in the mainstream discourse the idea that Bush really lied (as opposed to maybe exaggerated or had bad intel) is still taboo, the reason it won't make waves is because of the epistemological chasm. Documents, news stories and facts that don't fit with Bush-as-Messiah are just ignored by large sections of the right as if they didn't exist/happen. Witness the recent attempts to pretend that all that went on at Abu Ghraib was the naked pyramid stuff, despite the existence of photos of actual torture and beaten corpses. If we didn't have the photos, I'm sure the likes of Rush would still be claiming nothing at all happened.
Posted by: Ginger Yellow | May 31, 2005 11:33:42 AM
In regard to your promise of controversy:
This is nasty stuff. And when historians review the War in Iraq, it'll attain Gulf of Tonkin significance, no doubt about it. But it's just not that significant now.
Significant later and not that significant now? With that attitude, one wonders what kind of world you will have when later comes around.
If the best we can do is tip toe around the truth, perhaps the liars deserve to stomp all over it.
Beyond that, we're there now. Recriminations can be handled once the war is over, but few in this country are going to stand for an extended debate on the righteousness of the conflict's beginnings until we're done securing Kirkirk.
Yes, securing Kirkuk. And we'll be in Hanoi in no time, right after we win their hearts and minds.
It is extremely disappointing that such a bright light as yourself accepts the direction your light may shine upon. You don't promise controversy at all. On the contrary, you avoid it.
Posted by: The Heretik | May 31, 2005 11:59:36 AM
The sister said: You're mistaken that there aren't a lot of Americans who don't remain convinced that Iraq was associated with 9/11, and that Bush is a good man who went to war as a last resort.
A very large part of the American people believe all kinds of false things (Saddam was responsible for 9/11, for instance). You can't have a lasting democracy when the people believe non-facts, and one party has an endless supply of non-facts they are willing to sell.
BushCO pretty much has made the medium lie the stock in trade for information. This isn't so much an election issue as it is a conscienceness-corrective.
Almost anything that is done to expose the lies and hidden truths that have become the accepted practice is good for the body politic in this atmosphere.
The Dems can't win in the future is anything the Repubs say, including lies and withholding the facts, is accepted as par for the course. We must undermine their creditability so we can be listened to.
The first step is the media. They must learn to say the 'lie' word all over again, anytime it is needed. The Star-Tribune (and Baltimore Sun) are leading the way here in recent days. President Bush and those around him lied, and the rest of us let them. Harsh? Yes. True? Also yes. Perhaps it happened because Americans, understandably, don't expect untruths from those in power. But that works better as an explanation than as an excuse.
I'm not saying we should run on us as truth-tellers and Repubs as liers. I am saying that lying must not go unpunished, and until large majorities of people know of the lies we won't as a nation be able to act rationally.
Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 31, 2005 1:04:38 PM
I realize the Downing St. memo thing is the more substantial part of your post, but I wanted to respond to the New Yorker bit, which I disagreed with (I was much more sympathetic to Matt's slams of the atlantic in a similar post). I agree the McCain article was pretty awful, but I thought it was very atypical for the magazine -- the political pieces are often a bit dated, but the judgment is usually better. And to me, where the new yorker really shines is in the non-political pieces, like the recent article on the mummy collector or last december's very long, but to me thrilling, piece on the tree-climbing scientists -- those are subjects I wouldn't have read about anywhere else. And I realize this is a matter of taste, but I think the quality of the writing goes a long way to redeem the sometimes too-obvious topic choice.
Posted by: Greg Marx | May 31, 2005 1:16:56 PM
I think Ezra's right. Most Americans went to Eye-Rack less because Saddam posed an actual threat and more because they want to shoot a lot of A-rabs.
Posted by: ItAintEazy | May 31, 2005 7:24:29 PM
"streamline" stapler? Are you really too young to have seen Office Space yourself? SWINGLINE stapler, fool! You're risking your credibility among the 21-30 set and you only just got there yourself!
"...I could set the building on fire...."
Posted by: diddy | Jun 1, 2005 10:50:39 AM
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