Thursday, October 20, 2005

Genco Olive Oil

I picked up the New York Times at the Raleigh airport on Sunday morning, looking for the Judith Miller postmortem. Alas, it wasn't in the national print edition. I did finally track it down online, but after reading Tina Brown give the highlights and lowlights here (including a juicy quote that the Times didn't use), I may not bother to plow through the official version. Clearly, Judy ain't telling the whole truth (darn those Secret Service logbooks!), and the Times itself hasn't come to grips with the self-inflicted harm that came with letting Miller "run amok."

Judy Miller is no First Amendment martyr, she's a conniver and a dupe. Miller's name is tarnished for all time. Good. The Times's reputation has taken a beating. That's a shame, although their reputation hasn't cut all that much ice with me for quite a while. I still wish they would be the great paper they can be. If Dick Cheney departs in disgrace, well, he's done his damage already and he'll live out his few remaining sclerotic years counting his Halliburton profits. If bringing down Karl Rove will mean the end of Karl Roveism, great, but I'm not certain that genie can be put back in the bottle easily.

Inasmuch as the unfolding of Plamegate has sapped the momentum and vitality of that ongoing disaster we call the Bush Administration--hurray. Personally, though, the emotion I take from it is less satisfaction than dismay at how long it's taken, how much effort it's taken, how much resistance and denial there's been--dismay to be reminded how completely screwed up American national politics are. Official Washington is decadent. That's a funny word to use for such an uptight, near-beer sort of city, but it fits when standards of truth and decency have collapsed the way they have on the banks of the Potomac. It's remarkable how the earnest Rhodes Scholars of the Bill Clinton administration were scorned as outsiders and naifs by the semi-permanent D.C. social gatekeepers, but the Mayberry Machiavellis of the G.W. Bush team were accepted. It isn't obvious to me that it should've worked out that way. The Bush crew had a shrewd understanding of D.C. tribal rites, but they also applied bullying tactics very effectively. There's a Stockholm Syndrome quality to the media's acquiescence.

It's especially dismaying to people (like me) who imagine that being a New York Times reporter would be a fantastic thing to be. Simply covering national politics for America's leading newspaper, and doing it with integrity, doesn't slake some people's ambitions. This Miller creature was using her NYT credential to pursue some other agenda. She was a spy, essentially, or agent provocateur--a shadowy political operator, and the New York Times was her front. Remember, she didn't even write about Valerie Plame, she just stirred the pot in some yet-unknown way--propelled the story forward while keeping her by-line off of it.

Remember Genco Olive Oil Importers? It was the Corleone family business in "The Godfather," the legitimate facade for their real business of extortion, prostitution, etc. The New York Times and who knows who else (all Robert Novak's outlets for sure; Meet the Press, perhaps?) are like Genco in this case, and the real business is ratfucking and state propaganda. Of course, as Gene Lyons commented, even the Mob has more honor than to go after somebody's wife.


This verdict on Judy Miller is indisputable as far as I'm concerned. So it boggles my mind when Beltway mavens like Richard Cohen and Jacob Weisberg defend Miller and the Plamegate conspirators, and chastise special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

These guys are geniuses of self-promotion, in their way: calculatedly provocative, they are card carrying liberals who go against the grain of liberal conventional wisdom, in a way that might seem brave to their readers, but keeps them in the good graces of their sources and the Washington social scene. On the very day when anticipation over Plamegate indictments is at its height, both of them come out with columns saying that Fitzgerald's investigation is bad for liberal principles and he should shut it down. They're going for their "contrarian's merit badge," in James Wolcott's phrase.

Cohen urges Fitzgerald to close up shop and leave town, and leave politics to the Roves and Libbys --you know, the professionals: "Do not bring trivial charges -- nothing about conspiracies, please -- and nothing about official secrets, most of which are known to hairdressers, mistresses and dog walkers all over town." This pisses me off to no end, and it's something that I've written about in this space before: the notion that lots of people in the Washington politico-media establishment knew that Rove and Libby were engaged in reckless character assassination, and none of them deigned to let the other 290 million of us know. Washington hairdressers can be trusted to know what to do with "official secrets" but a federal prosecutor can't, and Joe and Jane Voter aren't even worth mentioning.

Weisberg and Cohen both allude to Ken Starr and the prosecutorial excesses of the Clinton years--which is the worst case of fighting the last war I've ever seen. Where is the proportionality? Clinton was trying to get his dick wet. Bush's minions were trying to fight a baseless, illegitimate war. Weisberg makes a big point that Libby certainly didn't blow Valerie Plame's cover intentionally, merely recklessly. I guess that makes a difference as to what particular statute Scooter will be charged under, but it hardly makes it less despicable.

Weisberg objects that Plamegate was not a mere attempt to hurt Joe Wilson--it was not simple retaliation, eye-for-an-eye. It was to score a point in the DOD v. CIA dispute over Iraqi WMDs: "Bush officials were in the middle of an argument in which they were largely wrong, and which they lost, but in which they thought they were right and were trying to win." Again, whether the harm to Wilson and Plame was Libby/Rove's pure intent or merely a side effect hardly matters. But I would also like to remind Mr. Weisberg of Slate magazine of the difference between a lie and a political position. By June 2003, only a fool or a dreamer could believe in the existence of Iraqi WMDs. Scooter Libby is a snake, but he is no fool nor dreamer. Good ideas don't need to have lies told about them in order to gain support.

Half of what really gripes Cohen, Weisberg, and their ilk is that Patrick Fitzgerald doesn't leak, and that makes their job as journalists harder. They are content with the status quo, where "senior administration officials" like Scooter and Turd Blossom call them up and feed them disinformation. Leaks are the lube in the gears of Washington society and career-making. Who cares that a leaked story will likely be bullshit, and may have barbaric consequences. It was Page One!


Voices of reason--

James Wolcott: If the shit really hits the fan, e.g. Cheney has to resign, "we'll hear the same frets and cries from the pundit shows about the country being torn apart and Americans losing faith in their government. But it isn't the country that will be torn apart by Plamegate any more than the country was torn apart during Watergate (which provided daily thrilling news entertainment value that bound citizens together); it's the Washington establishment that will be torn apart. And it should be torn apart." [Emphasis in the original]

Gene Lyons: Miller is wrong, it was possible to see the WMD intel was bogus -- "Maybe that’s the story Scooter Lewis and the country-club toughs in the White House really feared. What’s more, it was always there to be written, but not by Washington courtier-journalists who pride themselves more on the quality of their dinner party invitations and TV appearances than their professional integrity and skepticism. Do I believe that Miller can’t remember who told her “Valerie Flame’s” name ? A child wouldn’t believe it. The more clever of my two basset hounds would be suspicious. The real shame is that, absent an aggressive prosecutor, none of this would have become known." [Emphasis mine]

Don't do the crime if you can't do the time

It takes a special kind of sleazeball to smile for his mug shot. The same kind it takes to pimp out his own daughter in a hot tub for his rich lobbyist pals.

Keep your eye on the sparrow, Tom! You piece of shit...

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Grand Canyon and the Tattooed Paleontologist

The New York Times did a cover story the other day set in the Grand Canyon. Two different tour groups took raft trips down the Colorado River through the Canyon. One, organized by the National Center for Science Education, pointed to all the evidence of slow change over geologic time. The other, led by Canyon Ministries, looked at some of the same fossils and geologic formations and argued that they were evidence that Darwin and Lyall were wrong and God made it all happen in accordance with the Biblical account of creation and the Flood.

Pharyngula and others were all over it, as an egregious example of "he said she said" reporting. The story refuses to explicitly endorse either side of the controversy.

I'm going to muddle my point here. I usually deplore the "he said she said" approach as well, especially in political reporting, which is NYT's Jodi Wilgoren's beat. I am tempted to make a half-hearted exception in this case; I believe at least this is a good-faith disagreement (as opposed to "Nancy Pelosi tells the truth, then on the other hand Tom DeLay tells a lie, The End"). True, Wilgoren could have made clearer the massive weight of scientific consensus on the evolution side of the scale. But I don't think this is a brain-dead story; I think Wilgoren has framed it artfully and observed the most telling details. And I respect her intent (articulated in an e-mail to PZ Meyers of Pharyngula) to keep her opinion out of it. I think we Enlightenment types should be outraged that organized creationism exists, not that the New York Times reports on it per se.

Anyway, I got something out of this story. The structure of it and the length allowed for a nuanced view of where the sides were coming from. To put it another way, it gave both sides plenty of rope to hang themselves with.

It gives us vignettes like this:

Diana Panes began questioning evolution, which she had studied in school like most everybody else, seven years ago when [her son] came home from school asking whether Genesis was fable or history...

Of the explanations offered by Mr. Vail and other creationists, she said, "For me it was just the most immense relief that it didn't have to remain a mystery forever." [Emphasis mine]

Another data point in my theory that a huge cause of conservative nonsense in the U.S. is baby-boomer parents who can't handle awkward conversations with their teenagers.

Through four days, Mr. Vail mentioned public schools only once, saying that 80 percent of Christians walked away from their faith when studying science that confounded the creation story. "It's foundational to our faith... We're raising a generation of confused children, and it's the public schools that are doing it!"

I think the 80% figure is pulled from somebody's ass, but I think we see an important bit of subtext here. There are people in this country for whom being book-smart is not the highest value. These people are threatened by change, afraid of being made obsolete, disturbed that their children are being educated into different values than the parents hold. They latch onto creationism as an anchor. It's irrational, it's unhealthy, it's misplaced focus, but it's a teeny bit understandable.

Pharyngula feels, and some of his commenters agree, that the story goes out of its way to make the pro-Darwin side look bad. The young male paleontologist with tattoos and painted toenails, who calls himself a devout Christian--is he a freak? Is his portrait designed to make the scientists' side look bad to the religionists' side? I disagree, for three reasons off the top of my head. One, a person can be smart, well-educated, creative, non-conformist, a tattooed weirdo even, and be a Christian. Two, do tattoos and church repel each other like oil and water? No--there are entire congregations of pierced, tattooed, Gen-X Christians. Three, who is reading the New York Times in the first place? A lot of creationists, or a lot of secular Bobos with a not-very-nuanced picture of Christians?

Look at what our tattooed paleotologist says:

"Ultimately, creationism is not just bad science to me, it's bad Christianity, it's Bible worship... God doesn't require you to be stupid, to deny what you see, to deny what you know."

Shazam. This is the focal point of the article, for me. "Bibliolatry," my undergrad religion professor Max Polley called it. He deplored Bibliolatry, and he was a Bible scholar. The God I believe in wants to use your faculties freely.

Let me be clear: Evolution is the truth, evolution should be taught in the public schools, and any explanation, from Intelligent Design on down, that relies on a divine Creator, should be excluded from science classes. Creationism is an error that, in its manifestation as a political campaign, could have disastrous consequences. But evolution represents a huge cultural rift. A veritable Grand Canyon. Look at the poll numbers (I know it's painful) showing how many average Joes and Janes disbelieve evolution. This rift is not going to be closed with a ringing concluding paragraph to a New York Times story. If it's ever going to be closed, it's going to take time and patience and listening and understanding. I think Jodi Wilgoren's story contributed.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

A Tale Told By an Idiot

Crooked Timber informs me of a new campaign to tell the world who the "real" William Shakespeare was.

It is amazing how resilient is the idea that William Shakespeare, son of a Stratford glovemaker, couldn't have written the plays that are attributed to him. One of these so-called epiphanic breakthroughs arises every few years. The latest candidate for "real Shakespeare" is Sir Henry Neville, but of course the Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and others have been nominated in the past. Each epiphany gets smacked down, but somebody else will come forward with another one before long.

I was glad to see that almost nobody among the commenters at Crooked Timber, who surely include some people more knowledgeable about the Bard than I am, gives this theory any credence either. (There's also the intriguing report that this Rubinstein person also retails anti-Darwin theories. An all-purpose debunker.) Someone at CT raises the pertinent issue of what authorship meant in Elizabethan times. Parts of that argument are over my head, but it seems clear that Shakespeare was at least influenced by Marlowe and other colleagues and patrons, and that the plays existed as performances for some years before they were published as texts. So it's likely there was a collaborative aspect to the creation of the plays in the Shakespeare canon. And there is little biographical data about Shakespeare the man, hence lots of room for speculation, lots of room for conspiracy theories.

Mostly what I detect, in these essays on why the Stratford man couldn't be the author of Hamlet, are inessential things. The ad hominem thing, for one: it's just evident in the rhetoric that some of these guys use that they hold the snobbish assumption that a man of humble social origins and little formal education could not possibly have written these great works of literature.

There's also the Occam's Razor verdict: People construct these elaborate schema for the Earl of Oxford's authorship: huge edifices of circumstantial evidence, how this scene in Henry V corresponds to some episode in the life of Edward de Vere, etc. All of which obscures the Oxfordians' enormous timeline problem: Oxford died well before many of the plays are believed to have been written. (Marlowe died even earlier.)

One argument the anti-Stratfordians always allude to is that a person of low rank like Shakespeare could never have had the knowledge of politics and court life that is reflected in the plays. But you never hear the reverse--you never hear anyone wonder how the Earl of Oxford could possibly have written realistically about gravediggers or household servants.

Anyway, some people think this stuff is great fun. I feel a teeny bit insulted on behalf of the Stratford man. Whatever.