Thursday, January 25, 2007

"these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand"

Whew -- tired today, and I know exactly why: I got caught up in watching All the President's Men on TV last night and stayed up later than I should've.

This movie is an old favorite of mine, but I think last night marked the first time I've watched it since the revelation of the identity of Deep Throat. Not that verisimilitude is the best yardstick, but Hal Holbrook's performance actually holds up great, and is even a little amplified, compared to my sense of what Mark Felt was like. Felt was one of the very top people in the FBI, an accomplished, meticulous man, fundamentally conservative. (The creepy thing I noted in the Deep Throat expose in Vanity Fair two years ago, was how highly Felt regarded J. Edgar Hoover.) Not at all the closet liberal I would "expect" to be spilling the beans about Watergate. He represents not the whistle-blower as disgruntled peon or ax-grinder, but someone with high standards of integrity and professionalism, who has the loftiest possible motives for informing. The offense he takes at Nixon's misdeeds is not visceral, it's almost intellectual. His sense of order has been insulted. Deep Throat seems almost a Godlike figure, setting the ground rules for when and where he meets Woodward, what he divulges, when and how much revelation to give. He is also a kind of rescuer: The emtional climax of the film is when Deep Throat warns Woodward the reporters' lives are in danger.

Another reaction: though it's been several years since I'd seen Robert Redford-as-Bob Woodward, I've seen the real Woodward quite a bit lately in various interviews and talk shows, and man, does Woodward come off better in the film. Who among us men wouldn't like to be played by Redford in the filmic version of our lives, of course, but movie Woodward is so hard-driving, fast-talking, working all night and burning up shoe leather. The real Bob Woodward speaks in this almost excruciatingly slow cadence with a flat Midwestern accent. Also, nowadays Woodward is the farthest thing from a muckraker, he's a court historian, who reportedly receives interview subjects in his elegant Georgetown home; they come to him, they make appointments. To think of him as eager and hungry in 1972-73 -- it's a hard mental leap.

I noticed more flaws in the movie than I ever had, some awkward expository dialogue, although of course it's a hard story to tell visually. I still enjoyed it, though. You can't miss the parallels between the flailings and maneuverings of the current administration, and those of Nixon's men: the pettiness, the incompetence, the frat-boy arrogance of "ratfucker" Donald Segretti, the two-facedness of Ken Clawson (whom Ben Bradlee blackmails for information with the knowledge that the married Clawson went to a young woman's apartment for a drink). Perhaps Deep Throat put it best: "The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand."

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Sin of Being Right; The Joy of Blogscenity

Radar Online must have done something right, because they sure irritated some people with this article, comparing the professional fortunes of pundits who advocated the Iraq invasion in 2003, with those of pundits who opposed it. The conclusion was that the hawkish ones, who have been proved so abundantly wrong, are still higher and getting higher still on the political pundit food chain than the doves, who were merely correct as opposed to "serious."

The liberal-hawks doth protest an awful lot, with a lot of fake humility and various rationalizations: the doves were right, but just got lucky; or the doves were right, but that will make them cocky and therefore less likely to be right next time; or, the doves were right, but not for the right reasons.

I don't mean to bore you all, singing verse after verse of the same song, but prestige journalists continue to flounder and to be exposed as emperors-with-no-clothes by the new online news 'n' opinion outlets they so disdain. In the first week of operation of Time magazine's group blog of TV pundits, Joe Klein showed his ass, and then tried to pull rank on Greg Sargent of TAPPED and TPM (Rank on Sargent? No, I didn't do that on purpose), where at this point Greg Sargent is worth a whole Town Car load of Joe Kleins.

And then there is a whole exchange, centered at MyDD and TPM Cafe, whether the Internet left is worthy of the name or just a nest of monosyllabic brainless drones whose only useful attributes are its Paypal accounts. That deserves its own post.

I found a little gem today, poking around the archives of the Guardian website, and wanted to bookmark it. Theo Hobson riffed on Polly Toynbee's first brush with the blogosphere, and her offended reaction to her blog commenters:

When the pseudonymous anarcho-bloggers put up two fingers to the established columnist, they are performing a very useful corrective function. By replying to a wise, measured essay with comments that are nasty, brutish and short, they are injecting a crucial realism. They are saying that none of us is a pure, godlike intelligence calmly surveying the world; that we are all passionate, fallible and limited by our perspectives - and less wise and good than we like to seem.

They are true satirists - puncturing pomposity with low realism. And (this will really rile them!) they are performing a crucial theological function. By mocking the tone of calm, polite rightness, the blogscenity-mongers are reminding the omniscient columnist that she is not God. They are reminding us that real life is not a calm debate but a struggle - intense, passionate and messy. We are not wise spirits who look down on the world's terrible problems: we are down on ground level, fully involved and implicated. We are all guilty; we are all part of the problem.

Blogscenity is a refreshing reaction to the absurd and pompous hangover of the Enlightenment that is the print pulpit. The detached, benign, omniscient voice is a fraud - and a blasphemy. Knock it.

Feedback welcome.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Mystery of Dumb Smart Guys

Malcolm Gladwell, "Open Secrets," The New Yorker:

The national-security expert Gregory Treverton has famously made a distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source bin Laden will remain at large.

The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much. The C.I.A. had a position on what a post-invasion Iraq would look like, and so did the Pentagon and the State Department and Colin Powell and Dick Cheney and any number of political scientists and journalists and think-tank fellows. For that matter, so did every cabdriver in Baghdad.

If things go wrong with a puzzle, identifying the culprit is easy: it’s the person who withheld information. Mysteries, though, are a lot murkier: sometimes the information we’ve been given is inadequate, and sometimes we aren’t very smart about making sense of what we’ve been given, and sometimes the question itself cannot be answered. Puzzles come to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don’t.

A good article -- Malcolm Gladwell doing his thing. He discusses the Enron financial implosion at length, as an example of a mystery. There were thousands upon thousands of pages of disclosure documents that Enron produced in the late 90s; the signs of their downfall were not lacking.

Now: Richard Dawkins, Comment Is Free blog at the Guardian:

But I want to add another and less obvious reason why we should not have executed Saddam Hussein. His mind would have been a unique resource for historical, political and psychological research: a resource that is now forever unavailable to scholars...

[H]is execution represents a wanton and vandalistic destruction of important research data....

What were the formative influences on [mass murderers]? Was it something in their childhood that turned them bad? In their genes? In their testosterone levels? Could the danger have been nipped in the bud by an alert psychiatrist before it was too late? How would Hitler, or Saddam Hussein have responded to a different style of education? We don't have a clear answer to these questions. We need to do the research.

... It is in the nature of research on ruthless national dictators that the sample size is small. Wasn't the judicial destruction of one of the very few research subjects we had - and a prime specimen at that - an act of vandalism?

Right. Small sample size of genocidal dictators. What a shame. Maybe it's not too late, though, to preserve Saddam's brain in a jar of formaldehyde, the way the Soviets did with Lenin...

(For the record, I thought the execution of Saddam Hussein was a travesty as well, but the lost opportunity to have him fill out questionnaires did not occur to me.)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Doug Feith is still the heavyweight champ, though

Via Ezra Klein we discover Jane Galt calling Daniel Dennett a contender for the title of “stupidest smart person in the world.” Dennett is comparing the need to eradicate religion from modern life, with public health campaigns against tobacco. Ms. Galt, shall we say, has problems with his argument.

The Dennett tangent, though, pointed me to, a site I had forgotten about, which does this annual New Years’ stunt where they ask 160 or so really smart people to answer a really big question. This year’s question is: What Are You Optimistic About? Why? It’s very much worth browsing around in.

The people are mostly scientists and philosophers, and where they touch on religion, as in Dennett’s case, it’s in the vein of predicting religion’s demise or at least its remission. The one writer they truck with at who's sympathetic to religion is Andrew Brown of the Guardian, whom I’ve blogged before.

[A]n enquiry into religious belief would be distinct from an enquiry into religious opinions: Religious "belief" would involve all of the largely unconscious mechanisms which lead people to behave superstitiously, or reverently, or with a disdain for heretics; religious opinions would be the reasons that they give for this behaviour. We need to understand both. It may be that their opinions would correspond to their beliefs but that is something to be established in every case by empirical enquiry. It's obvious that in most cases they don't. Intellectuals are supposed to be motivated by their opinions; some of them actually are. But everyone is motivated by their beliefs and prejudices as well.

Welcome 2007

Happy New Year, cyber-space-men and space-women.

My wife and I attended a New Year’s Eve party, our first in I don’t know how many years. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, getting discreetly intoxicated and chatting with an interesting array of people. Almost everybody there told some variation of a story that went, I have this fairly pedestrian desk job Monday thru Friday, but I also play music, or make films, or get to travel to some interesting places and in that way combine work with fun and broadening myself. Hanging out with people who are objectively like me, and also subjectively passionate and creative and funny--it made me feel a lot better about my place in life and this mid-sized Southern burg I live in.

I met and began dating my wife in a workplace—-we were both door-to-door canvassers for an environmental organization. Thanks to Ralph Nader and his lefty inheritors, thousands of Americans by now have been through this rite of passage in their young adult years. As a job, canvassing is demanding and sometimes even grim; few people last for more than a year or two at it. As a stage of life, though, it has its charms. You meet a bunch of people roughly your age, with similar interests, all of whom share your unusual daily schedule (noon to 9 pm, give or take) and your subsistence-level income bracket. So the job comes with a built-in social life—-in fact you stand a pretty strong chance of meeting your future spouse.

Due to family life and job changes and moving from a more boho neighborhood to a staid middle-class one, we had drifted away from these folks. It’s been 17 years (yikes) and stuff happens. But through a happy accident, a friend-of-a-friend kind of thing, we have gotten reacquainted with some of them, and a handful of them were at this party. It was a lot like old times, especially since the site of the party was around the corner from the group house where many of our circa-1990 parties took place. The most obvious new feature for 2006/7 was the presence of a passel of kids, some of them teenagers, having their own parallel party in the backyard, playing ball and shooting fireworks, in close proximity to their obscenity-spouting and not-100%-sober fathers and mothers. Dunno that they paid us much attention; dunno that it would matter if they had.

One old friend we caught up with at the party, I’ll call him Joe, was our canvass director. Characteristically, he cringed when I referred to him as my “old boss”; all of us were always primarily friends, not employer and employee, and he used to struggle with his role as the guy in charge. (Speaking of my own case specifically, he should have fired me for lack of performance; there were objective fundraising quotas we were supposed to meet, I consistently had trouble meeting them, and he consistently covered for me until I finally said “uncle” of my own accord.) But Joe has a really terrific way with people; he was uncanny at counseling us, bolstering our self-esteem, and keeping us in the daily routine (as long as we were meant to) of knocking on doors and talking to strangers. The other night, in reminiscing about old times, he paid my wife a compliment that made her absolutely beam. I am halfway chagrined that he did that the first time he’d seen her in over a decade--I see her every day and don’t say things that make her light up like that.

In his current job Joe consults with companies about their smokestack permits. He travels throughout the U.S. and still maintains and is sustained by relationships from his canvassing days. As an "expert canvasser" he used to cross-train in other states with sister organizations of ours, so, as he was telling it the other night, he now has invitations to stay in the homes of people he met 15-plus years ago and may have "known" for only a few weeks. A couple of others of the old canvassing crew are doing environmental regulation or consulting, fashioning a career from their concern for the environment. Whatever they're doing, all these folks are setting good examples of lives lived with integrity and passion.