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December 18, 2006

Retreat from Empiricism: On Ron Suskind's Scoop

"Realist, a classic term in foreign policy debates, and reality-based, which is not a classic term but more of an instant classic, are different ideas. We shouldn't fuzz them up. The press is capable of doing that--fuzzing things up--because it never came to terms with what Suskind reported in 2004."

Even realism has an obligation to be realistic. George Packer.

The only piece of political journalism ever to make me cry was Ron Suskind’s article, Without a Doubt, published in the New York Times Magazine shortly before the 2004 election. It was in that article that the famous passage appeared quoting a senior administration official on the myopia of the “reality-based community” when it came to understanding the government of George W. Bush.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about that article because the “realist” school in foreign policy is thought to be back in charge. The release of the Iraq Study Group’s report on December 6th and the re-emergence of James Baker, famous for being pragmatist, a realist, and a fixer, were the triggers for this observation. The Guardian’s report was typical: “This is a return to the realist policy of Mr. Bush’s father.”

Dan Froomkin said the report and reactions to it “marked a restoration of reality in Washington.”

Realist, a classic term in foreign policy debates, and reality-based, which is not a classic term but more of an instant classic, are quite different ideas. We shouldn’t fuzz them up. The press is capable of doing that—fuzzing things up—because it never came to terms with what Suskind reported in 2004. Of course, neither did the political system. Or the Republican party, or its sensible wing— the elders, the responsible people.

I think they all regret it now. But they’re happy with this month’s theme, “realists are back.” It sounds almost… normal.

An intellectual scoop

In Without a Doubt (subtitled “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush”) Suskind was not talking about an age old conflict between realists and idealists, the sort of story line that can be re-cycled for every administration. It wasn’t the ideologues against the pragmatists, either. He was telling us that reality-based policy-making—and the mechanisms for it—had gotten dumped. A different pattern had appeared under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. The normal checks and balances had been overcome, so that executive power could flow more freely. Reduced deliberation, oversight, fact-finding, and field reporting were different elements of an emerging political style. Suskind, I felt, got to the essence of it with his phrase, the “retreat from empiricism.”

Which is a perfect example of what Bill Keller and others at the New York Times call an intellectual scoop. (“When you can look at all the dots everyone can look at, and be the first to connect them in a meaningful and convincing way…”) Over the last three years, and ever since the adventure in Iraq began, Americans have seen spectacular failures of intelligence, spectacular collapses in the press, spectacular breakdowns in the reality-checks built into government, including the evaporation of oversight in Congress, and the by-passing of the National Security Council, which was created to prevent exactly these events.

This is itself a puzzling development which as far as I know has not been apprehended by our professional students of politics, whether they write columns, run campaigns, work in think tanks, or teach about government in universities. None, so far as I know, has tried to explain why we saw a retreat from empiricism under Bush and how we could actually go to war that way. A review in the American Conservative, Pat Buchanan’s magazine, asks:

How did realism become a submerged, almost dissident philosophy amongst American elites, and how did its opposite triumph so completely? Unless one chalks it up simply to the historical caprice of the Bush presidency combined with 9/11, one must consider the motivations of major donors and the myriad factors that determine the acceptable limits of what people in think tanks think. If powerful Americans think differently about the world than they did in the late 1940s and 1950s, an explanation should be sought.

Action vs. behavior

Mine would begin this way: The alternative to facts on the ground is to act, regardless of the facts on the ground. When you act you make new facts. You clear new ground. And when you roll over or roll back the people who have a duty to report the situation as it is—people in the press, the military, the bureaucracy, your own cabinet, or right down the hall—then right there you have demonstrated your might. (See my essay called Rollback.)

The contrast I would draw is between the actions of Bush, a political innovator, and the behavior of previous presidents, Republican and Democrat. (The distinction between action and behavior is originally Hannah Arendt’s.) In everything bearing on national security, the Bush Government has been committed to action first, to making the world (including the map of the Middle East) anew, to a kind of audacity in the use of American power. It simply does not behave as previous governments have behaved when presented with the tools of the presidency, which includes the media, and the greatest public address system in the world: the White House podium and backdrop.

This is what the press—which is generally full of behaviorists—has been reluctant to apprehend about the Bush government. But Suskind was onto it.

“In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush,” Suskind wrote, introducing his characters. “He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.”

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

That passage caused a sensation when it was published, and the sensation introduced a new term, the reality-based community, into political talk. Two things happened right away. Many on the left adopted the term. “Proud Member of the Reality-Based Community,” their blogs said. The right then jeered at the left’s self-description. (They’re reality-based? Yeah, right.)

Spooked Republicans

Neither of those responses highlights the fact that in Suskind’s reporting it was Republicans spooked by Bush and his anti-empiricism who were beginning to speak out. After his portrait of Karen Hughes, after his book with bounced Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, after he wrote about Karl Rove’s operation, Suskind’s phone began to ring. His sources, he has said, were people who had been left out of decision-making or put off by the Bush team’s projections of certainty. Republicans, insiders. They had a disturbing pattern to report.

“By midyear 2001, a stand-and-deliver rhythm was established. Meetings, large and small, started to take on a scripted quality.”

“The circle around Bush was tightening.”

“The president would listen without betraying any reaction.”

“The president would rarely prod anyone with direct, informed questions.”

“By summer’s end that first year, Vice President Dick Cheney had stopped talking in meetings he attended with Bush. They would talk privately, or at their weekly lunch.”

Suskind had a lot of it figured out:

A cluster of particularly vivid qualities was shaping George W. Bush’s White House through the summer of 2001: a disdain for contemplation or deliberation, an embrace of decisiveness, a retreat from empiricism, a sometimes bullying impatience with doubters and even friendly questioners.

That “cluster” is not idealism. In the current New York Review of Books, Mark Danner talks of a “war of imagination” that Bush and his advisers preferred to fight. The thing is, it takes a leap of imagination to realize they did it that way. As Danner puts it, anyone trying to understand how the current mess in Iraq started “has to confront the monumental fact that the United States, the most powerful country in the world, invaded Iraq with no particular and specific idea of what it was going to do there, and then must try to explain how this could have happened.”

Empiricism isn’t policy

And remember Sir Richard Dearlove, the British intelligence official who in July 2002 took notes on the way it happened, so as to inform his colleagues: “The intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

Or consider Lawrence D. Freedman’s observation in Foreign Affairs (Jan./Feb. 2006): “It suited the White House to take at face value assertions from Iraqi exiles that solving postwar problems would be relatively straightforward.” There was no attempt to ascertain. Empiricism wasn’t the policy.

Now here’s what Glenn Kessler and Thomas E. Ricks reported in the Dec. 7 Washington Post: “The Iraq Study Group report released yesterday might well be titled ‘The Realist Manifesto.’” And I suppose it might. But what if our problems in Iraq are due not to a lack of realism, but to the total breakdown of reality-based policy making, a deliberate withdrawal from an empirical mindset in order to conduct abroad a war of choice and expand at home executive power?

Ricks and Kessler drew me up short when they wrote: “The report’s description of the violence in Iraq, which amounts to an attack on the administration’s understanding of the facts on the ground, will likely set the new baseline for how the Iraq conflict is portrayed.”

How are these baselines for day-to-day description normally set? Who has the authority to do so and where do they get it? We’re deep into the reality-making machinery with that phrase. According to the Post reporters, there would be new baselines from now on. The power to set them had apparently shifted, away from Bush, toward Baker and the so-called realist wing. According to the study group, “Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes discrepancy with policy goals.”

Go, realists! Note, however, that Baker’s group still assumes that “good policy” is by definition reality-based, exactly the assumption Bush the younger tried to overturn. Good policy was to Bush, Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld action-based. It worked in creative friction with facts on the ground. Fogs of confusion inside the government were fine because deeper within the government a few had the clarity of action.

Erasing people

There’s another story almost as iconic as Suskind’s senior adviser: “we make our own reality.” When Jay Garner returns to the White House from running the American effort in Iraq, Bush, Cheney, Condi Rice and Rumsfeld are there to greet him. Not only does he know to give a falsely upbeat assessment in his written report and stick to cheerful banter during the meeting, but he finds that no one asks him a single question about the situation on the ground in Iraq. Here you have the best possible reporter, but there is no report. The scene (as described by George Packer) is highly ritualized. A message is being sent about who gets to define what’s happening on the ground, and it isn’t the people on the ground. Garner told Packer that “Bush knew only what Cheney let into his office.”

The erasure of reality could get quite personal. You had to be willing to erase people. As part of a profile that Suskind wrote for Esquire about Karl Rove, John DiIulio, who served briefly as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, sent the reporter a seven-page memo about his resignation, explaining that the White House suffered from “a complete lack of a policy apparatus.” The normal checks had been overridden. Later a strange thing happened. DiIulio apologized like an official of the Khmer Rouge following arrest. He said his own story had been false. He erased himself in public.

Before the election I heard Suskind give a rousing talk to students at NYU. He talked a lot about Dilulio. When Suskind recounts the story, the detail you focus on is not what DiIulio said about White House decision-making but the extreme tactic of making him disown his own experience, the reality of his own (typed) words to Suskind. “That’s when my phone began to ring,” he said. Others saw it happening to them.

Confronted with “…when we act, we create our own reality,” what could the press have done differently?

  • It could have tried to cover Dick Cheney. Instead, Cheney is by common agreement in the press the most powerful and least scrutinized Vice President in modern American history. Much of the time the press does not know where he is or who he’s meeting with. His is almost a stealth office. Yet he helped engineer the overawing of all reality checks as part of his effort to reclaim “lost” powers for the executive branch. It would have taken a monumental effort to scrutinize Cheney because he was determined to operate without scrutiny. In any event it never happened.
  • It could have covered the entire retreat from empiricism, which took place across the government, and not just in war-making. There have been thousands of conflicts between the Bush political machine and every variety of reality check known to modern government. Reporters could have connected those dots.
  • The press could have gone to the old-fashioned empiricists in the Republican Party and asked them if they were worried. (As with this famous piece.) To this day it remains a mystery why supporters of the Bush Agenda saw no threat to its success in the President’s concave habits. (Bush in 2003: “The best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what’s happening in the world.”)
  • It could have followed up on Suskind’s intellectual scoop by, for example, asking how the military dealt with the shift away from a reality-based command. The alarms must have gone off somewhere.
  • It could have defined Bush not as a conservative or a traditional Republican but as an innovator. For example, Suskind told Salon: “When I was at the White House in 2002, I had a variety of discussions with them about their newfangled message control machine, and their prized discipline. They made a clear decision: We will ignore as best we can the mainstream press and let’s see if there’s any penalty for doing that.” He said the view of Karen Hughes, Bush’s former chief communications advisor, was, “‘We’re not concerned; we don’t see there being any penalty from the voters for ignoring the mainstream press.” That’s innovation.

Why didn’t the press do these things? Part of it is the reluctance to appear partisan. Of course if Suskind’s reporting was correct, the people to whom this news would matter most were reality-based Republicans, members of the military who cannot afford to have any other “base” but reality, and intellectually honest conservatives who believed in Bush and wanted to see him succeed. There’s a lot of truth in what Atrios says about Washington pundits, “They’d rather be wrong than agree with the dirty fucking hippies.”

Small shelf of books

I once tried to ask John Harris, then the political editor of the Washington Post, about the Bush government’s various conficts with the reality-making machinery. (See my recent interview with him upon leaving the Post.) I said to Harris that “aside from the coverage of weapons of mass destruction, which is seen to have failed, my sense is that you and your colleagues think you have handled the challenge of covering this government pretty darn well.”

The game hasn’t changed, you contend. We’re still in a recognizable, fourth-estate, meet-the-press, rather than beat-the-press universe. Those — like me — who accuse Bush of taking extraordinary measures to marginalize, discredit, refute (and pollute) the press are said to be exaggerating the cravenness of this Adminstration and ignoring the parallels and precedents in other White Houses, including the Democratic ones.

Actually, I may have understated the magnitude of the change Bush and company have brought to your world, because I didn’t connect the pattern we can find in journalism to the Bush Administration’s treatment of science, its mistreatment of career professionals and other experts in government, and of course its use and misuse of intelligence. All have to be downgraded, distorted, deterred because they’re a drag — also called a check — on executive power and the Bush team’s freedom from fact.

Well, I tried. (Read about the misbegotten answer here.) Today it is extremely difficult to find language adequate to “reality gets dumped,” which is still in most respects an unbelievable and unbelieved tale, even though we know a lot about it from columnists like Dan Froomkin, Frank Rich, Hendrick Hertzberg and Eric Boehlert, from sites like and writers like Mark Danner. We can also point to a small shelf of books that are largely about the collapse of empiricism— including two by Suskind (The Price of Loyalty and The One Percent Doctrine) George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate, Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco, and most recently Bob Woodward’s State of Denial, the title of which gestures toward the story Suskind tried to tell but shrinks a bit from it.

Denial is a psychological state we are all somewhat familiar with and is therefore a more comforting description of the Bush government than the bizarre flight from empiricism that Suskind tried to alert us to. Similarly, realists vs. ideologues is a conflict we can understand without spraining our brains too much. This makes the Dana Milbanks and Joe Kleins of the world happy. When a sturdy distinction still works it’s good news for incumbent interpreters—and journalists are interpreters even when they are “just” reporting—because they don’t have to introduce an unfamiliar language to describe what they are seeing.

More accurate, less credible

Whereas if they tried to narrate the expansion of executive power (led by the vice president) through a revolt against empiricism (led by the chief executive) their story would be more accurate (to what happened) but less credible to more people. Because it sounds so extreme.

This is in fact a way to discredit the press that the press has not fully appreciated. Take extreme action and a press that mistrusts “the extremes” will mistrust initial reports of that action— like Suskind’s. This gives you time to re-make the scene and overawe people. There are all kinds of costs to changing a master narrative that has been built up by beat reporters and career pundits. When the press can hang on to an old and proven one it will. The Bush people understood that. They knew they could change the game on the press because the press finds it hard to act in reply. Therefore it tends to behave.

The idea that accuracy improves credibility is comforting. The more accurate you are, the more credible you will be, right? But in extreme situations—and invading Iraq with no particular and specific idea of what to do once there is an extreme situation—an accurate description is likely to be rejected, and the describer treated as in-credible. Reporters and editors are, I believe, intimately aware of this. Bob Woodward, as I have said elsewhere, wrote Plan of Attack because at the time it was a more credible book, even though Attack Without a Plan would have been more accurate.

When I read “Without a Doubt” I felt an immediate kinship with Suskind. Because I could see what he was trying to do: warn us about something that sounded crazy but was all too real. I could see he was going to fail in that, and I sensed that he knew it too. That’s what made it so sad to read.

Journalists and talking heads: if this month you wish to tell me that realism is back kindly tell me where you think it had gone to.

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 18, 2006 10:40 PM   Print


Excellent post.

I've been collecting scraps and pieces on this topic for years. I someday hope to make a Neoreality quilt.

Mark Schmitt describes the ideology of information.

David Brooks pooh-poohs substantiality on the occasion of the second inauguration.

And no one does pseudoperspicaciousness better than the Medium Lobster:

[The] administration has not only embraced ideas, it exists, in a sense, only as an idea. It has so rapidly and so readily embraced the boldest of ideas that it has transcended the need for real actions, real plans, real accomplishments, and reality itself.

Any leader could have made the war on terror into a tedious, ongoing struggle to unearth and uproot a multi-tentacled terrorist organization while attempting to heal the rifts between the Muslim world and the West. But George Bush didn't just see the task: he saw the grand idea behind the task, and better still, the vague abstractions behind the grand idea. And he was willing to fight those vague abstractions. Terror, weapons of mass destruction - they may not have been really in Iraq, but the idea of them most certainly was. And that was an idea the world's only superpower had to confront with real troops.

Posted by: Sven at December 18, 2006 2:36 PM | Permalink

if this month you wish to tell me that realism is back kindly tell me where you think it went.

I think that "where reality went" was 9/11. Bush's poll numbers were going down literally from the day he took over the White House. The press was doing its job, more or less -- at least well enough that people understood that the policies of the Bush administration were inconsistent with "reality".

9/11 changed the way people including the press perceived their world -- the fear and panic created by 9/11 meant they were no longer sure that their own perceptions were an accurate reflection of reality.

The mainstream media pretty much lived in the "reality" described by Suskind -- the "reality" that was being created by the empire itself and was enforced by the empire by accusations of disloyalty, lack of patriotism, or "supporting the terrorists."

It took the cataclysmic reality of the Katrina catastrophe to shock most reporters into consciousness....

Posted by: p.lukasiak at December 18, 2006 6:48 PM | Permalink

I wish Suskind had presented better evidence to support his claims. Consider the conversation with Lantos, that is provided by Biden to Suskind:

''I don't know why you're talking about Sweden,'' Bush said. ''They're the neutral one. They don't have an army.''

Lantos paused, a little shocked, and offered a gentlemanly reply: ''Mr. President, you may have thought that I said Switzerland. They're the ones that are historically neutral, without an army.'' Then Lantos mentioned, in a gracious aside, that the Swiss do have a tough national guard to protect the country in the event of invasion.

Bush held to his view. ''No, no, it's Sweden that has no army.''

The room went silent, until someone changed the subject.

A few weeks later, members of Congress and their spouses gathered with administration officials and other dignitaries for the White House Christmas party. The president saw Lantos and grabbed him by the shoulder. ''You were right,'' he said, with bonhomie. ''Sweden does have an army.''

Bush was wrong that Sweden has no army, but he was right that it is neutral; Lantos seems to imply that Sweden is not neutral. And Lantos was wrong about Switzerland -- it does have an army, not a "national guard." And Bush admits he was wrong! At some point, someone on his staff checked up on Lantos' claim and told Bush about it. This is not a good example of how the White House ignores facts.

Moreover, Suskind misses the point of the adviser critical of the "reality-based community."

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

It seems quite clear to me that the adviser is arguing that the US is a force for change and that Suskind and other journalists critical of the Bush administration are harping about what cannot be done while the US goes and does it. The key part is:"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality... We're history's actors."

If anything this statement is remarkable as a paragon of the "arrogance of power" that Fulbright discussed back in 1966.

What Suskind and his sources describe more accurately is not faith-over-fact but the amazing insularity of the Bush team. The emphasis on "loyalty" is pathological. To me, this more reflects the degree to which the Bush admin. acts and is staffed at the White House level as if it were back in Austin.

Posted by: C. L. Ball at December 18, 2006 11:08 PM | Permalink

re: 'we make our own reality'

that would only be true if we controlled *all* the movers (which, luckily, we don't...-- if there was any doubt about this, you'd think the Iraq fiasco would have cleared it all up...)


Posted by: Delia at December 19, 2006 1:47 AM | Permalink

The recent Whitehouse effort to kill Flynt Everett's N.Y. Times editorial for revealing "classified" information that is already in the public domain and which has been repeatedly cleared by the CIA strikes me as a gauntlet thrown down in defense of the retreat from empiricism. Where has the baseline for reality got to if public information can be reclassified by decree? How absolute is executive power that can declare already public facts to be secret? This is practically a legal declaration that, when it is convenient for the Bush administration, "up" will legally be considered to be "down." How much plainer can they make it for us?

This administration has made such claims repeatedly, and they largely seem to be inspired by challenges to administration dogma of one sort or another. They tend to fall hardest on dissident, reality-based Republicans because those are the folks who witnessed the reality atrocities from within. For example, there was a grand diplomatic bargain offered by Iran a couple of years ago, but that must be disappeared from public memory because it was simply too embarassing and inconvenient.

According to the Danner piece, the nut of it is that even within the administration, and even within the Pentagon, the reference points for reality construction continue to compete with one another and there is no force within the administration that requires they be adjusted to one another. The competing realities simply rage on in conflict with each other and any conceivable national interest from any conceivable ideological perspective. I think the level of Bush administration dysfunction may verge on a new definition of failed state.

This affair has made Juan Cole fed up. He understandably calls for Elliot Abram's resignation over the matter (I guess accountability has to start somewhere), but, as Henry Waxman has said, with this administration the challenge is where to begin with the Boltons and the Cheneys and the Feiths and the Libbys and the Rumsfelds to choose from? This administration increasingly looks to be a cabal within a cabal wrapped up in a cabal. According to Danner, even most administration officials apparently don't know what's going on--how are we supposed to figure it out?

As you suggest, Danner finds that Bush and Cheney got the lack of interagency process they demanded. He also says that the Pentagon effectively removed the president of the United States and the NSC from all discussion surrounding several of the most critical decisions on Iraq occupation policy.

Along with the retreat from empiricism, doesn't this mean we've also unknowingly witnessed some sort of coup d'etat on the part of agents in the Pentagon or the vice president's office? We have not only a retreat from empiricism, but a retreat from policy-making, a retreat from accountability, and apparently, a retreat from coherence.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at December 19, 2006 2:51 AM | Permalink

I think Kessler and Ricks use mild language
("will likely set the new baseline for how the Iraq conflict is portrayed") as a way to communicate an event with extreme implications. That "new baseline" is the new master narrative, and it's extremely telling that the political establishment chose to insert it via a government commission rather than via their old standby -- careful handling of the media.

The ISG purports to be about its 79 proposed solutions, but I'm skeptical. I think its real purposes were shifting the center of the Iraq debate and emboldening the press to return to a more traditional role. The words that really counted were these: "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating." Everything else was just footnote.

This was completely "known," and even people outside the Beltway knew it. But it took an "independent commission" that was "bipartisan" to validate this knowledge. Which ought to give everyone pause.

Back when Tony Snow was coming aboard there was good discussion here about what this meant for Rollback. I got the sense that Snow meant a more sophisticated package on the same philosophy: It wasn't enough anymore to send Scotty out to mock the press with his disregard for their questions. Rollback 2.0 was going to include some Fox News showmanship to liven up the non-responsiveness.

But considering Bush's poll numbers, this "validated" ISG rebuke from the foreign policy establishment and the coming subpoenas from the Democratic Congress, does Rollback now have any future, whatsoever? I'm not saying the press coverage will get better, only that it's going to be more confident in the face of administration disapproval. It's easy to criticize someone when everyone else is already calling them names (which, ironically, is why Rollback worked in the first place).

Posted by: Daniel Conover at December 19, 2006 11:33 AM | Permalink

Great analysis, Jay.

Suskind's piece was heartbreaking, indeed. And I think you have to parse the incidences of "we" in the money quote.

Perhaps we can assume that the first "we" -- as in "we're an Empire now" -- refers to the U.S.A. But the rest of them clearly refer only to "history's actors" within the innermost sanctum of the administration.

I don't get the sense that anything has changed. Though you have to wonder what the ISG would have reported had the Republicans won in November.

My sense is that, rather than using the ISG as cover for "graceful retreat", they will use it as cover under which to continue business as usual.

So that as the press trumpets the return of reality, the unreality of "we're history's actors and the rest of you pissants can just study our moves [haw! haw! haw!]" continues unchecked over the next two years.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at December 19, 2006 1:09 PM | Permalink

Re: that famous Suskind quote.

The problem I've always had with it -- and the problem I still have with it -- is that it's almost too perfect an expression of the self-entitled arrogance that people like me tend to ascribe to this administration and its bad actors.

That it's anonymous is one thing. That it's long and perfectly worded is another.

I've read conservatives who simply dismiss it as made up. I don't think it's made up. But I don't use it or make reference to it because ...

... Well, because it's part of the dynamic you describe. Because it's so extreme, the statement is hard to believe... so I instinctively don't want to use it in public writing, because it fits so nicely into my private assessment of how things actually work.

Journalists describe that cautious instinct in positive terms, and that's OK... but an instinctive aversion to anything outside the master narrative isn't really a journalistic virtue. It's ingrained in my mainstream editor's head that if something looks too good to be true, it isn't true, so I wind up doubting Suskind's reporting because I'm biased against anything that could blow up in my face and publicly confirm that I'm an idiot.

The way I rationalize this is to say that "for something that explosive and important, I need special proof." Which is generally good journalism practice... except how are you going to ever confirm something like this? How would you source a sentiment, unless the speaker said it at a podium during a publicly witnessed press conference?

And what if the source said it on the record and later recanted under pressure? If I didn't have proof of my accuracy, could I withstand the heat?

When the reputable people all agree on the same narrative, to disagree is to be disreputable. Nobody in mainstream journalism wants to be considered disreputable these days, and those who don't mind tend to get weeded out early. This is as true with politics as it is with reports of police misconduct toward prostitutes. It's not that one thing or another is likely or unlikely to be true -- it's that we simply have no public system of knowing.

Posted by: Daniel Conover at December 19, 2006 4:54 PM | Permalink

Thanks, everyone. All good points.

I agree with C.L. that the Sweden story is weak. It doesn't say what Suskind thinks it says. But the real power of his "thesis," if you will, is that other accounts by other reporters (mostly in books) have confirmed and fleshed out the basic insight.

Paul: I agree with you and many others that Katrina is the turning point in people waking up to this story. What happened after the hurriace is that the flight from empiricism by Bush and his team was televised live in front of the whole nation during a genuine national emergency. Nothing is the same after something like that.

Dan: This was completely "known," and even people outside the Beltway knew it. But it took an "independent commission" that was "bipartisan" to validate this knowledge. Which ought to give everyone pause.

Yes, it ought.

What were Ricks and Kessler saying with their comment that baselines for the "portrayal" of conditions in Iraq will shift after the Study Group report. One would think that "reality," the facts on the ground, would have shifted that baseline a long time ago. ...Right? Why couldn't the press have shifted it?

Maybe because "we will ignore as best we can the mainstream press and let's see if there's any penalty for doing that." So went the thinking. What penalties do you think they had in mind? How are they extracted and by whom?

I continue to find it weird and puzzling that people who were disposed toward Bush, part of his coalition, on his team, under his command... weren't more concerned about the possibility that Suskind's sources were real, his reporting good, his picture accurate enough to matter.

I mean it's fine to feed media bias to the base as the reason for disbelieving all critical coverage, thus keeping morale high and the flow of hostility into newsrooms heavy, and I understand all that, but... I always figured that savvy people on the Republican side knew that reporters like Suskind don't usually make things up, and therefore there was a very good chance that his sources were Republicans trying to warn other Republicans.

In this sense "Without a Doubt" was in part an internal communique from one part of the Bush coalition (theunseen insiders) to another (the outsiders trying to see in.) But the culture war allowed the signal to be misread.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 19, 2006 5:21 PM | Permalink

Jay --

You nailed the press's problem when you noted that "there are all kinds of costs to changing a master narrative ... "

Witness coverage of both the 2000 and the 2004 presidential campaigns. It was like watching a train move down the only tracks available to it. Big trains very seldom hop the tracks. And big old trains that are getting tired and running out of fuel never do.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at December 19, 2006 5:30 PM | Permalink

You are here because you have failed in humility, in self-discipline. You would not make the act of submission which is the price of sanity. You preferred to be a lunatic, a minority of one. Only the disciplined mind can see reality, Winston. You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party. That is the fact that you have got to relearn, Winston. It needs an act of self-destruction, an effort of the will. You must humble yourself before you can become sane.
-Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), 256-7

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at December 19, 2006 5:55 PM | Permalink

Steve about 2004. "It was like watching a train move down the only tracks available to it."

Yes, that's how the narrative engine works. Without risky, difficult and controversial improvisation, the story will run on the existing tracks. All pressures point that way.

It's head-splitting work to replace a master narrative that's been extended over many Administrations, and proven flexible, efficient, understandable to audiences, plausible to editors, easy to transmit to newcomers on the beat, "safe" enough for everyday use...

But the problem is actually one degree worse than that (and this took me several years to understand, Steve...) because if it's a choice between the chance for greater accuracy with an unproven narrative, and lesser accuracy but more immediate credibility and far fewer hassles by sticking with what you got, then most of the time the press will stick with what it has, but since, according to its own code, it can never choose "against" accuracy (even though it happens) and since a good journalist never does, journalists who want stay within their code will simply hide from themselves the terms of the terrible bargain they are striking.

Now they've just become harder to talk to, or reach with criticism. (Subtext of the tension with bloggers, who can see a down-and-out narrative and make merciless fun of it.)

The problems of an outworn narrative, huge enough by themselves, are compounded by a professional mythology, a self-image that has to be upheld, causing misrecognition of the choices one has actually made.

If Bush loads more power onto Cheney's plate and Cheney is then made less legible, more invisible, the press has to respond aggressively and with creative measures just to keep executive branch power under normal levels of scrutiny. And if it fails to call itself into emergency session and get on the Cheney case, it has just surrendered territory to the White House. (Which is exactly what Cheney was seeking.) The press corps is "behind" where it once was in the levels of scrutiny if can offer as the public's watchdog, rep and baseline setter. In a sense it is accepting a less accurate picture.

Force 'em to innovate to keep up with you. Chances are they won't. Would you take those odds if you were Dan Bartlett or Dick Cheney? If you know the press think and how it works in White House coverage, you would.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 19, 2006 6:34 PM | Permalink

Ron Suskind definitely got it right, but he was not the first to make the claim that this White House was driven by something not rooted in reality.

Paul Krugman discussed this in his book, The Great Unravelling, which I touched on in my interview with him.

Back in 1957, Henry Kissenger -- then a brilliant, iconoclastic young Harvard scholar, with his eventual career as cynical political manipulator and, later, as crony capitalist still far in the future -- published his doctoral dissertation, A World Restored. One wouldn't think that a book about the diplomatic efforts of Metternich and Castlereagh is relevant to U.S. politics in the twenty-first century. But the first three pages of Kissinger's book sent chills down my spine, because they seem all too relevant to current events.

In those first few pages, Kissinger describes the problems confronting a heretofore stable diplomatic system when it is faced with a "revolutionary power" -- a power that does not accept that system's legitimacy. ... It seems clear to me that one should regard America's right-wing movement -- which now in effect controls the administration, both houses of Congress, much of the judiciary, and a good slice of the media -- as a revolutionary power in Kissinger's sense. That is, it is a movement whose leaders do not accept the legitimacy of our current political system. [pp 5-6]

I believe that Bill Woodward reported this in his first book on Bush, but didn't really understand what was being said. Here's what he wrote that Bush believed:

But action, confident action, that will yield positive results provides a kind of slipstream into which reluctant nations and leaders can get behind and show themselves that there has been, you know, something positive has happened towards peace.

The whole idea that they've been playing out is that true confidence in setting the way will change reality. Many management books talk about how one can harness chaotic change to shape the future they want - and these guys live that. That was why I was not surprised to see Suskind's article because it was clear watching them that this was how they were governing. How about this article from March 2003 which describes Bush's management style wondering what would happen if it failed?

But another, emerging theme is the "riskiness" of the Bush leadership style, the notion that the single-minded pursuit of daring policies at home and abroad will reap either big rewards or big trouble.

With Bush juggling war, a diplomatic crisis and a stalled economy, there's a note of all-or-nothing suspense about his presidency.

"This one will either end with huge success or spectacular failure," Kettl suggests in an interview.

In a recent New York Times magazine piece about Bush's Reaganesque policy ambitions, Bill Keller hits a similar chord: "If (Bush) fails, my guess is that it will be a failure not of caution but of overreaching, which means it will be failure on a grand scale."

What Paul Krugman called Revolutionary Power, Eric Hoffer described in The True Believer. I think if you want to understand the crisis of our time, one should read that book again, because I think the world is facing two incipent mass movements -- the Islamic version with the face of bin Laden and the version with George Bush as leader of the Christian right looking to pull down the current world and replace it with their own theistic vision of the world.

And as you say, Jay, too many people (our press, our elected leaders and the Republican moderates) think this is too extreme. But it is what one sees when one looks at the actions and the results of this President. That's why you see so many worried Cassandras like me.

Posted by: Mary at December 19, 2006 10:15 PM | Permalink

I think the aide who said we create our own reality was absolutely right. The United States is so big that every time it acts, every other power reacts in ways that do create a reality that needs to be reassessed in real time.

To use a more manageable example, consider a large mutual fund that wants to buy the stock of a small company. It is extremely difficult for the fund to invest in a small or even mid-sized company without the very fact that the large fund is interested in the company driving up the price of the stock.

The stock then attracts front-runners who wish to benefit from the short-term increase in demand, driving up the price of the stock still further - and the large fund manager must constantly reassess whether the price of the stock has moved so much that it is no longer a good investment. Then he has a different problem: How to sell it without the very fact that he's selling it driving the stock price DOWN.

This is a very real concern for the Fidelitys, the Warren Buffetts, the large hedge fund and pension funds of the world. They deal with it every day of their lives.

The same thing happens writ large - smaller actors have to surf on the waves of US policy.

That's the reality of it, and the reality changes every time the US reassesses policy. It changes even when there is NO change in policy, because certain actors will have anticipated a change (in, say, interest rates, for example), and will have to alter their course in light of new events. Which itself creates a new reality, which the U.S. must discount in its own decision-making processes.

Writers are experts at pissing in the wind. Today's paper is tomorrow's fishwrap.

Policymakers have no such luxury.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 19, 2006 10:34 PM | Permalink

By the way - I find your characterization of the President as leading a "revolt against empiricism" to be wholly unsubstantiated.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 19, 2006 10:36 PM | Permalink

What Orwell teaches us is that the prevalent form of social control that has been held over from the 20th century is for government to become the sole arbiter of reality precisely by undermining the very definition of reality.

The press has been heretofore unable or unwilling to unveil that part of the narrative.

It is an institutional flaw -- wherein what goes on behind the scenes is left masked, so that the political narrative that the public receives is only the iceberg's tip.

Nudge nudge, wink wink, senior administration official, say no more.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at December 19, 2006 11:09 PM | Permalink

Mary: Thanks for those links. That piece on Bush's management style especially.

"A movement whose leaders do not accept the legitimacy of our current political system."

Yeah, in a lot of ways that's true.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 19, 2006 11:26 PM | Permalink

Jay, this is another very interesting article by Alan Wolfe I missed when it was first published (in 2004) which talks about how antithetical the current Republican philosophy is to our Constitutional government set up by our founding fathers and why so many Republicans truly do not accept the legitimacy of our political structure. I think it explains why we have such a huge argument these days about what it means to be an American. Bush is part of that, and but the Republican Party has a great deal to explain in their support of him.

Posted by: Mary at December 20, 2006 3:16 AM | Permalink

George Bush is the "leader of the Christian right?"

Mary,you've been reading too many paranoid fantasies in "The Nation." The Christian right is not particularly fond of Bush, and hasn't been for some time.

And are you really equivocating between Bin Ladin's theism and Bush's?

I thought you wanted to be reality-based.

I think Godwin's Law needs a subparagraph to cover that kind of thinking.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 20, 2006 8:05 AM | Permalink

Jason provides a fine example of:

Two things happened right away. Many on the left adopted the term. “Proud Member of the Reality-Based Community,” their blogs said. The right then jeered at the left’s self-description. (They’re reality-based? Yeah, right.)

I'm sorry Jason feels the retreat from empiricism is wholly unsubstantiated. I did my best but my best wasn't good enough. He'll have to take it up with Paul O'Neill, Lawrence Wilkerson, John DiIulio (all Republicans) and the five books I mentioned above, plus Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq by Michael R. Gordon and (ex-Marine) Bernard E. Trainor.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 20, 2006 8:56 AM | Permalink

Nice post. One further question: has Suskind's "we make our own reality" source - the White House aide - ever been identified? I wonder what he or she has to say now.

Posted by: Andrew Buncombe at December 20, 2006 9:26 AM | Permalink

Andrew: When Suskind spoke at NYU, he said that his source for that story has recently checked in with him. He said source is still a senior official in the Administration. They had a conversation along the lines of, "We're okay? Yep, we're okay," Suskind said. Which means: I want to remain unnamed and you continue to respect that, right? Right.

Meanwhile, I got this rather interesting note from a reader. (Not that his suggestion would or could ever happen.)

Dear Jay Rosen,

I'm a licensed professional, a professional engineer (P.E.) I perceive that rules of professional conduct for recognized secular professions are premised on empiricism, fact-based reality, not on acting in such a way as to create reality, without much regard to current reality.

I am trying to spur Congressional oversight of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and, to lesser degree, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) for their compliance with relevant law in protecting federal employees from Prohibited Personnel Practices (PPPs), particularly whistleblower reprisal. There has been no such specific oversight since the Republican takeover in 1994, shortly after the law to protect federal employees from PPPs was last amended (significantly increasing the statutory obligations of OSC to protect feds from PPPs).

Frankly, I have become disappointed in the press. No matter how many facts I adduce about OSC/MSPB non-compliance with law (go here for eye-glazing detail - I really am a nuclear safety engineer!), there is no interest in a story to help spur such Congressional oversight.

As a licensed P.E., I have a positive duty to "blow whistles" when necessary to protect public health and safety. I suggest part of what ails the press is that there is little, if any, self-regulation of its practitioners (many of whom think it a trade, not a profession). While State licensure, an essential tool for regulating other professions, is not available to the press, other professions regulate themselves without State licensure, generally via national consensus boards which issue "board certified" credentials to their members, credentials that require adherence to rules of professional conduct to maintain.

The press failed in its job in Iraq and other areas under Bush, in many people's opinion. Why? What, if anything, does it evidence about inadequacies in the scope and implementation of journalism ethics? I think your profession is similar to mine in that its members are almost always employees in corporate settings - so what happens when the employer does not much care about the demands of their professions on some of their employees?

Say there were a national credentialing board for journalists and Suskind held the credential. Then, in making his case, he would have more credibility, because if evidence and arguments did not comport with the "standard of care" for journalists, he could be disciplined by the credentialing board, if someone advanced a valid complaint against him. Ditto Tony Snow - if he were credentialed, and did not comply with the rules of professional conduct of the credentialing body, he could be subject to professional discipline for it.

What is left out of your piece on Suskind is the focus on pragmaticism - "because we can" - employed. There is no individual professional consequence for being an illusionist, instead of an empiricist, in one's actions and statements, because their is no established professional standard of care that controls, apparently.


Joe Carson, P.E.
Knoxville, TN

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 20, 2006 10:03 AM | Permalink

re: "I think the aide who said we create our own reality was absolutely right."

Jayson: We may be big but we do not dictate (control) what all others do at all times (see Iraq, if you have any doubts) -- that's why we DON'T "create our own reality" (since our reality is affected by what others do or don't do...: if we created our own reality wouldn't you say that the Iraq thing would have been gloriously done and over with a long time ago?)

re: "By the way - I find your characterization of the President as leading a "revolt against empiricism" to be wholly unsubstantiated."

well, that was a bit poetically put ("revolt against empiricism") -- aside from that, what kind evidence would you need to agree with Jay's assessment of the situation?


Posted by: Delia at December 20, 2006 10:18 AM | Permalink

One further question: has Suskind's "we make our own reality" source - the White House aide - ever been identified?

Only Rove could be at once that articulate and that pompous. Plus he's a plausible person to give Suskind a dressing-down after the Hughes article.

Posted by: Anderson at December 20, 2006 10:30 AM | Permalink

Jay's essay raises, or at least implies, a fundamental question many of us have been debating: essentially, "Did the Bush cabal really mean to do that, or are they really living in a fantasy land, as many of their statements suggest?" He appears to come down on the "fantasyland" side: that they just don't care what the reality is. Their suppression of science certainly supports that idea.

But it raises another question: why would they act that way? There is the religious aspect, but it doesn't explain Cheney, who as far as I know is not a fundamentalist, nor the recently-exposed comments that they are exploiting the religious right.

There is another possibility. Perhaps they haven't "failed," in Iraq or elsewhere. Put this another way: are Halliburton, the oil companies, or the big military contractors hurting? No, they're making out like bandits - literally. Perhaps that's one reason there's no real effort to stop or remove the Bush administration: their cronies haven't finished looting the country and the rest of the world.

In short, maybe they aren't delusional: maybe they're just crooks. And for the prominent journalists commenting on this blog, perhaps there's a story there. Follow the money.

One further question, which also deserves further reporting: where do these people plan to go when they leave office? There was mention of a huge ranch in Paraguay; is that true? It will have to be somewhere with no extradition treaty with the US, and no participation in the International Criminal Court. Do you suppose they already have their plane tickets? Or do they plan to use Air Force One?

Posted by: Charles Newlin at December 20, 2006 12:40 PM | Permalink

Brilliant Post.

The "we create our own reality" political mentality is an extention of the subrational religious fundamentalist mindset. Believers simply condition themselves to ignore and supress all facts that conflict with their religious worldview --whether on climate change, evolution, absitinence-only or WMD.

The dangerous subgroup consists of those who feel compelled to force external world compliance with their own fantasies --otherwise known as sociopaths.

In Iraq, though, the Bush crowd finally hit the "Pravda point," --as when the old Soviet Daily kept publishing outlandish claims of Communist superiority and the imminent collapse of capitalisim while the Russian masses ossified in breadlines.

At a certain level of cognitive dissonance, most people stopped listening to official pronouncements.

Still, the US press could have (and should have) hastened this awakening by limiting airtime to sources who were clearly known to be nothing more than PNAC propagandists (e.g. Judith Miller, Ahmed Chalabi, William Kristol, Bill Bennett, etc.), and instead given more bandwidth to those who at the time were non-partisan experts (e.g. Scowcroft, Zinni, Wes Clark, Jim Webb, etc.).

Why anyone sought --let alone respected-- the opinions of the Bennet's and Kristol's and Krauthammer's on serious subjects like war and WMD intelligence has yet to be explained. The fact that most of them are still welcome, active "opinion leaders" tells you just how little has changed.

Posted by: Munguza at December 20, 2006 12:46 PM | Permalink

The pattern displayed by Bush & Co. of acting without careful examination of the pertinant facts, is a pattern also displayed by people who for some reason are unable to absorb the facts into a meaningful body of knowledge on which to act, and so to avoid inaction (which they fear) they choose instead to act without much planning and then deal with any resulting problems on the fly. People who have suffered cognitive impairment from drug use show this sort of behavior pattern.

This pattern has been observed in Bush by people who have met him. He can follow an argument but seems unable to synthesize the information into a body of knowledge on which he can act. His policies and his execution of them also show this same pattern.

What's interesting is that this pattern displayed by Bush has been adopted by his administration. Perhaps this is the result of Bush picking only sycophants to work for him, rather than anybody who will stand-up to him. This is kind of like the mad prince who surrounds himself with yes men and fellow lunatics. This reminds of reading about Caligula.

Posted by: bg1 at December 20, 2006 1:13 PM | Permalink

I always thought the unanamed aide was Karl Rove because the tenor of the speech seemed very Rovian. Maybe someone could get Dan Foster on the case? (The one who sussed out Joe Klein wrote Primary Colors).

Jay my collegues and I have been debating about your essay and my question was "let's say people like John Harris and Len Downie agree with your theory that this is what's happening but also know that when the Washington Post acts there are other actors in this game who will also act." There will be a Fox News and a Accuracy in Media around. So if one branch stops following the trend the other actors in the drama may also play into isolating that actor like a bad virus. Post is perceived as "too tough on Bush" well let's have our executives say that we think the Post is against Bush which makes our news product (The New York Times, ABC News, Fox News, etc.) seem more balanced in comparison.

Posted by: catrina at December 20, 2006 1:14 PM | Permalink

The United States is finished as a great power or even a potentially great power. The 6 sickeningly Kafkaesque years of Bush (soon to be 8) has seen to that. All that's left is the slide downhill, like a sleeping fat man slowly falling out of his Lazy Boy. Even if a Democrat is elected president in '08 that party's enthrallment to big money will doom any meaningful change. In the end, stupidity and long term moral corruption will usually always catch up to you.

Posted by: Mordechai Shiblikov at December 20, 2006 1:22 PM | Permalink

One of this team's key strategies is to keep everyone guessing. We act, you study.

Is Bush really in charge or is he a front for Cheney?

Is Iraq a disastrous mistake, or is the disaster all unfolding according to plan?

Is team Bush ignoring global warming because they don't understand it, or because they DO understand it, and they want it to happen?

If you do as Charles Newlin suggests above, and follow the money, you will see that, as he suggests, everything that has happened has been extraordinarily good for the very elements that bankrolled Bush-Cheney 2000.

Including a wasted decade in which the "sole superpower" failed to act on global warming ... virtually guaranteeing the further melting of the polar icecaps.

Which, of course, would open access to new oilfields -- as well as new shipping channels through what was once solid ice.

I think they are keeping so many balls moving in so many fields, that it is very difficult for any press entity, let alone the American people, to get a grasp on what is happening.

Make no mistake -- this is an information war that is being waged against the American people's right to know enough to make decisions. That aforementioned rejection of the fundamental principles of this Democracy is it -- these are royalists, not democrats. And this is Republicanism today -- government from the top down.

This is why Bush continually stresses, even now in talking about the war, how he is going to say, rather than what he is going to do.

From Abramowitz' analysis of Bush's WashPost interview:

"I, of all people, would like to see the troops come home," he said during the interview. "But I don't want them to come home without achieving our objective, because I understand what happens if there's failure. And I'm going to keep repeating this over and over again, that I believe we're in an ideological struggle that is -- that our country will be dealing with for a long time." (emphasis added)

The problem is not that anything is going wrong -- it's that the American people do not have the perception of reality that the Bush team desires them to have.

Therefore, repeat, repeat, repeat, until they get it.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at December 20, 2006 2:25 PM | Permalink

"The same thing happens writ large - smaller actors have to surf on the waves of US policy."

Absolutely true, Jason. Unfortunately, in this case, the surfers in Iraq and elsewhere appear to have figured out how to handle the waves just fine. In fact, they seem to be having a field day.

Which is why the voting public finally decided "This is one fucked-up wave," and responded accordingly.

That in turn finally jolted a sleeping press (which is what this post is all about) awake.

But, alas -- except for a few like Suskind, Jim Risen and Dana Priest -- the watchdogs waked up a little too late in the day, well after the house had been ransacked.

That's the real press failure here. Most of them got suckered. Which is why they (including Woodward) are now scrambling to catch up with the story.

But the real question -- Jay's question -- is why did they not have the tools to stay on top of the story in the first place ?

And one answer to that question is, the tyranny of the prevailing narrative.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at December 20, 2006 2:26 PM | Permalink

Shorter me: Suskind gave them a map, and they couldn't follow it.


And I ask that question about:

* political reporters
* reality-based Republicans


Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 20, 2006 2:35 PM | Permalink

1. On the reporters side, don't forget that the Administration was regularly denying access to those who printed stories that cast the Administration in unflattering light.

2. The Administration did an expert job of framing all debate, beginning at least as early as Summer 2002, as Republican vs. Democrat.

This sidelined the "realist" Republicans (both out of gov't and in Congress) by portraying dissent from the Administration line as disloyalty to party. And it blindsided journalists by framing any commentary that cast the Administration in unfavorable light as "partisan". Hence White House pressure on the Washington Post to change the name of Froomkin's column.

Tony Snow's recent casting of David Gregory's question -- quoting the "realist" ISG Report -- as partisan is fairly solid evidence that this gambit is still in play.

The reaction and Snow's subsequent apology may or may not indicate its failure.

But the dynamic that holds that for every story there is an opposing and equally valid Republican Party version held sway across journalism -- because of the Institutional imperative to provide "both sides" of every story.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at December 20, 2006 3:59 PM | Permalink

To the question: Why did the news media miss the story that Bush & Co. was "making its own reality" rather than working with within the restraints of carefully examined reality?, I, as a non-media person ask: did the media really miss it, did the top people running the media really miss this story, were they that stupid or unable to grasp this new Bush "paradigm" of doing without regard to reality? Given the thousands of news reporters and hundreds of editors in the MSM, what is the probability that all or almost all of them actually missed this story? Was it perhaps instead collusion between the administration and the top players in the media? Perhaps the top media players (owners and pundits with a stake in this administration's policies) went along for the ride, and now that things have blown up they are all publicly "wondering why" things went so wrong. I know for a fact that the top Republicans (David Drier among them) knew all along what BushCo was up to in Iraq('it's for oil') but were willing to go with the program as long as they could benefit personally. They all jumped on the bandwagon, hoping it would carry them to the promised land (GOP dominance-rollback of public services and regulation, US oil company control over Iraq's oil), but sadly overestimated this administration's competance. Rank and file reporters who didn't go with the program, i.e. keep to the narrative, risked their careers.

Posted by: bg1 at December 20, 2006 4:30 PM | Permalink

"like a sleeping fat man slowly falling out of his Lazy Boy."

Mordechai - what a great image !! Although I don't find it too far off the mark I think there is something to be said for not necessarily being a "great power" as being a "great hope" of what's to come..

I cannot abandon this hope for America...

Jim Martin

Posted by: jamatwitsend at December 20, 2006 7:08 PM | Permalink

> But the real question -- Jay's question -- is why did they not have the tools to stay on top of the story in the first place ?

Wouldn't this be best addressed by asking the appropriate people, directly, one-on-one, offering anonymity where wanted, and compiling their answers?

Who has the clout to take this on, and get answers?

(not that the answers would necessarily be accurate, but it sure would be interesting to see what the practitioners themselves honestly believe.)

And also ask what could be done to make the press more accurate in future.

Posted by: Anna Haynes at December 20, 2006 7:12 PM | Permalink

The description of "Reteat from Empiricism" does perfectly describe the Neocon/Bush administration. Sadly, but perhaps thankfully, the laws of physics, mathematics, evolution and human nature ultimately trump any human assertion of reality. The central tenet of empiricism is itself the invisible hand that strangles the foolish who are blinded by the hubris of Will To Power.

The current situation in Iraq has made me feel like a Cassandra for seeing the inevitable result now come to pass that is trivially predicted by only an modest application Lanchester equations and Game Theory.

Posted by: Mantra at December 20, 2006 7:22 PM | Permalink

Let's see: We have one petty ideologue posing as a press critic, fawning over the political cant of a like-minded ideologue posing as a reporter. After a highly selective consideration of the relevant facts, supported by snippets from other like-minded ideologues in the press, we arrive at the highly dubious-- or at best, completely unsubstantiated-- premise that Bush has dumped "reality-based policy-making." A gaggle of other like-minded ideologues then rapturously expresses approval. My god, the irony couldn't be more overwhelming. There is nothing remotely empirical here, and yet you indignantly decry a putative retreat from empiricism on the part of the Bush White House? This entire thread is just so very sad: the ranting of foaming-at-the-mouth partisans so consumed with rancor that they fail to comprehend their own estrangement from reality.

Posted by: TD at December 20, 2006 7:58 PM | Permalink

Unfortunately, as many bloggers regularly point out, much of today's journalism has dissolved into nothing but "he said, she said" with more of an emphasis on good sound bite quotes than anything else.

That said, it wasn't until 2006 before more than a couple of token Democrats began forcefully speaking out about withdrawing from Iraq. And, remember, only one Democratic Senator spoke out loudly before the invasion.

And the "reality-based community" quote came out just before the 2004 election when the Dems were tough and making noise, which is why it played on every channel then.

But look what then happened to the Democratic Party for a number of months after Kerry lost: internecine battles online and off- about whether or not the party had become "too liberal" and much "soul searching" about faith-based voting polls (which were misreported giving us unreality-based data).

It's really no wonder that unreality muckraking didn't become all the rage after November of 2004, when the magic word was bipartisanship (which hadn't worked before with Bush, I guess Dems forgot).

Of course, I don't think any of this absolves the press...just explains it a little bit.

...oh yeah, helluva great post, as usual

Posted by: Ron Brynaert at December 20, 2006 8:12 PM | Permalink

I don't have much new to add to the debate (yet), but great post.

Oh, and Don Foster ain't foolproof. Remember when he found a Shakespearean sonnet? That ended embarrassingly. The smaller the sample, the more fallible his method.

Posted by: Mavis Beacon at December 20, 2006 8:19 PM | Permalink


#1. what are the relevant facts that would support your assertion that the Bush White House policies re: Iraq were in fact reality-based?

#2 If those policies were based on reality how come that this late in the game we are so far off from what "we" (Bush administration) expected would happen?


Posted by: Delia at December 20, 2006 8:45 PM | Permalink

Just a rhetorical comment: Since his days as a cheerleader at Yale, when has it been apparent that bush has ever been "based" in any type of "reality"?

Posted by: Ex-Canuck at December 20, 2006 9:08 PM | Permalink

For Mary and any others interested in the resonance between the GOP and Carl Schmitt, I have a post on the topic from May 12 this year. Though I don't mention it in that post, the deepest irony of all is that Schmitt was so conservative (he essentially coined the term political theology because he saw secular humanism as the ultimate enemy) that, for him, Bush's crony capitalism would itself look like part of the liberal conspiracy. It is inconceivable that Carl Schmitt would ever look a strategic crisis in the face and conclude by saying, "Please shop more."

George W. Bush, Carl Schmitt, and Hannah Arendt

Posted by: Mark Anderson at December 20, 2006 11:12 PM | Permalink

Great piece. But the beat goes on:

Today on NPR LA Times reporter is asked about his scoop concerning the early retirement of Army Gen. John P. Abizaid from his post leading the Iraq theater. NPR asked if Abizaid - who along with the Joint Chiefs is against increasing troop strength - is being forced out. The reporter says no - of course not. That is true Chainy reality. First off, the reporter should have qualified his answer. But the 'real' reason he said it is that Chany controls the levers of what is real and what will be followed up on. It is just the way it is as long as he is in power.

What is going to happen is that anyone against increasing troops in Iraq will be erased. Troops will be increased. More will die and nothing will change.

We now are 'Brazil.'

Posted by: Ted Woerner at December 21, 2006 1:22 AM | Permalink

Josh Marshall:

President Bush has for years hidden behind the fairly transparently bogus claim that decisions about troop strength and deployment will be made based on the judgment of what the military brass thinks they need. That now seems to be a dead letter, though, as the Joint Chiefs are unanimously against the White House plan to 'surge' troops in Baghdad for at least the first half of next year.

As significant as the JCS's opposition, however, is the basis of their opposition. According to the Post, they believe the White House "still does not have a defined mission and is latching on to the surge idea in part because of limited alternatives, despite warnings about the potential disadvantages for the military."

I think there's a more blunt way of putting this. The administration refuses to deal with the actual sitaution in the country, the "limited alternatives." So they're pushing for more troops -- without any clear idea of what they will do, other than that more must be better than less -- because that's the easiest way to avoid dealing with what's actually happening in the country. It's a policy of denial.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 21, 2006 2:03 AM | Permalink

What is with all the pseudo-intellectual handwringing about "reality-based" absurdities ? This is pure Orwell. Read "1984" again. This is not new. It was a blatant power grab and the first casualty was language. It is a tool of all tyrants from Constantine to Goebbels and if Journalists had the balls they would never have allowed this to happen. The Grand Master who still hacks his corrupted wares is Newt Gingrich......why is he being treated with any legitimacy ? He began the current asassination of language more than a decade ago. The 4th Estate bought into it because it elevated the mundane grunt work of Journalism to some exalted Ivory Tower of the Learned. Get back to covering Zoning Boards, Police Blotters, and developing credible sources. When the history of this smarmy era is written, the reponsibility for the horrid corruption and the resultant bloodshed will lie at the feet of American Journalism. Shameful. A renunciation of a Patriotic Duty of inestimable proportions. Why do you think it's the 1st Amendment ? Uncorrupted information is the oxygen of a Democracy.

Posted by: Lescoeurs at December 21, 2006 4:41 AM | Permalink

Mark Anderson: that was a very interesting post. Thanks for letting me know about it. It brings to mind one of Eric Hoffer's insights into the True Believer which talks about the shield the movement puts between the believer and reality.

All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside it. The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but from holy writ. "So tenaciously should we cling to the world revealed by the Gospel, that were I to see all the Angels of Heaven coming down to me to tell me something different, not only would I not be tempted to doubt a single syllable, but I would shut my eyes and stop my ears, for they would not deserve to be either seen or heard." To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason. It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible.

Once people have truly signed up for a mass movement, they are almost totally resistant to accepting reality. It is those who have not yet signed up for the crusade that Arendt is addressing. It is my belief and my fear that the total cockup of the Bush administration leads to way too many True Believers on the radical side.

Jay is right that the press is one of the key institutions that can help make this clear for people who have not yet signed up for the movement and they are failing badly at helping.

BTW: the quote from Eric Hoffer was one I captured in a post I wrote about why it was so worrisome that we had so many people divorced from reality. What I discovered and concluded was that people totally divorced from reality are capable of being fooled into doing anything:

In my opinion, the greatest threat to our country today is the irrational thinking that permeates the Party running this country. As Jim Bechtel, the founder of R.E.A.S.O.N -- a group promoting rational thinking in Nebraska, noted: If you're willing to believe things regardless of evidence, then it doesn't matter what you believe, it just matters who gets to you first. Because Bush is an irrational man, he is susceptible to being conned by anyone who gets his ear and engages his gut.

Furthermore, because Bush does not believe in evidence or in facts, it is impossible for him to make decisions rationally. This means we will not and cannot truly address any of the problems we face as a nation: not the deficit, not global warming, not the encroaching oil crisis, and not the war. I am left with a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach as I realize we have someone so disconnected from reality in charge -- because unless we have some amazing luck on our side, our situation is guaranteed to get worse.

I wrote this the week before Katrina hit.

Posted by: Mary at December 21, 2006 4:42 AM | Permalink

Great post. And we will have 8 years of reality to process and digest when he finally gets out of the way. Are we not finally warned about the danger of a prophet/disciple taking the reins of secular government?

Posted by: Kieran at December 21, 2006 10:35 AM | Permalink

The so-called laws of nature were nonsense. The law of gravity was nonsense. "If I wished," O'Brien had said, "I could float off this floor like a soap bubble." Winston worked it out. "If he thinks he floats off the floor, and if I simultaneously think I see him do it, then the thing happens."

--George Orwell, 1984

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 21, 2006 11:47 AM | Permalink

TD: My god, the irony couldn't be more overwhelming. There is nothing remotely empirical here...

In order to make this charge, you're going to deal with the reporting of Rob Suskind, Seymour Hersch, George Packer, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Thomas Ricks, Bob Woodward--the list goes on and on. These books are full of sourced, factual material which you can't simply dismiss out of hand. (Irony, indeed.)

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 21, 2006 12:07 PM | Permalink

JJWFromME: To begin with, it�s Ron Suskind. Robert Pollock probably said it best in reviewing �The One Percent Doctrine,� and his comment applies in varying degrees to the other books you mention, which in the main are polemics:

�The book is the literary equivalent of a Michael Moore film--a didactic montage that often appears factual but edits out all the inconvenient bits.�

You and the others here are free, of course, to consume such books and delude yourselves accordingly. The plain fact is, however, that this forum is nothing more than a feedback loop, an echo chamber, where people with your world view seek validation for pre-existing political biases. Clearly, you and the others derive some emotional benefit from the process. But does it constitute empiricism in any sense? Hardly. I wonder if you can even fathom the difference.

As for Delia�s questions above, let�s start with the basic fact that General Tommy Franks -- you know, the military officer who prosecuted the 2003 invasion of Iraq -- not only spearheaded the Bush Iraq policy but subsequently endorsed Bush in 2004. Yes, I suppose we could indulge the singularly ludicrous notion that Franks and the vast majority of other military officers who endorsed Bush in 2004 were/are part of a secret society of anti-empiricists, but isn't that a tad far fetched, even by the standards here? And if we don't know what the Bush administration expected in the way of timetables and benchmarks, how could we possibly know we�re "far off" from those expectations?

Posted by: TD at December 21, 2006 1:25 PM | Permalink

Hmm ... is that the same General Tommy Franks who went to high school with Laura Bush?

Posted by: RIchard B Simon at December 21, 2006 2:22 PM | Permalink

One thing that's always interested me is the conservative fixation on strength and the perception of strength. Most obviously in foreign policy, but in other arenas as well, preserving the appearance of strength often seems a more important goal than enacting good policy. For example, we're told we can't withdraw troops or talk with Iran or Syria because it will make us look weak. Of course, anyone can see we are in a weak position (certainly that hasn't escaped Iran or Syria), yet conservatives generally believe that the fiction must persist.

My sense is that conservatives are generally more comfortable relying on fiction to support their arguments. This is why, from guns to school choice, you so often hear conservatives bragging about their logic and avoiding much mention of data. This is perhaps a toned down version of what Mark Anderson and Mary are getting at with their Strauss links. Does conservatism require, the at least occasional, peddling of fiction? Do conservatives recognize themselves that for the health of nation, sometimes it is imperative to sell an untruth? If so, then the real issue is where do you draw the line.

(A brief aside: the point is not that both sides aren't wrong sometimes or that only one side has individual liars. The point is that the movement of consertatism will lie together in a way that liberals won't.)

The more power you have (the return of the Imperial Presidency!) and the more daring you are (Rove, Rove, Cheney, Rove), the more regularly you can sell your convenient falsehoods. Yet even with the growth the president's power and his revolutionary audacity, Bush has obviously overreached. But imagine a less overt scenario: if Bush simply ignored the threat of global warming, but treated the Iraq War and Katrina with honesty and care, we wouldn't be having this conversation. It's only the degree of his reality divorce that has caused us to identify it. If conservatives are always ready to peddle a fiction the press is wondering when do you call a spade a spade.

Posted by: mavis beacon at December 21, 2006 3:35 PM | Permalink

Why worry about it? If there was no retreat from empiricism historians won't find for it, accounts from insiders won't confirm any of it, documents that come out won't be documenting more cases of it, and the whole thing will collapse from its own weightlessness and stupidity.

TD: I don't think you grasp yet that the Suskind article, which you see as a liberal plot of some kind, or a delusion, was primarily an event within Republican circles. Early sign of a split. Suskind was used to send a signal (normal for Washington journalism.) Early warning for people who were part of the Bush Coalition, intimates of the Administration, people who might even have some pull. (Sources to themselves: Maybe if they read it in the New York Times, they'll ask around...) Sort of like employees signaling to directors of the company that the CEO is barricaded inside, a prisoner of faulty assumptions and poor information-gathering.

I know you got your culture warring left to do, and by all means get to it, but you must understand that if we submitted our source list for this tale the first name on it would be Paul O'Neill, who was persuaded to talk to Suskind right after John DiIulio, ex-director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, was forced to confess to thought crime, Khmer Rouge style.

Now maybe Paul O'Neill is making it all up, and none of it happened, and he's just another cabinet officer who couldn't perform, so he describes the environment in which he failed as crazy. Maybe. But still, you're arguing with Paul O'Neill, not Michael Moore. And Suskind was the pass-along for a message between Republicans.


Sent: October 17, 2004.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 21, 2006 5:12 PM | Permalink

"The plain fact is, however, that this forum is nothing more than a feedback loop, an echo chamber, where people with your world view seek validation for pre-existing political biases." -- TD

Ummm, TD, I'm not so sure that Paul O'Neill, a brilliant and hard-nosed business executive who revived a huge corporation (Alcoa), and a life-long conservative Republican, shares any world view at all with Jay.

Except for the conviction, based on his own rueful experience, that the White House that he was recruited into was an Alice In Wonderland place, where up was down and down was up
and no one was very interested in actual data.

That's why Suskind's recounting of O'Neill's trip down the rabbit hole is so compelling -- whatever your politics.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at December 21, 2006 10:11 PM | Permalink

Back when I was in college there was a larger-than-life campus character who used to solve the problem of scarce parking near his girlfriend's dorm by pulling his beat up white Chevy van right up onto the sidewalk in front of the doors of the dorm.

Was his van towed? No. Ticketed? No. Get a dressing down from some campus functionary? No.

Why? Because he had done something so out of bounds -- drive right up on the sidewalk in a busy urban area -- that everybody assumed he must have permission to be there. His version of "make your own reality."

But your question wasn't about the actors but the witnesses. So why didn't anyone say anything? As I see it, both parties want to make reality fit their existing notions. Call it the law of neuronal conservation: nobody actually wants to think. So instead of having a new idea -- "hey, that guy is parking on the sidewalk to have easier access to his girlfriend" they had an old one: "oh, this is a repairman come to fix something inside the building." Because the repair scenario was one they'd seen before.

The one thing this story lacks is the people who would attack those who bring up a new and critical idea. That's probably because this guy didn't have any direct power or influence over others. That's where Jay's analogy of the barricaded CEO who's drifted off into fantasyland is a good one: people will defend the CEO's bad ideas because they get a short term gain from it, and if they don't they could get a very bad short term loss for it -- getting forced out of their job, for example.

So what happened to the man with the van? Well, once someone got clued into the fact that the owner of the van had no good reason to park on the sidewalk, it turned out that parking in a parking space wasn't the only thing the driver thought of as optional -- expired license, no insurance, etc. Like a lot of these schemes, it was worse than it appeared on the surface and crumbled quickly.

Man with a van was arrested and his car was impounded. Ouch. After that, he rode a bike. Where did he put it? He'd lock it to the handicap ramp, right next to the "do not lock bikes to railing" sign.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at December 21, 2006 11:52 PM | Permalink

Let's see: We have one petty ideologue posing as a press critic, fawning over the political cant of a like-minded ideologue posing as a reporter. After a highly selective consideration of the relevant facts, supported by snippets from other like-minded ideologues in the press, we arrive at the highly dubious-- or at best, completely unsubstantiated-- premise that Bush has dumped "reality-based policy-making." A gaggle of other like-minded ideologues then rapturously expresses approval. My god, the irony couldn't be more overwhelming. There is nothing remotely empirical here, and yet you indignantly decry a putative retreat from empiricism on the part of the Bush White House? This entire thread is just so very sad: the ranting of foaming-at-the-mouth partisans so consumed with rancor that they fail to comprehend their own estrangement from reality.

100% correct, TD.

And Lovelady is also correct - the press corps is subject to "The Tyranny or the Prevailing Narrative (TM)."

Except that they created that particular reality.

It's just not for the reasons Lovelady thinks.

Ricks couldn't get through 200 words in his book "Fiasco" without having completely uncoupled himself from the facts underlying the decision to go to war.

Sy Hersh? This is the whackjob who is on record as saying "There has never been an [American] Army as violent and murderous as the one in Iraq."

This is your standard bearer?

No. He's an embarrassment to the profession now.

I notice no footage of the incident he claims to have seen has come to light yet. I doubt it would. He doesn't bother with the 5 W's. If he can't be bothered with that - if he can't be bothered with the culture of verification (who's revolting against empiricism now?) then what kind of journo is he?

Well, one who succumbs to the tyrrany of the prevailing narrative(TM). And so the klatch of mutually reinforcing nuts here take off and run with it, and laud his name without taking a glance at the assumptions underlying either his reporting or Ricks'.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 22, 2006 10:16 AM | Permalink

Sometimes the humane and even noble fiction that we all live in the same factual universe snaps and it is more humane, and nobler, to acknowledge that we don't.

I would say this is one of those times.

But just to repeat: the Suskind article and the O'Neill book were in the first instance events within the Bush coalition itself. They had nothing to do with left wing ideologues (out of power) ranting away in their newspapers and blogs.

My post was addressed as much to reality-based Republicans, conservatives who thought Bush was a conservative, supporters of the President's policy in Iraq, and defense intellectuals who thought it was a good idea.

So far no site in those precincts has linked to or discussed this post, which is yet another way in which one has failed to sound the alarm. I suppose my thesis isn't believable to them: yet.

I think there was a retreat from empiricism. I think it surprised everyone, and maybe even the people who carried it out. We'll be overcoming it for a while, so plenty of time to see how the thesis pans out.

Right now, it's losing 66 to 7, but it's not even half time.


Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 22, 2006 10:57 AM | Permalink

George Will:

Condoleezza Rice, a political scientist, believes there is scholarly evidence that democratic institutions do not merely spring from a hospitable culture, but that they also can help create such a culture. She is correct; they can. They did so in the young American republic. But it would be reassuring to see more evidence that the administration is being empirical, believing that this can happen in some places, as opposed to ideological, believing that it must happen everywhere it is tried.

Lawrence Wilkerson (Colin Powell's right hand man at the State Department):

Read George Packer's book The Assassin's [Gate] if you haven't already. George Packer, a New Yorker, reporter for The New Yorker, has got it right. I just finished it and I usually put marginalia in a book but, let me tell you, I had to get extra pages to write on. And I wish, I wish I had been able to help George Packer write that book. In some places I could have given him a hell of a lot more specifics than he's got. But if you want to read how the Cheney Rumsfeld cabal flummoxed the process, read that book.

(How did they "flummox the process"? Secrecy. Don't let anyone in the reality based community see our phase IV "plan". That might jeopardize achieving the war. It's all in Assassin's Gate.)

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 22, 2006 11:30 AM | Permalink

I should add that before the war George Packer was one of the "liberal hawks."

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 22, 2006 11:39 AM | Permalink

Sometimes the humane and even noble fiction that we all live in the same factual universe snaps and it is more humane, and nobler, to acknowledge that we don't.


So much for "empiricism," then.

Only it was you who abandoned it.

Good thing nobody's advocating a retreat from irony.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 22, 2006 1:27 PM | Permalink


I'm not sure where this whole thing is going but I give you a lot of credit for leting everyone say what they will... and reasoning with them all (to the extent feasible).


Posted by: Delia at December 22, 2006 1:56 PM | Permalink

By the way, I completely defer to George Packer's book on this. I'm just going by what's in there. After reading Packer's book, I was surprised that this material never got more press. Especially after Wilkerson's statement (linked to above), why didn't it?

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 22, 2006 2:52 PM | Permalink

I would just invite people to read Packer's book and form their own conclusions.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 22, 2006 3:08 PM | Permalink

Just terrible. You both don't understand empiricism and apparently don't believe in it, as you've cited very few facts or precedents and a lot of opinions and hearsay.

Empiricism isn't the process of carefully weighing alternative opinions, it's making decisions based on what has, in fact, worked in the past. The usefulness of empiricism is that the results work equally well for geniuses and idiots alike: E=mc^2 is just as true for Alfred E. Neuman as for Albert Einstein.

Bush's triumph was to recognize the core empirical truth that countered decades of Washington "realist" foreign policy groupthink: the evidence of the last century clearly indicated democracy was the best cure for the ills of the Mideast, however difficult the task of accomplishing that transformation might be. The "realists" are the anti-empiricists, thinking we can continue to support nondemocracies and not have more terrorist attacks as a consequence, despite the historical evidence. Taking action to democratize Iraq and Afghanistan despite doubts from others is not anti-empirical.

Many have said "the Iraq war is a failure," but there is little empirical basis on which to make such a claim; this claim is mostly based on opinion polling which says the war is not popular, but we do not calculate the Pythagorean theorem based on what 53% of Americans think the square of the hypoteneuse ought to equal. What were our major goals in Iraq? The answer is removing Saddam and with him the otherwise unanswerable questions about his WMD programs, and establishing a relatively liberal democracy. Both of these have been achieved, violence notwithstanding. And it may be popular to claim Bush "had no plan" or "mismanaged the war," but again empirical analysis finds much larger blunders in planning and execution of past wars and occupations with worse consequences, which have nevertheless been universally hailed as great victories. Empiricism says perception is not reality, something the chattering/scribbling classes have rarely grasped while promulgating their opinions and then indulging their polling fetish in order to triumphantly hold up the public opinions they have created as objective truth. This is most emphatically not empiricism.

Remember, all these experts whose dismissal you claim is "anti-empirical" are the same class whose consensus opinion even into the late 1980s was that the Soviet Union would still be around for decades. What's the empirical lesson there?

Posted by: TallDave at December 22, 2006 4:20 PM | Permalink

OK, let me put it this way. Does this sound like it's describing an outfit that values empiricism? (written by a former Pentagon officer, an Air Force Lt. Colonel):

After August 2002, the Office of Special Plans established its own rhythm and cadence separate from the non-politically minded professionals covering the rest of the region. While often accused of creating intelligence, I saw only two apparent products of this office: war planning guidance for Rumsfeld, presumably impacting Central Command, and talking points on Iraq, WMD and terrorism. These internal talking points seemed to be a melange crafted from obvious past observation and intelligence bits and pieces of dubious origin. They were propagandistic in style, and all desk officers were ordered to use them verbatim in the preparation of any material prepared for higher-ups and people outside the Pentagon. The talking points included statements about Saddam Hussein's proclivity for using chemical weapons against his own citizens and neighbors, his existing relations with terrorists based on a member of al-Qaida reportedly receiving medical care in Baghdad, his widely publicized aid to the Palestinians, and general indications of an aggressive viability in Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program and his ongoing efforts to use them against his neighbors or give them to al-Qaida style groups...
I suspected, from reading Charles Krauthammer, a neoconservative columnist for the Washington Post, and the Weekly Standard, and hearing a Cheney speech or two, that these talking points left the building on occasion. Both OSP functions duplicated other parts of the Pentagon. The facts we should have used to base our papers on were already being produced by the intelligence agencies, and the war planning was already done by the combatant command staff with some help from the Joint Staff. Instead of developing defense policy alternatives and advice, OSP was used to manufacture propaganda for internal and external use, and pseudo war planning...
Staff officers would always request OSP's most current Iraq, WMD and terrorism talking points. On occasion, these weren't available in an approved form and awaited Shulsky's approval. The talking points were a series of bulleted statements, written persuasively and in a convincing way, and superficially they seemed reasonable and rational. Saddam Hussein had gassed his neighbors, abused his people, and was continuing in that mode, becoming an imminently dangerous threat to his neighbors and to us -- except that none of his neighbors or Israel felt this was the case. Saddam Hussein had harbored al-Qaida operatives and offered and probably provided them with training facilities -- without mentioning that the suspected facilities were in the U.S./Kurdish-controlled part of Iraq. Saddam Hussein was pursuing and had WMD of the type that could be used by him, in conjunction with al-Qaida and other terrorists, to attack and damage American interests, Americans and America -- except the intelligence didn't really say that. Saddam Hussein had not been seriously weakened by war and sanctions and weekly bombings over the past 12 years, and in fact was plotting to hurt America and support anti-American activities, in part through his carrying on with terrorists -- although here the intelligence said the opposite. His support for the Palestinians and Arafat proved his terrorist connections, and basically, the time to act was now. This was the gist of the talking points, and it remained on message throughout the time I watched the points evolve.
But evolve they did, and the subtle changes I saw from September to late January revealed what the Office of Special Plans was contributing to national security. Two key types of modifications were directed or approved by Shulsky and his team of politicos. First was the deletion of entire references or bullets. The one I remember most specifically is when they dropped the bullet that said one of Saddam's intelligence operatives had met with Mohammad Atta in Prague, supposedly salient proof that Saddam was in part responsible for the 9/11 attack. That claim had lasted through a number of revisions, but after the media reported the claim as unsubstantiated by U.S. intelligence, denied by the Czech government, and that Atta's location had been confirmed by the FBI to be elsewhere, that particular bullet was dropped entirely from our "advice on things to say" to senior Pentagon officials when they met with guests or outsiders.
The other change made to the talking points was along the line of fine-tuning and generalizing. Much of what was there was already so general as to be less than accurate.

This is the same "Office of Special Plans" that created the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance--the phase IV guys that apparently Lawrence Wilkerson was so happy about.

Or how about this wry observation by the Iraq Study Group--does this sound like it describes an outfit that values empiricism?

"Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals."

Doesn't sound like Pentagon's intelligence practices have changed all that much in the intervening years, does it? Neither has the press's coverage of these matters, apparently.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 22, 2006 5:53 PM | Permalink

Part of the problem of any thinking Republican within spitting distance of power entering into this conversation is where the conversation leads. Removal from office is not an option. Would they want Cheney as president? Would they want Pelosi? Would you?

We know Bush won't change, nor will he allow himself to be marginalized, so we've talked ourselves into a coup d'etat here.

Posted by: wif at December 23, 2006 12:00 AM | Permalink

For a heavy dose of realism on Islam check this from some blogger in the middle of terror cells in Indonesia:

AND/or use this RSS feed:

Posted by: ArielleS. at December 23, 2006 1:54 AM | Permalink

I said above: (How did they "flummox the process"? Secrecy. Don't let anyone in the reality based community see our phase IV "plan". That might jeopardize achieving the war. It's all in Assassin's Gate.)

This is probably too much of a bumper sticker version. I should explain more: The dogma coming out of the OVP and DOD was "we will be greeted as liberators, Democracy will flower practically on its own." As George Will pointed out, this is not empirical, it's ideological dogma. It's a belief--a massive, generalized, historical determinist assumption.

And as George Packer described, the people who held this view tended to be Straussians--they valued secrecy. Why name something the "Office of Special Plans" if you didn't want to keep it secret? So lots of things were deliberately protected from sunshine.

One thing Packer does not go into that much is the details of the ongoing conflict between the Pentagon and the State Department. If, as Packer describes, there are so many empirical-thinking dissenters at the Pentagon (Shinseki, for example), there must have been even more reality-based assumptions at the Department of State. So much so that the Pentagon finally grabbed power and cut State out with NSPD 24. And what you finally had coming out of the process was something a bit naive, from a "nation building" perspective.

The dogma was further blocked from sunshine by the larger political necessities. If you wanted to appear to the UN like you hadn't made up your mind to go to war, you couldn't be seeking your advice from a very wide circle (say, other government departments like Agriculture or Commerce). At the same time, since their phase IV planning was so disorganized, and such an afterthought, you had to keep that secret as well. Packer says congress were given these "Zen-master-like" answers to phase four. So no reality-based review from congress. And of course, the last people that should hear about this state of affairs was the American people. As Packer put it, "The senior leadership at the Pentagon was very worried about the realities of the postconflict phase being known… Because if you are Feith or you are Wolfowitz, your primary concern is to achieve the war." In the end, what everyone was betting massively on the assumption that non-empirical dogma was right. We'll be greeted as liberators. Democracy will flower on its own.

For some reason we needed to rush. Probably there was politics in play. So phase IV was a shambles with little good reality-based review. Anyway, the consequences of these assumptions have been devastating. Packer quotes major Isaiah Wilson, a historian in a study group formed by Shinseki: "The United States, its Army, and its coalition of the willing have been playing catch-up ever since."

If you haven't already, read Packer's book.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 23, 2006 9:25 AM | Permalink

I haven't read all the comments so perhaps someone has already brought this up but do you remember a guy named George Orwell? Remember 1984? In a way the Bush administration is advancing the cause of totalitarianism in the US by defining and redefining 'reality' to suit its own purposes. They are not interested in 'reality' as much as they are interested in perfecting the tools for manipulating the beliefs and images that the press and public hold in their minds. What is 'innovative' about this is how radically they are going about it. Having a chief political adviser like Karl Rove tells a lot about Bush; it's the manipulation of images that counts and thereby you create 'reality'. Moreover, one has, I think, to take seriously that Bush really is a fairly ignorant and simple-minded guy who doesn't have many ideas except about how to manipulate the images others have about him.

Posted by: Jim Bond at December 23, 2006 11:16 AM | Permalink

Yes, we remember Orwell, who was mentioned in this thread. And I love a good "this is nothing new, haven't you ever heard of..." post. I've gotten hundreds and hundreds of them as a blogger. People cross the street to tell me that what I am saying isn't new, and then cross the street again to continue on their way.

Typically, I agree with them.

Thanks to all those who have spread links to "Retreat from Empiricism" in comment threads at other blogs. That actually works.

"Part of the problem of any thinking Republican within spitting distance of power entering into this conversation is where the conversation leads." True. Could be one reason they don't have the conversation.

And that's essentially what I argued about the press. If the implications are small-- that's a page A17 story. Medium, that's a front page, below-the-fold story. Large, Page One story with banner headline.

But at a certain point if a story is too large the incentives start to cut the other way. To report it would take more than a Page One story; it would take many over months. It would take a shift in assumptions. Moreover, after the shift a lot of the previously-reported stuff would be undermined, so you're talking about correcting prior coverage in which a lot of professional effort has been invested. That happens very rarely and only in cases of blatant collapse (as with WMD's.)

The longer a consensus narrative has served the engines of news, the harder it is to drop it. It drifts into the background of people's thinking, and they begin to speak and talk in ways that vindicate their own broken narrative.

"Realists vs. idealists" for example. I could just feel the relief in Washington when that old riff became usable again. It still works! they all shouted. Hark! The pragmatists have taken over from the ideologues. To every thing, turn, turn, turn. There is a season...

That's why I wrote my post. To interrupt all that. Like Suskind's original article, the attempt has failed. But it was still worth doing. I did get one email from a Washington bureau reporter (won't go on the record of course.) The message: Bravo.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 23, 2006 11:52 AM | Permalink

Hey, it's users-know-more-than-we-do journalism about the retreat from empiricism. From Justin Rood at TPM Muckraker.

This week we've been tallying up all the instances [where] Bush administration officials have attempted to remove data from the public record or block its publication, particularly if it was in conflict with White House policy.

Thanks to the help of readers, fellow bloggers and watchdog organizations, we've by now counted over 20 examples: databases pulled from public view, reports suppressed, studies de-funded and more, in areas like climate change, unemployment, poverty and the Iraq war.

You can find the growing list here. Know of another instance? Let us know.

There is one member of Congress who is onto the retreat from empricism, and he has a committee. So if one were interested in the story, it would pay to follow the work of Henry A. Waxman, who will head the Government Reform Committee come January.

Suskind is already ahead of us, having written Send in the Subpoenas about this very subject.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 23, 2006 2:21 PM | Permalink

"He has systematically violated, over the course of the past 11 years, every significant UN resolution that has demanded that he disarm and destroy his chemical and biological weapons, and any nuclear capacity. This he has refused to do" - Rep. Henry Waxman (D, CA), Oct. 10, 2002

Of course, the empirical thing to do would be to conclude that continuing to allow this would be good policy - based on Clinton nonaction after Mogadishu, WTC I, Khobar towers, the GHWBush assassination plot, Srebrenica, the African Embassy bombings, and the USS Cole.

The empirical thing to do would be to conclude, based on past observation, that by ignoring negative behavior among islamist whackjobs and Serbian bloodlusters, we will force them to grow bored and therefore they will cease in their aims. Because the empirical evidence for this is...



(cue crickets)

Let's see how fast Waxman abandons responsibility for what he said in 2002.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 23, 2006 2:47 PM | Permalink

Jay -

What you've described is, of course, extremely dangerous & troubling. I've another example for you which, while not very dangerous, is, i think, a perfect example of what this admin does & why.

Remember a few months ago the story of one particular day was that GWB was reading Camus & Shakespeare over his vacation. Now, this is so ridiculous as to be laughable -- the kind of extreme laughing that causes you to choke and die.

The story got a lot of blogosphere laughs for a few days, mostly of the "who are these guys kidding" sort. But this White House never says anything without a reason, and I think the reason here is that the story was just another way not only to humiliate the press, but to make the press participate in its own humiliation.

Think about it: it's classic Rove. Feed the press a story that everyone KNOWS is false, yet can't ACTUALLY BE PROVEN to be false (such as: "we're making progress in Iraq.") Basically you're daring them not to print it -- which would be in essence calling the President a liar -- and then opening them to ridicule when they do print it. This is classic wife-beater behavior: the husband forcing the wife to call black white & white black as a manner of reinforcing her own fear & humiliation.


Posted by: mjr at December 23, 2006 4:52 PM | Permalink

I think that is totally on target, mjr.

How do you publicly discredit a watchdog? By doing outrageous things in the open and saying, "go ahead, assholes, bark at that."

If the press doesn't bark, that's some watchdog! Journalists absorb their own humiliation and now they know, "We're not the watchdogs. Not really." The humiliation saps their will, and makes them defensive when their own ineffectiveness is pointed out to them.

If the press does bark, but there is no outrage, again... some watchdog. Journalists absorb their humiliation and, in a different way, they now know, "We're no watchdog."

The press never caught on to the fact that the Bush team understood its weaknesses. If you're willing to take radical measures, the press will normalize those measures to avoid the radical changes it would take to keep up with you.

That's the significance of... Let?s see if there's any penalty for doing that.

Previous Administrations hadn't gone this far because they assumed a "penalty" would be extracted-- a hit in credibility, reputation, legitimacy, approval ratings, something.

What if there is no penalty? was the breakthrough that led to rollback.

JJW: Jason doesn't care about Packer, he doesn't care about George Will, or Suskind. The one he cares about discrediting at all costs is Tom Ricks.

Why? Because Ricks (a military correspondent for the Post) wrote a book that relies on sources and documents from within the military itself. His book is basically the reality-based military fighting back against the retreat from empiricism that it somehow permitted, a monumental mistake that will be studied for years and years in the military academies.

Notice how Jason goes for the total dismissal-- Ricks is incompetent, uninformed, clueless, wrong on the facts, wrong in his assumptions, wrong about everything! In 30 seconds, in 200 words his book falls apart. Falls a-part, I tell you!

Fiasco is what worries him. Because on page after page it documents the retreat from empiricism and exactly how it happened.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 23, 2006 5:31 PM | Permalink

Remember that the "realists" in the 1930's were firmly convinced that they could deal with the likes of Hitler with conventional diplomacy, "peace in our time," "talk to our enemies," and all that. Churchill wanted to make his own reality, and was mocked for it. Hitler felt that with these realists running the show, he could get away with anything.

Who do we remember now? Bear that in mind as you mock Bush and his coterie. I am sure that Bush and friends do.

Posted by: JRM at December 23, 2006 5:57 PM | Permalink

Whether people in the school of thought known as "realist" were right or wrong on the merits of the war has nothing to do with the collapse of reality-based policy-making and the retreat from empiricism under Bush. My post is about this distinction, but apparently it didn't take.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 23, 2006 6:58 PM | Permalink

So, the new narrative, if the goal is to engage Republicans, would include pieces along the lines of profiles of the courageous few who stood up to Nixon and made his resignation inevitable? Recalling who (wisely, perspicaciously) chose Gerald Ford to replace Spiro Agnew? .How a deal was made to assure a pardon for the dethroned and disgraced king? Would the stories also include discussions of how this could be engineered now without the subsequent thirty years of minority party status?

That's a shift in assumptions.

Posted by: wif at December 23, 2006 8:43 PM | Permalink

Well, I corresponded a little with Lawrence Wilkerson (Colonel in the Army, lifelong Republican), who was Colin Powell's chief aide, after he wrote in the Los Angeles Times about the people in the White House being radicals, not conservatives, which is an analytical club I belong to.

I sent him Rollback as an illustration of what he had been saying. This is what he wrote back:

"I agree with your analysis of the way this administration treats the press. They seem to believe that what they say, if they say it often enough, is the truth and there is no other truth."

And that's from someone who was around for these events (on the losing side in many power struggles that eventually forced Powell out, and on the losing side in Powell's UN Speech.)

Bush's interest in keeping the suspension of empiricism, and the War in Iraq alive to stave off defeat and massive reputation collapse will collide not only with a Congress recovering its oversight mission, but with the interests of the Republican Party in 2008 and beyond.

Are they willing to sacrifice the party for Bush? As the pressure grows on that group, the press will, I think, dig into that story. Intra-party tensions: there's dozens on templates for that! And there's a lot of people who feel as Wilkerson does. People within the GOP, the Pentagon, the Bush coalition. Everything that kept them from speaking up before has ended, is ending or will soon end.

The moment for heroism was a few years ago. I think Wilkerson knows that, but made up for lost time when he finally got out.

I don't see Bush being forced out by elders in the Party, no. And I don't see him backing down, either. But losing support, credibility, legitimacy, and the good opinion of former friends and supporters... yeah. Now Cheney is another story. A complete wild card, and a dangerous man.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 24, 2006 12:52 AM | Permalink

You will find that I've fixed the offending sentences in my post regarding this article. My appologies for writing something I know better than to do, being tired and irritated is no excuse for stupidity. In fact, it approaches the very things I so dislike about BushCo.

Posted by: chuckbutcher at December 24, 2006 2:18 PM | Permalink

Cheney must be watched with eagle eyes.

This is a man who would launch a new war or nuclear strike to stay in power, no doubt.

Posted by: RIchard B Simon at December 24, 2006 7:14 PM | Permalink

Eleanor Clift has a piece at Newsweek right now on "Bush's Worst Lies of 2006."

At the end is a list of "Stories that were underreported largely because they ran counter to administration spin" ...

Among them, the Johns Hopkins 650,000 Iraqi war dead study.

Posted by: Richard B Simon at December 24, 2006 7:25 PM | Permalink

Having read your post and Mark Danner's article on the "Fantasy War," I thought of another way to account for the actions of the Bush Administration: the internalization of the terrorist mindset. What was "Shock and Awe" if not the same branding that could have been applied to the attacks on Sept. 11? Despite the loss of lives, it can be said the attacks in 2001 amounted to no encroachment on US territory by another nation-state. And by a certain stretch of meaning, they had no strategic reality--no definable change in the empiricist's ledger (no more than civilian casualties of firebombing in WWII). If the attack on Afghanistan was an empirically accountable attack on the physical enabling of terrorism, the events in Iraq were something different. I have even referred to the latter as our first pataphysical war--borrowing the term Alfred Jarry used for the intellectual forte of Ubu Roi--pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions. I also occasionally configure these events with reference to "Moby Dick" (another narrative connected with far-flung pursuit of oil). I will always remember the insight of a classmate who had written that the whale was the most important character in the book--because he drove Ahab crazy. I know this is all yet another flight from empiricism, but sometimes it takes one flight to describe another.

Posted by: Chris Lovett at December 24, 2006 9:02 PM | Permalink

I notice how Mr. Rosen can't deal with my arguments with Mr. Ricks on the merits.

Some "reality-base" there.

And comparing the press to a beaten wife, with Rove as the wife-beater?


That's one for the books.

No, I don't care about Will. I don't read him. I do read Ricks on occasion. I didn't set out to discredit him. He discredits himself based on his incredibly flawed perception of the Iraq war, specifically on verifiable factual issues which I pointed out, and with which Rosen cannot formulate a counterargument.

No. The "prevailing narrative" here is that Ricks is the victim of a Rovian wife-beater.

You guys are getting more laughable all the time. Press Think didn't use to be this way. It's becoming a cesspool of groupthink. True, it's become a cesspool of extremely articulate groupthink, because unlike the commenters at Pandagon and Kos, most of you guys write for a living.

Yes, I'm sure Ricks is to be commended for spending a few weeks in country. My own time in Ramadi, of course - which dwarfs Ricks' time in country, is immediately discounted by the "reality-biased" community.

Bear in mind the common fallacy of argument from authority. It's acceptable where all involved accept the authority of those cited. But when those cited include people like Ricks and Hersch (and why anyone would accept Wills as an authority on Iraq is beyond me - but this place isn't too good at assessing sources) - then arguing from authority falls apart.

Here's the difference between my arguments and Rosen's:

I cite facts; Rosen drops names.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 24, 2006 9:19 PM | Permalink

No, Jason. Not names. I drop books on you. Books, Jason. Detailed books by people who know how to gather information and ask questions, with lots of quotes from other people who know way more, and assertions based on material taken from documents one can examine. (Along with some anonymous sources too.)

When Ricks wants to know what Norman Schwarzkopf thinks about the quality of the case for going to war, and the planning for what would happen after, he goes to speak to the retired General, who is in favor of going in after Saddam.

But the General tells him that it just doesn't seem that Rumsfeld has taken the reality of today's Iraq into account. And his team hasn't consulted the career military people who have spent a lifetime planning operations. That's two pages. There are 439 pages, plus the footnotes.

Now I understand that you demolished Tom Ricks in 30 seconds. No, he demolished himself inside 200 words, wasn't that it? Anyway, it was over pretty quick and Jason won. So much for that name.

It's not names, or some "authority" that is supposed to impress, but books you are supposed to read and grapple with. Think about, even. Books where lots of other people (who were in a position to know...) are speaking up. I have presented an interpretation based on those books. You keep saying, in your inanely catgeorical style, that I have offered "no evidence," but this is not so. I think if you read the evidence presented in these books...

* Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty

* Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine

* George Packer's The Assassins' Gate

* Thomas Ricks's Fiasco

* Bob Woodward's State of Denial

* Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor's, Cobra II.

You will find that a common theme is the retreat from empiricism, including reduced deliberation, oversight, fact-finding, field reporting, contingency planning based on what was likely to happen, with contemptuous treatment of career professionals who had been doing the planning, or who had studied the subject, whatever the subject. In hundreds upon hundreds of cases, these things were critical factors in the planning disaster that unfolded.

They tell a common tale. Reality-based policy making got dumped and the military got put in a very bad position as a result. But it's not just the military. These same events are the biggest defeat and black mark that the intelligence community has ever suffered, and the most consequential screw up in journalism (in the sense of getting the story wrong) post-World War II.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 25, 2006 1:00 AM | Permalink

I would add that a retreat from empricism is consistent with what we're seeing in other parts of the executive as well. The Bush administration does love its non-emprical ideologues. Like at the EPA or NASA.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 25, 2006 1:11 PM | Permalink

Here's Mark Danner on the retreat from empiricism, in a review of three books (Suskind's One Percent Doctrine, Woodward's State of Denial and James Risen's State of War...)

It is unlikely that the Pentagon's vision of a rapid departure ever could have worked, Bremer or no Bremer. What is striking, however, is the way that the most momentous of decisions were taken in the most shockingly haphazard ways, with the power in the hands of a few Pentagon civilians who knew little of Iraq or the region, the expertise of the rest of the government almost wholly excluded, and the President and his highest officials looking on. In the event, the Bush administration seems to have worked hard to turn Kennan's problem of knowing the facts on its head: the systemic failures in Iraq resulted in large part from an almost willful determination to cut off those in the government who knew anything from those who made the decisions. Woodward tells us, for example, that Stephen Hadley, then Rice's deputy and now her successor,

"first learned of the orders on de-Baathification and disbanding the military as Bremer announced them to Iraq and to the world. They hadn't been touched by the formal interagency process and as far as Hadley knew there was no imprimatur from the White House. Rice also had not been consulted. It hadn't come back to Washington or the NSC for a decision....

"One NSC lawyer had been shown drafts of the policies to de-Baathify Iraq and disband the military -- but that was only to give a legal opinion. The policymakers never saw the drafts, never had a chance to say whether they thought they were good ideas or even to point out that they were radical departures from what had earlier been planned and briefed to the president."

As for the uniformed military, the men who were responsible for securing Iraq and whose job would thus be dramatically affected both by de-Baathification and by the dissolution of the Iraqi army, they were given no chance to speak on either question. Woodward writes:

"General Myers, the principal military adviser to Bush, Rumsfeld and the NSC, wasn't even consulted on the disbanding of the Iraqi military. It was presented as a fait accompli.

"We're not going to just sit here and second-guess everything he does,' Rumsfeld told Myers at one point, referring to Bremer's decisions.

"I didn't get a vote on it,' Myers told a colleague, "but I can see where Ambassador Bremer might have thought this is reasonable.'"

Since it is the cashiered Iraqi troops who, broke, angry, and humiliated ("Why do you Americans punish us, when we did not fight?" as one ex-soldier demanded of me that October), would within days be killing Myers's soldiers with sniper fire and the first improvised explosive devices, one has to regard the general's expressed forbearance as uncommonly generous.

At the time, the civilians in the Pentagon had attained their greatest power and prestige. Rumsfeld's daily press conferences were broadcast live over the cable news channels, with an appreciative audience of journalists chortling at the secretary's jokes on national television.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is the retreat from empiricism. It's what Danner said: the "almost willful determination to cut off those in the government who knew anything from those who made the decisions."

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 25, 2006 4:00 PM | Permalink

So, how does one respond, then, to an articles such as the one in today's NY Times where Sheryl Gay Stolberg offers a milquetoast assessment of how the president feels about the consequences of his decisions.

There is the line:

"I think he knows it's bad over there," this person [an unnamed source, characterized as a "longtime friend" who earlier in the piece had said Bush looked more tired than usual] "but I'm not quite sure he fully appreciates the incompetence of what's gone on..."

which suggests that Bush is, well, not fully grocking it all.

However, to balance this mild suggestion of a possibility of a critique, the piece has someone (a Rabbi) conclude that the president is, after all, "very, very sincere."

At this point, I believe you would agree, pieces like this are past parody, past farce and past absurd. What can regular readers do more than scribble in something along the lines that they will accept this bauble as a Christmas gift to the White House and allow the Times one more Valentine in February, but there damn well better be something probing in the works before Presidents' Day...?

Posted by: wif at December 25, 2006 8:42 PM | Permalink

Jay Rosen is certainly correct that the folly in Iraq stems not simply from a rejection of the tenants of one particular school of foreign policy, but rather from a general retreat from reality. But I have one quibble:

The distinction between action and behavior is not the most illuminating one to use here. I would instead opt for Arendt's carefully drawn distinctions between action and power, on the one side, and fabrication and force, on the other.

It is indeed in the nature of all political action to mobilize political power with the goal of shaping political reality. To attempt to read all political outcomes off of existing facts and trends, is to condemn oneself to being endlessly surprised (as, ironically enough, the neocons were surprised -- along with most everyone else -- by the collapse of Soviet power).

This was the all-too-persuasive grain of truth in that annonymous White House official's now-infamous assertion to Ron Susskind. Politics, after all, really is about things that can be other than they are, and to do politics is in some very real sense to change the world.

But there is a crucial qualification here, that decisively separates political action from all kinds of fabrication (the making of things being an ancient but deeply misguided metaphor for poltical action). This is that, in a political situation, other people are also present, and are also acting. They are not inert clay (as Wesley Clark recently put it while discussing Kagan's so-called "surge" option on the Diane Rhem show), passively suffering whatever we choose to do. We may indeed be among "history's actors" who "make" the world -- but, whoever we are, we are never alone in that capacity. This is the blatantly-obvious, but somehow easy-to-overlook aspect of the human condition that Arendt called "plurality."

The picture of politics as a kind of fabrication (naturally requiring a large quantity of force and violence to achieve its aims -- breaking eggs to make omelettes) gives rise to a recurrent fantasy of being the only true actors on history's stage. All others are mere creatures of one's superior designs.

Such a vision of politics is not foreign to any age or polity. It is a temptation internal to the hazards and uncertainties of political life. But always ends in the same way -- with the idea that all political action can be reduced to force; that, in Arendt's mordant phrase, "politics is a rather inefficient substitute for martial law." It always ends, in other words, with some version of the imperial temptation -- the fantasy that one is strongest when one is alone.

It is this old fantasy, elaborately redrawn by the White House and its allies in the right-wing media, that temporarily won the battle for elite (and I think also popular) public opinion in the anxious months after 9/11. That is why the so-called "reality-based community" seemingly had so few members in good standing in the Washington press corps during Bush's first term -- and indeed until quite recently.

That is also why the Baker-Hamilton Commission's recommendations for regional dialog were rejected out of hand by the administration. To have entertained them would have been to surrender the fantasy of which the entire Iraq policy has been an expression.

Posted by: Amileoj at December 25, 2006 11:54 PM | Permalink

Superbly said and a really valuable interpretation. You most certainly understand Arendt and her thought in the here and now. And I like your corrective. So thank you very much, Anileoj.

Yes, plurality is exactly what BushCo did not take account of, and that is intergral to its political style, which is to create a reality distortion field in politics, and then conduct decision-making in the smoking tent among the few who know how to act and get tough with the world.

Independent accounts of what's happening beyond the tent are reminders of human plurality, and the need for multiple views to grasp things politically. The way the Bush team made war on the givers of those accounts strikes me as a very big story, the strands of which have not been connected.

Certainly the events at NASA under Bush are part of it. I think it's more telling when the President hasn't ordered it, but the underlings are doing what they are pretty sure the White House wants.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 26, 2006 12:59 AM | Permalink


I have rather more faith in Tommy Franks' ability to understand the war than in Ricks', for example.

Now, once upon a time, when I was writing some essays from Iraq that were critical of some things, a number of reporters, including Ricks and Danner, contacted me by email, looking to develop stories, or follow up on things I wrote.

Now, eventually they stopped. Why? Well, what I was writing didn't fit in with the "tyranny of the prevailing narrative (TM)."

Here's the editorial policy: Bush = Bad. Rove = antichrist.

Now, reporters: Go fix your facts around the policy.

As for the books - well, a lot of the people most soundly criticized by Ricks, Danner, et. al are, well, busy fighting or directing a war. They don't have time to write books. In the fullness of time, they will.

Bremer has published a book. So has Franks. So has Georges Sada and Mahdi Obeidi. Oh, then there's the Hamza book, "Saddam's Bombmaker."

See, each of these books has some things in common, too: Specifically, these last three authors, all highly placed primary sources themselves, all agree that Saddam was hell-bent on developing WMD as soon as the sanctions were lifted.

In other words, Bush, et. al., was right.

I also have a hell of a lot more faith in Stephen Vincent's on-the-ground reporting than in Seymour (Five W's? What Five W's?) Hersh's.

Bill Roggio does a better job than any full-time reporter today reporting on the operational picture in Iraq by an order of magnitude. It's really not even close.

Then there's Stephen Hayes, who's been a one-man tour-de-force.

I notice the groupthinkers here don't bring any of these guys up very much.

Bill Sammon has written a couple of books himself - "Strategery" and "Misunderestimated" - both of which would take issue with the prevailing narrative you set forth by namedropping as though that were somehow conclusive.

Now, I will concede that Sammon has long been a partisan. But I concede that point mostly to shine a spotlight on your endearing, childlike faith that Ricks, Danner, and Hirsh are not every bit as partisan as Sammon is.

Ok, so you got to drop your names. And I dropped some of mine. Big frigging deal.

Those of us in the "reality-based community" prefer to deal in facts, not names.

We also prefer the concrete to the ethereal.

You a good reporter?

Jus' sayin,' y'all.


Happy holidays, everyone.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 26, 2006 3:25 AM | Permalink

Jason, as Jay Rosen wrote above, you have to actually grapple with the authors he lists above--deal with the cited facts and sourced statements in those books, not just dismiss them out of hand. Dismissing painstakingly researched facts is all too easy to do--a 24 year old at NASA could do it. But don't you think our public discussion deserves better than that?

And obviously, not all books or other sources of information are equal. They're created for different purposes. Obviously, a press release from a PR department is a bit different than a reporter's painstakingly researched story, with sourced facts and statements. You can't instantaneously say there's a stalemate between the press release and the reporter's story, and say "you've got your story, we've got ours." Again, you've got to actually grapple with the facts and sourced statements in the books.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 26, 2006 8:15 AM | Permalink

Jason, here is just one sourced statement that you'd have to deal with if you expect to discredit the dozen or so veteran reporters that Jay Rosen cites. Lawrence Wilkerson: "George Packer.. reporter for The New Yorker, has got it right."

Would Colonel Wilkerson, Colin Powell's right hand man, have said this if Packer hadn't gotten it right about Phase IV planning? Or if he hadn't gotten it right about Feith's Office of Special Plans?

If you're trying to find an angle that Wilkerson has an axe to grind, first read about Robin Raphel, the State Department's coordinator for Iraq assistance.

As Jay Rosen says, all these books are filled with such sourced statements and facts. You have to deal with them squarely. In some quarters, of course, a simple sneer counts as an adequate dismissal of presented facts and evidence. But in important issues such as the ones we're discussing here, shouldn't we expect more from our public discourse?

By the way, the Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes is the poster boy for publishing unvetted Rumint (rumored intelligence) stovepiped out of the Office of Special Plans. See my blockquote above from a Pentagon worker's first person account of Feith's Office of Special Plans.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 26, 2006 10:58 AM | Permalink

Jason: I have rather more faith in Tommy Franks' ability to understand the war than in Ricks', for example.

Which underscores the point of this discussion.


You tell us that Saddam was hell-bent on producing WMDs after sanctions were lifted.

And that Bush, therefore, was right.

But the Bush argument was that Saddam HAD WMD's, and could deploy them imminently (within 45 minutes as I recall was Tony Blair's assertion).

The prevailing COUNTERARGUMENT was that the sanctions were working to prevent Saddam from acquiring WMDs.

With this, you appear to agree when you say that "Saddam was hell-bent on developing WMD as soon as the sanctions were lifted."

But when you agree with that premise, you ain't agreeing with Bush.

I suspect your aim here is to muddy the water of this discussion by driving it off-topic.

This is NOT a discussion of the quality of war reporting. It is a discussion of reporting on policy-making.

Jason, what evidence do you have that Bush policy agrees with the facts as they are, rather than the facts being fixed around the stated policy goal? Which of your preferred reporters' accounts show that any of this was based on actual evidence that, for example, Saddam posessed WMDs and had links to al Qaeda and therefore posed an imminent threat?

The argument Jay makes is that

1. under Bush, the "facts" are fixed to support the policy aims.

2. that was pointed out by partisan Republican sources in Suskind's piece.

3. after Suskind, that story was underreported or not reported.

You are arguing that premise 1. is invalid, but you have not presented any evidence to support your claim. You are arguing that premise 2. is invalidated because other inside sources contradict those Republicans, but you have not supplied any evidence.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at December 26, 2006 11:17 AM | Permalink

You guys are wasting your time dealing with Jason and, in the process, you are allowing him to hijack the thread.

He is one more in a long parade of sycophants and apparatchniks who toe the line on Iraq-- an errand boy sent by grocery clerks.

But have sympathy. It's difficult to know what the line is anymore, since even the president has fuzzed it up.

Perhaps Jason could define it for us.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at December 26, 2006 12:50 PM | Permalink

As a "member of the reality based community," I'm going to say that I agree with everything in the above comment except for one thing:

The prevailing COUNTERARGUMENT was that the sanctions were working to prevent Saddam from acquiring WMDs.

The international intelligence community strongly suspected that Iraq had some WMD in some form. But crucially, what they disagreed with was that Iraq's WMD constituted the immanent threat that the administration depicted--one that required a rushed invasion of Iraq. Their assessment was that any threat that Iraq posed was contained by sanctions and the inspection regime. (Needless to say, they were right on that.)

I'd suspect that the reasons they could make that assessment was that their intelligence communities did not have the political pressures to conform their research to policy in the way that the US intelligence community did. James Risen's State of War talks about secret information from Iraq's top 30 scientists via their families who said that Saddam's WMD program had been bombed and inspected back to the stone age. But this information was stifled, apparently, by the political atmosphere Risen describes in his book.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 26, 2006 12:50 PM | Permalink

I'm in agreement with Simon's 3 point assessment of Rosen's argument. I'll just address some of the sources for the first point.

Here's Wilkerson on the WMD facts being fixed to support policy aims:

Now, on the other matter, I've been over that so many times in my head and with hundreds of journalists who are trying to figure it out for themselves - I can't tell you why the French, the Germans, the Brits and us thought that most of the material, if not all of it, that we presented at the U.N. on 5 February 2003 was the truth. I can't. I've wrestled with it. I don't know - and people say, well, INR dissented. That's a bunch of bull. INR dissented that the nuclear program was up and running. That's all INR dissented on. They were right there with the chems and the bios. Carl Ford and I talked; Tom Finger and I talked, who is now John Negroponte's deputy, and that was the way INR felt. And, frankly, I wasn't all that convinced by the evidence I'd seen that he had a nuclear program other than the software. That is to say there are some discs or there were some scientists and so forth but he hadn't reconstituted it. He was going to wait until the international tension was off of him, until the sanctions were down, and then he was going to go back - certainly go back to all of his programs. I mean, I was convinced of that.

But I saw satellite evidence, and I've looked at satellite pictures for much of my career. I saw information that would lead me to believe that Saddam Hussein, at least on occasion, was spoofing us, was giving us disinformation. When you see a satellite photograph of all the signs of the chemical weapons ASP - Ammunition Supply Point - with chemical weapons, and you match all those signs with your matrix on what should show a chemical ASP, and they're there, you have to conclude that it's a chemical ASP, especially when you see the next satellite photograph which shows the U.N. inspectors wheeling in in their white vehicles with black markings on them to that same ASP and everything is changed, everything is clean. None of those signs are there anymore.

Karen Kwiatkowski had the rare opportunity to look Senators, Democrats and Republicans, in the eye and persuade them of her case. They did not find her credible.

I could not find the "July 2004 interview" with Ambassodor Robin Raphel at USIP's "The Iraq Experience Project".

Here is the Oral History project. I also used their search engine, just in case the date or USIP program wrong. I searched Google and the LATimes for Paul Richter's story (the only other source I could find).

Posted by: Tim at December 26, 2006 2:02 PM | Permalink

Glenn Kessler also mentions the interview at the WaPo.

Bernard Engel mentions it in his interview with LTC Joe Rice.

Somewhat related: Panelists present varying assessments of prospects in Iraq

Posted by: Tim at December 26, 2006 2:35 PM | Permalink


Posted by: Tim at December 26, 2006 3:01 PM | Permalink

Perhaps Jason could define it for us.

That... could be read on a couple of different levels, couldn't it?

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 26, 2006 3:37 PM | Permalink

Perhaps Jason could define it for us.

That... could be read on a couple of different levels, couldn't it?

Posted by: JJWFromME


Posted by: Steve Lovelady at December 26, 2006 5:46 PM | Permalink

Karen Kwiatkowski had the rare opportunity to look Senators, Democrats and Republicans, in the eye and persuade them of her case. They did not find her credible.

I know Packer's Assassin's Gate supports much of what she said. I'd be curious to know who Packer's sources were.

Here's more on the OVP's pressure on the intelligence community (I might be duplicating what can be found in the books Jay Rosen mentions).

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 26, 2006 6:12 PM | Permalink

Well, whether Saddam Hussein had WMDs is now settled fact. He did.

Now, if your fund of information is so limited that you didn't know that, then you aren't ready to assess the formulation of policy, because you don't have the grasp of the concrete neccessary to make sound arguments concerning the ethereal (e.g., the so-called "retreat from empiricism.")

As for "imminent threat," please point out for me where Bush ever made that claim. The whole point was to remove Saddam before the threat became "imminent."

As for engaging the authors Jay cited, I started with Ricks and was very specific in my criticisms of Ricks. No one has bothered to address them on the merits.

I've also made specific criticisms of Hersh. Again, no one has tried to defend Hersh on the merits of his recent reporting (how's that hunt for the footage of the soccer game going, Sy?)

As for Lovelady's "errand boy" comment, that comment says a lot more about his own pettiness than it says about me.

He also makes a specific factual claim he can't back up: that I was "sent" by someone.

Sent by whom, scoop?

Let's have the goods.

As for the burden of proof, that burden is on Rosen, not me. Rosen is making the affirmative claim: That the Bush Administration is divorced from empiricism.

I simply pointed out that he hasn't posted his evidence for it. And "Because Ricks, et. al. say so" is an argument from authority fallacy. Ricks is not an authority. Someone he uses as a source might be...but Rosen has not developed his argument to that level as yet.

I mean, it may well be true - the Harriet Myers decision is certainly a case of some very suspect decisionmaking processes. I think something probably is awry at the White House. But not for the reasons set forth here.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 26, 2006 11:26 PM | Permalink

The argument Jay makes is that

1. under Bush, the "facts" are fixed to support the policy aims.

Yes, that argument is nothing new. As TallDave pointed out, that's something different from retreating from empiricism. I think all of us were conflating empiricism from reason, in the classical sense, as applied to decision making.

My argument is as follows:

1. In today's news media, the facts are made to fit around editorial policy.

In my post on Ricks' book linked to above, I pointed out a number of specific factual errors Ricks make - and these factual errors represent assumptions underlying Ricks' entire argument. They are the same factual errors (misconceptions? Myths? Lies?) underlying Rosen's argument.

To recap, here are some of the misconceptions off the top of my head:

1.) That Saddam had no WMDs (false)

2.) That Saddam had nothing to do with Al Qaeda (false)

3.) That there were no terrorists in Iraq before we invaded (false)

4.) That the invasion was launched with "scant international support" (false)

5.) That the Administration overruled the advice of commanders and forced them to go into Iraq with fewer troops than commanders wanted (false)

6.) Shinseki was retired early (false)

But since all these assumptions support the editorial policy (Bush = bad), they get rereported uncritically time and time and time again. They become part of the gheist of the beltway, as accepted as the bluish color of the sky.

But all of them are demonstrably false.

The facts are fit around the editorial policy. The press corps is guilty of failing to check its underlying assumptions.

To the extent the press perpetuates these myths, then I would posit that it is the news media that has divorced itself from empiricism.

And if this is the case, then you cannot make any reliable judgements concerning the Administration based on news media reports.

This is why the laziness endemic in the news profession - the intellectual slovenliness, the poor critical thinking, the arguments from authority, the petty, childish ad hominems of Lovelady, and the utter intransigence of people like Kathleen Carroll of the Associated Press is so destructive.

By the way - how's that hunt for police captain Jamil Hussein coming?

Last I looked the same reporter who quoted him most recently also makes reference to a morgue that turns out not to exist.

Find Jamil Hussein. Then talk to us about a retreat from reason.

Until then, the press is just as unreliable as a press release.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 26, 2006 11:50 PM | Permalink

re: "But all of them are demonstrably false."

Jason: well, you might just as well go ahead and... demonstrate, then? no?


Posted by: Delia at December 27, 2006 12:25 AM | Permalink

Press Gaggle by Scott McClellan
Aboard Air Force One, En route Nashville, Tennessee, February 10, 2003

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, what we're focused on -- and, remember, it goes back to what the President said over the weekend. And this is about disarmament. This is about 12 years of deceiving and denying and cheating and retreating and playing hide-and-seek. And those games are over. And the President has made that very clear. And now this is an opportunity for the United Nations Security Council and the United Nations to show its relevance; 1441 is very clear in what it says. And Saddam Hussein has continued his defiance of the international community. And this is a moment for the Security Council to come together and show its relevance. And we will not put up with any more games of deception and any more games of hide-and-seek, as the President has made very clear.

QUESTION: What about NATO's role? Belgium now says it will veto any attempt to provide help to Turkey to defend itself. Is this something the administration can live with, or is it a major obstacle?

MR. McCLELLAN: Two points. We support the request under Article IV of Turkey. And I think it's important to note that the request from a country under Article IV that faces an imminent threat goes to the very core of the NATO alliance and its purpose.

QUESTION: What can you do about this veto threat?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, I think what's important to remind NATO members, remind the international community is that this type of request under Article IV goes to the core of the NATO alliance.

QUESTION: Is this some kind of ultimate test of the alliance?

MR. McCLELLAN: This is about an imminent threat.

(emphasis added.)

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at December 27, 2006 12:25 AM | Permalink

We get what Jason is telling us. That there are no common facts here whatsoever, and we shouldn't for a moment assume such. I agree with him about that, as I said earlier in this thread. We're not living in the same factual universe, not by a long shot. So let's not pretend there is a debate, either. This is strictly culture war theatre, styled as an argument about "what the facts actually are."

I think everyone understands that, too.

From the comments at Jason's blog in his devastating and unrefuted review of Fiasco by Tom Ricks. It's pretty informative about what's going on here, at least in terms of supply and demand:

Thanks for the scathing review. I had some trouble finding one to balance the mostly positive one's I've read so far. I haven't read Fiasco, and probably won't, but based on what I've seen of Tom Ricks in interviews, it seems he does have some valid points to provide. Not his own, frequently, but relayed from one his numerous military contacts. I hope you're able to slog through the rest of the book in order to come up with some additional criticisms of his later ideas. Looking forward to checking back. (Too lazy to do my own thinking...)

# posted by PudriK : 1:19 AM

Tim: when you say, "How would you compare the four year period from 1947-1950 with the four year period from 2002-2006?" I don't quite catch your intent. What are the lines of comparison you are specifically asking about?

I haven't studied those years specifically, but I am not aware of anything like the complete humiliation the intelligence community suffered at the hands of Bush, Cheney, Libby, Feith, et al.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 27, 2006 12:33 AM | Permalink

Jay: if there are no facts we could possibly agree on... what's the point of all this? (might just as well go to bed -- it's getting late...) Nighty-night, all! D.

Posted by: Delia at December 27, 2006 12:54 AM | Permalink

I didn't say there are no facts we could possibly agree on. I said the gentleman's intent is to show that there are no common facts that he and I agree on, or that he and Richard Simon, Steve Lovelady, JJW or you, Delia, agree on. That's the whole point of saying, "actually, Saddam did have WMD," actually there was plenty of international support for what Bush did; actually, Saddam and Al Queda were in bed together, and so on. To remind you that everything is disputed. Nothing is ever established. Everything you think you know is considered false by people whom you don't know and don't understand. That's the "message."

My point is we should receive this message with equanimity. For there is no way to argue with it.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 27, 2006 1:10 AM | Permalink

Jay: What are the lines of comparison you are specifically asking about?

I consider the most significant, and consequential, post-WWII failures in intelligence, military and press to have occurred from 1947 to 1950.

To name just a few: Berlin Blockade, China, McCarthyism and Korea.

Did the press get the Master Narrative right on those stories or were they slow to correct the Master Narrative in those years?

Posted by: Tim at December 27, 2006 1:40 AM | Permalink

Then Jason's response really proves the veracity of the rest of the discussion.

If there is no such thing as verifiable reality, and there are no verifiable facts that can be agreed on, reality has been successfully undermined.

Which would be mark of the aforementioned retreat from empiricism.

By arguing against it, Jason becomes the evidence.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at December 27, 2006 1:48 AM | Permalink

"Did the press get the Master Narrative right on those stories or were they slow to correct the Master Narrative in those years?"

Slow to correct, I am sure.

I haven't studied press coverage of Berlin or China's upheavals, but McCarthyism, yes. There are a lot of parallels between the ruin in the press after McCarthy and the ruin after Bush. In both cases, journalists were facing political men who were willing to go much further than the journalists had imagined political men going. In both cases the press was unprepared for that. But while this was widely recognized after McCarthy (his manipulation of news cycles, for example, was much commented on) there is a great deal of reluctance to concede it today about Bush.

It's close but I would say the wreckage today is worse than after McCarthy, primarily because, as I told John Harris, "you and your colleagues think you have handled the challenge of covering this government pretty darn well." Which is one devastating illusion. It's been a rout, and it remains one.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 27, 2006 1:52 AM | Permalink

Then Jason's response really proves the veracity of the rest of the discussion.

If there is no such thing as verifiable reality, and there are no verifiable facts that can be agreed on, reality has been successfully undermined.


This ridiculous notion that there are no verifiable facts is wholly a creation of Rosen's. I reject it.

Rosen, like everyone else, is entitled to his own opinions. But nobody is entitled to their own facts.

For instance, either Shinseki retired on schedule or he didn't. Either Saddam retained possession of stocks of WMDs in violation of the terms of the cease fire or he didn't. Either Saddam fired on aircraft enforcing the no fly zone or he did not. These are boolean variables. These are concrete actions.

Rosen is attempting to lay a rhetorical smokescreen: I'm not saying there are no verifiable facts. I'm saying that there are, and that the news media has largely gotten them 180 degrees wrong.

There IS a such thing as verifiable reality. And one of these realities is that Saddam failed to destroy hundreds of WMDs.

No, Mr. Simon...I'm here pounding the table for the verifiable facts, and for a focus thereupon.

It is Rosen who has abandoned empiricism here. His evidence is fixed around his policy.

Delia: Pick whatever misconception you feel I got wrong and come on over to Countercolumn. Be specific as to why you believe I got them wrong. We can go through them one at a time, there.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 27, 2006 7:16 AM | Permalink

Karl Rove before the recent elections:

After midterm election interviewer Robert Siegel stated that "many might consider you on the optimistic end of realism" regarding Republican hopes to retain both Houses in November, Rove suggested that the NPR host was biased.

"Not that you would be exhibiting a bias or anything like that," Rove said. "You're just making a comment."

"I'm looking at all the same polls that you're looking at every day," Seigel responded

"No you're not!" Rove exclaimed.

Rove said that he was reviewing 68 polls a week, and that "unlike the general public, I'm allowed to see the polls on the individual races," as opposed to public polls reported in the media.

"You may be looking at four or five public polls a week that talk about attitudes nationally, but that do not impact the outcome," Rove said.

Rove claimed that the polls "add up to a Republican Senate and a Republican House."

"You may end up with a different math, but you're entitled to your math," Rove said. "I'm entitled to 'the' math."

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 27, 2006 8:03 AM | Permalink

Jason: sorry, but I'm not going anywhere... If you disagree with Jay (and have the indisputable facts to demonstrate the "demonstrably false" things on your list) AND Jay would like to hear that too... (it's his blog after all...) fine... I'm listening... Otherwise, you don't seem to be going anywhere with your arguments...


Posted by: Delia at December 27, 2006 10:24 AM | Permalink

As for Lovelady's "errand boy" comment, that comment says a lot more about his own pettiness than it says about me.

He also makes a specific factual claim he can't back up: that I was "sent" by someone.

Sent by whom, scoop?

Let's have the goods.

Jason, Jason -- think it out. "Sent" by all the deluded appartchniks who convinced you that things in Iraq have gone well and are going well.

And how exactly is that little fantasy playing out, Ace ?

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at December 27, 2006 10:32 AM | Permalink

And GOP strategists were worried, because the administration was so confident it had " 'the' math" that it had absolutely no contingency plan. Sound familiar?

(It's interesting that the reporter coupled the facts together in this story the way he did...)

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 27, 2006 10:37 AM | Permalink


Dismissing painstakingly researched facts is all too easy to do--a 24 year old at NASA could do it.

I hate to break it to you, but you don't understand the difference between a "fact" and a "theory." Deutsche was right. The Big Bang is not a "fact." In the context of science, the Big Bang is, indeed, a "theory." The red shift is a fact.

That's 8th grade science.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 27, 2006 1:14 PM | Permalink

Come to think of it, JJ, it's ironic that you would blow the definitions of theory and fact so severely in this particular thread.

You're not really in much of a position to accuse anyone else of retreating from empiricism when you yourself don't understand its most basic tenets.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 27, 2006 1:19 PM | Permalink

So Deutsch, a recent college dropout, was perfectly qualified to get the entire NASA organization to rename an observed phenomenon in all of its publications?

Was he also qualified to tell a sixty-something year old scientist--with a lifetime of peer-reviewed scientific acheivements--to take his 1st amendment rights and stick them where the sun don't shine?

So much for our Enlightenment-era founding fathers, you know?

I think Jay Rosen is right that culture war issues are separate from this discussion. The bottom line is that turning away from shared facts (empricism) on the part of our leaders is very dangerous. How can you make good decisions when you deny the basic facts? When you systematically insulate policymaking from the people who have the best input?

Why do you think the Iraq War has gone so badly? Were Colonel Wilkerson and Robin Raphel hallucinating? Were all the other sources quoted by Packer and Ricks hallucinating?

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 27, 2006 1:55 PM | Permalink

Ummmm... how can I put this gently?

JJ, since when is the Big Bang "an observed phenomenon?"

And just how were James Hansen's "First Amendment Rights" violated?

Not only do you not understand the difference between fact and theory, not only do you not grasp what is and is not an "observed phenomenon," you also do not grasp the First Amendment, and what it does and does not protect.

Specifically, the First Amendment guarantees that Congress will make no law restricting the freedom of the press or of speech. The First Amendment does NOT guarantee or even imply that public employees - or anyone else - will keep their job or be immune from negative career consequences regardless of anything they write or say.

Ask Dr. Jocelyn Elders and General Douglas MacArthur about that.

Just a little "observed phenomena" for you.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 27, 2006 2:21 PM | Permalink

You're not responding to any of the substantial points on this thread. So this will be my last comment to you.

Technically, Deutsch worked for Hansen's employer. So there was grounds for him to say, "if you speak out, I'll get you fired."

But a college dropout is "editing" a sixty year old distinguished scientist, telling him what he can and cannot say--that's pretty bad. Scientists as public figures, free to do their work and communicate freely, is something that goes way back. One of the reasons why Franklin was so free to experiment and publish findings on lightning was that he wasn't looking over his shoulder at a king and clergy who, in Europe, were invested in giving a different kinds of explanations than the ones Franklin was giving.

So anyway, politicos stopping a scientist from communicating his findings to whomever he wants to is deeply against the traditions of this country. It was reasons like this that the First Amendement was written. So 24-year-old George Deutsch and whoever was his hiring manager ought to be deeply ashamed. And if they aren't, then that really says something.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 27, 2006 2:57 PM | Permalink

And then there's Cooney.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at December 27, 2006 3:54 PM | Permalink

I will repeat what I said earlier. This tangling with Jason isn't debate, and it has no outputs different than the inputs. It's just Van Steenwyk's culture war theatre, where every act in the play is supposed to be about facts in dispute. You'll notice how the main character keeps taunting the others, "not very empirical, eh?" No matter what the facts under discussion are, it's always the same (culture war) dispute. And the facts are always clear, unambiguous and the opposite of what the "liberal media" or lefty blogger has just said. Introduce more facts, as several posters have done, and you just add more scenes to the play.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 27, 2006 4:13 PM | Permalink

JJW: "The bottom line is that turning away from shared facts (empricism) on the part of our leaders is very dangerous. How can you make good decisions when you deny the basic facts? When you systematically insulate policymaking from the people who have the best input?"

Empiricism is not "shared facts." I suppose you could argue that empiricists value "shared experiences (which they do)," but that's not adequate.

It is an attempt to explain epistemology.

Here's a question: Is Jay making an arguement that the retreat from empiricism is a retreat to another epistemological philosophy?

Posted by: Tim at December 27, 2006 4:27 PM | Permalink

Here at PressThink, we've seen this culture-war movie before, over and over and over. Jay was even suckered in by Jason for a bit. Where's the rest of the troops, Aubrey?

Posted by: hue at December 27, 2006 4:31 PM | Permalink

And just to sweeten the pot, an empiricist would be the first to tell you, "The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible, because it can never imply a contradiction and is conceived by the mind with the same facility and distinctness as if ever so conformable to reality."

Posted by: Tim at December 27, 2006 4:38 PM | Permalink

An interesting question is who wrote the scripts? I recently read Brock's Republican Noise Machine, which talks a lot about NewsCorp and all the think tank beneficiaries of the Scaife Foundation (who want to Thank You for Smoking).

It's "whoever makes the most noise wins."

I know we want to be non-partisan here and appeal to a wider audience. But anyway, I wonder if some people sitting at the Scaife Foundation or at Fox News are now having some regrets at helping to create the discourse culture we now have... Or maybe not, I don't know.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 27, 2006 4:48 PM | Permalink

Empiricism is not "shared facts."

I suppose I have to read up on my Hume. But I'm pretty sure they value experience-able reality, and that what is real can be confirmed by that reality.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 27, 2006 4:56 PM | Permalink


If I understand this right your starting point for this was Harris' "increasingly, we live in a time where there are no shared facts and thus no authentic debate" -- which I told you I liked because it seems to reflect reality and identify a real problem (*no authentic debate*); it's just that, although I agree with Harris (as far as identifying a troubling trend), I cannot agree that we should just take it as a fact and let it be... (I'm not suggesting that Harris or you for that matter are arguing for this).

Maybe Jason is not the right person for this (arriving to shared facts and thus having an authentic debate) but there *must* be others that could do that -- I hope... (And I think it would be worth trying to find them.)


Posted by: Delia at December 27, 2006 8:49 PM | Permalink

Rather than lack of appreciation for the theory/fact distinction, perhaps another way of describing culture war theater is that many important philosophies of science are not particularly disturbed by the idea that different theories produce different facts. Thomas Kuhn, for instance, came very close to saying this.

Whether you subscribe to these more sophisticated philosophies of science, or prefer nineteenth century notions of one experientially verifiable reality, the problem comes when one person claims that a given experience/experiment verifies X and someone else claims that the very same experience/experiment verifies Y, the contrary of X.

When experience and experimentation can no longer settle a dispute or even weigh for or against a hypothesis any more than for or against its contrary, such a thought process is no longer science, it is dogmatism.

We live in an increasingly scholastic age in which competing dogmas produce competing realities. When one of the positions explicitly rejects the validity of science and consistently kills and defunds inconvenient data, is it really that hard to figure out which position is retreating from empiricism?

Politics and Science in the Bush Adminstration
A congressional report prepared for Henry Waxman that documents deletion and misrepresentation of scientific data in over twenty distinct cases:

this report...finds numerous instances where the Administration has manipulated the scientific process and distorted or suppressed scientific findings. These actions go far beyond the typical shifts in policy that occur with a change in the political party occupying the White House...The Administration's political interference with science has led to misleading statements by the President, inaccurate responses to Congress, altered web sites, suppressed agency reports, erroneous international communications, and the gagging of scientists. The subjects involved span a broad range, but they share a common attribute: the beneficiaries of the scientific distortion are important supporters of the President, including social conservatives and powerful industry groups.

Bush: Bad Data Means Stop Publishing

FDA Scientists Pressured to Exclude,
Alter Findings

WASHINGTON - July 20 - The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) today released survey results that demonstrate pervasive and dangerous political influence of science at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Of the 997 FDA scientists who responded to the survey, nearly one-fifth (18.4 percent) said that they "have been asked, for non-scientific reasons, to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information or their conclusions in a FDA scientific document." This is the third survey UCS has conducted to examine inappropriate interference with science at federal agencies.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at December 28, 2006 12:37 AM | Permalink


I don't see that happening. Apparently an attempt at argumentation (not just being contrary, but presenting a logical path with facts that persuades) isn't going to be effective here--and seeing that van Steenwyk's earnest effort is haughtily dismissed as "culture war theatre" by the proprietor is an excellent dissuasion for someone not in agreement here to put forth a reasoned argument.

The gap in position is pretty wide, and neither side is willing to concede much.

But good luck with that.

Posted by: Chap at December 28, 2006 12:57 AM | Permalink

Is this a debate on philosophical viewpoints? I'd actually enjoy it a bit more if it were framed that way, I think.

Is a Retreat From Empiricism bad? Is empiricism always the best basis on which to judge human behavior and to formulate decisions, political ones, for example? Here's an interesting take on that.

Thank you, Tim, for that link to Rationalism vs. Empiricism

The last paragraph under 1.1 Rationalism kind of struck me: "If we claim to know some truths by intuition or deduction or to have some innate knowledge, we obviously reject scepticism with regard to that knowledge." Voila!... Bush must be at least a little bit of a Rationalist! :)

I've enjoyed this terrific website called The Radical Academy. In fact, I smile when Jay refers to Bush as radical because if he is, by definition he's certainly in great company! This site offers great essays by Mortimer J. Adler and other Great Thinkers.

Anyway, here's an interview with Jonathan Dolhenty about his thoughts on today's "Intellectual Insanity" which I think has great relevance to not only this discussion but to many of the other "academic" discussions here at Press Think.

Posted by: Kristen at December 28, 2006 1:56 AM | Permalink

But a college dropout is "editing" a sixty year old distinguished scientist, telling him what he can and cannot say--that's pretty bad.

In this case, the college dropout was correct. The scientist should have known better.

That pretty much trumps all other concerns. At least it does out here in the reality-based community.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 28, 2006 5:29 AM | Permalink

That pretty much trumps all other concerns. At least it does out here in the reality-based community.

Might makes right.

That could have been written by King George III. I guess we're back to fuedalism.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 28, 2006 7:23 AM | Permalink

The are very polarizing times. I've even had trouble when discussing things with my fellow liberals. It seems like everyone is so quick to take the gloves off these days, like they're too weary to have much curiousity about the other position...

I have deep respect for conservatives. As Woodrow Wilson said, "Burke was right." There were tons of things that Burke got right and his liberal contemporaries got wrong.

But there is a reason why the term "reactionary" was coined. There are conservatives and there are reactionaries. While conservatives are trying to conserve, which is laudable, reactionaries believe they're setting things right, but don't understand the past that they're bringing us back to. And as we can see today, that effort not only hurts others, but hurts themselves as well. Because there are reasons why we have the traditions we do. And reactionaries are not conserving traditions-- they're disrupting them.

George Deutsch, with his limited education and completely unearned power, thinks he is setting things right by stifling James Hanson. But before Hanson, there were generations of scientists who published lots of inconvenient findings that shook up the establishment. And we have a long tradition of letting scientists do that in this country. And in some cases, they helped build the country in the first place.

The architects of the Iraq War think they were setting things right by cutting out the reality-based people in the State Department, in favor of Rumsfeld's Pentagon. But before Lawrence Wilkerson and Rachel Raphel, there were a a number of educated people a couple of centuries ago who talked about winning hearts and minds. (And they did not mean just having a bunch of flacks in a PR office.)

Karl Rove thinks he's setting things right by bypassing the smarty pants academics who came up with polling methodology. But before Robert Siegel, there were all the intelligent people who developed statistics, and there was Karl Rove's math teacher. And there was Karl Rove's mother, who told him to have a Plan B.

I'm probably being a little bit of a smart alec here myself. But without a doubt it's true, there's a big difference between a conservative, whom I respect, and a reactionary, who I think is dangerous--even to him or herself.

I think this provocative essay by Sidney Blumenthal, published after the elections, got it right.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 28, 2006 11:11 AM | Permalink

The debate between science-based politics and politics-based science is always a good one.

Question: Is the "Reality Principle" synonymous with Empiricism?
There's Signal in That Noise: The White House, the Reality Principle and the Press

Cargo Cult Science
Cargo Cult Science - Revisited

Intellectually stimulating:
The Elegant Universe

Posted by: Tim at December 28, 2006 11:24 AM | Permalink

Kristen. Since my webmaster installed Movable Type version 3, I have had innumerable problems. It's the usual software industry thing: too many features jammed into a system overgrown, and only the most tech-savvy users can figure them out.

Anyway, your comment was awaiting moderation and when I saw it, I published it. My apologies.

You ask: are we having a philosophical discussion? Maybe we are, but with Jason, no. Strictly culture war theatre. Jason says: Gen. Shinseki was not forced to retire! True, he retired on schedule as Army chief. Is that a concession? Then I concede. Jason is right about that. Right, right, right. Facts, facts, facts. Score one for Jason! Did you hear me? Good!

And (this part Jason does not tell you, but Ricks does...) Rumsfeld named his replacement 15 months before the retirement date so as to completely undercut his authority, Wolfowitz said Shinseki's estimates for how many troops were needed were "wildly off the mark," and the message went out that the Bush Administration doesn't want to hear what commanders really think. (Wolfowitz also said the Iraq operation would pay for itself through oil revenues, which was not a reality-based statement.)

And that's what "van Steenwyk's earnest effort" is all about. It's hand-to-hand combat about disconnected facts that might discredit the other side. I call that culture war theatre. You can call it what you want. It has nothing to do with debate.

On some of our other terms...

I think of empiricism as all efforts to understand the world based on experience, observation and seeing what happens in the world when you choose a particular course of action. This is what Bushco dumped. Defenders of the military ought to be very mad about it. Why they aren't is a mystery to me. Probably they are but culture war prevents them from saying so.

Bush's doctine of pre-emption is a rational policy, Kristen. I can follow the logic of it, and it does not assume divine intervention. It is also a radical one, and in my view misguided. I want Bush to be called a radical because it is more descriptive.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 28, 2006 11:43 AM | Permalink

"... and the message went out that the Bush Administration doesn't want to hear what commanders really think."

Did Ricks say that?

Bush Backs Overhaul of Military's Top Ranks
Source Watch: Eric Shinseki

Posted by: Tim at December 28, 2006 12:10 PM | Permalink

Goldwater-Nichols Act

Posted by: Tim at December 28, 2006 12:25 PM | Permalink

A term I've heard some opinion journalists use about Shinseki was that he was "cashiered," which means dismissed from a position of responsibility. I think that's descriptive without having to go down a rabbit hole of explaining what actions were taken in the bureaucracy.

An article that Kristen linked to talks about "scientism." I think advocating for science and empricism isn't the same as scientism, which is something I don't buy into at all. Scientism is pernicious. But on the other hand science is a big part of our heritage from the Enlightenment, and I think it's telling that the Bush administration has run roughshod over it. I think it's part of the story of the retreat from empiricism.

I don't think we have to get too deep into the philosophy to have this discussion. Probably just deep enough to know the basic values of the people who wrote the constitution. A good biography of Jefferson or Franklin would do that.

You have to be careful not to know too much. Our president thinks there are too many philosophers in Washington.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 28, 2006 12:34 PM | Permalink

Jay: Sorry about stirring-up this tangle with Jason
(it was just that I would have really liked an honest debate). D.

Posted by: Delia at December 28, 2006 12:58 PM | Permalink

Jay: Sorry about stirring-up this tangle with Jason
(it was just that I would have really liked an honest debate). D.
Posted by: Delia at December 28, 2006 12:58 PM

Not to worry, Delia. Jason is Jason. We all know that. Reality does not intrude upon his world view -- a view in which, apparently, Rumsfeld is a hero, not an oaf; the midterm elections went swimmingly; and everything is A-Okay in Iraq.

Tell it to the limbless, Jason.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at December 28, 2006 1:28 PM | Permalink


I don't think you should apologize. Nothing wrong with wanting an honest debate.

The question I ask myself, "Is that commenter trying to inspire dopamine production or adrenaline?" The culture warriors like to hype their own (and like thinkers) dopamine production while producing adrenaline in their opposition. It also helps to understand The Political Brain.


Are your comments sometimes motivated by a belief that you're an edgling and Jay's a centroid?

When Jay complains about culture war theater, is he trying to tell you what kind of critic he wants?

What Does a Great Newspaper Want From its Critics? Accountability Committee at the Times

But seriously: what use does the Times have of these "outside" voices? That's what I want to know: What does a great newspaper want from its critics in the public-at-large?

Does it want for them to go away?

Does it want for them to be heard?

Does it want them less partisan, more capable of taking an "objective" view?

Does it want them to be better informed about Times journalism?

Do outside critics offer anything of value, in the eyes of Times writers and editors?

Posted by: Tim at December 28, 2006 1:53 PM | Permalink

Tell it to the limbless, Jason


I'm speechless.

Then again, why dignify a statement so classless with a response?

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 28, 2006 2:34 PM | Permalink

I don't think anyone on this thread has mentioned Matthew Yglesias's "Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics," but it seems to be relevant to this discussion. Yglesias compares the views of some regarding the U.S. military to Green Lantern's ring in the comic book... The ring can be used to create anything, and the object created can withstand anything, as long as the guy pointing the ring maintains enough willpower. So zap, next, we just point it at Iran. It's an interesting way to describe things, and captures a certain mentality:

Suffice it to say that I think all this makes an okay premise for a comic book. But a lot of people seem to think that American military might is like one of these power rings. They seem to think that, roughly speaking, we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient military force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower.

What's more, this theory can't be empirically demonstrated to be wrong. Things that you or I might take as demonstrating the limited utility of military power to accomplish certain kinds of things are, instead, taken as evidence of lack of will...

I don't even know what else to say about this business. It's just a bizarre way of looking at the world. The wreakage that the Bush administration is leaving in its wake is a direct consequence of this will-o-centric view of the world and Gerecht takes it as a reason to deploy more willpower.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 28, 2006 3:36 PM | Permalink

The tide may be turning. Today's Times carries a story on Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith, who on Dec. 7 gave a sharply critical speech about the conduct of the Iraq war. It is relevant to this discussion. First there's this:

“Many things have been attributed to George Bush,” Mr. Smith said, “but I do not believe him to be a liar.”

He continued, “He is not guilty of perfidy, but I do believe he is guilty of believing bad intelligence and giving us the same. I can’t tell you how devastated I was to learn that in fact we were not going to find weapons of mass destruction.”

That's the retreat from empiricism becoming a political issue among reality-based Republicans. Then there's...

He said he had previously refrained from publicly criticizing the war because he had been struck by the comment of a soldier from Oregon, who told him during a 2005 visit to Iraq that if he supported the troops, he also had to support their mission.

But Mr. Smith’s attitude began to change over the past year, particularly after he visited Iraq in May. In an interview, the senator recalled two occurrences in Baghdad during his visit, one in which a massive bomb killed about 70 people and a second in which some American troops were killed on patrol.

And a book on World War I he had been reading, by John Keegan, the British military historian, was beginning to haunt him.

Mr. Smith said that his use of the word “criminal” in his speech to describe the war in Iraq came from his reading of that book, which he said explained to him the “practice of British generals, sending a whole generation of British men running into machine guns, despite memos back to London saying, in effect, machine guns work.”

Much like the British in World War I, he added, “I have concluded that we are employing strategies that are needlessly getting kids killed.”

After returning to Washington from Baghdad, Mr. Smith said he listened with growing dismay to optimistic briefings given to senators by Donald H. Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense, and other administration officials. Even in closed-door briefings, he said, “the answers always seemed to be, It’s tough but we have to stay the course.

“And so I started thinking about the British generals,” he said.

Last summer, on a flight from Portland, Ore., to Washington, Mr. Smith said he read “Fiasco,” a history of the Iraq war by Thomas E. Ricks, “and by the time I landed I was heartsick.”

That's why Jason went after Ricks. Clearer now?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 28, 2006 4:24 PM | Permalink

We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world.
--George W. Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 17, 2002

One year prior to the September 11 attacks, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency predicted increased religious extremism and violence as a result of increasing economic inequality due to globalization, warning that:

the rising tide of the global economy will create many economic winners, but it will not lift all boats...[It will] spawn conflicts at home and abroad, ensuring an even wider gap between regional winners and losers than exists today...Regions, countries, and groups feeling left behind will face deepening economic stagnation, political instability, and cultural alienation. They will foster political, ethnic, ideological, and religious extremism, along with the violence that often accompanies it.
CIA, Global Trends 2015: A Dialogue about the Future with Nongovernmental Experts, December 2000

Surely one of the central exhibits for the case that the Bush administration participates in a retreat from empiricism would be its relentless promotion of neoliberalism and its militarist cousin, neoconservatism, on the demonstrably false premise that free trade and deregulation inevitably promote the common good, counterfactually and sanctimoniously claiming that globalization raises the living standards of the poor across the world when nearly every known historical case demands precisely the opposite conclusion.(Because there are so many economists who cook the books, this sadly takes us back to competing theories producing different facts. This also means that Thomas Friedman and George W. Bush promote the problem as the solution.)

The last twenty years of world history demonstrate precisely the reverse in over seventy separate national economies, yet it is still an article of "centrist" faith that opposition to the neoliberalism that impoverishes the world further everyday demonstrates a callous indifference to the interests of the poor. It is difficult to think of a more paradigmatic case of the retreat from empiricism.

Michel Chossudovsky,Global Poverty in the Late Twentieth Century

Susan George,Global Poverty or Global Justice?

Posted by: Mark Anderson at December 28, 2006 5:07 PM | Permalink


I find the MT3 comment moderating very frustrating. Especially when there is a comment from you at Pressthink while other comments are in the queue waiting your approval.

Posted by: Tim at December 28, 2006 5:48 PM | Permalink

Rumsfeld named his replacement 15 months before the retirement date so as to completely undercut his authority, Wolfowitz said Shinseki's estimates for how many troops were needed were "wildly off the mark," and the message went out that the Bush Administration doesn't want to hear what commanders really think.

What on earth does Rumsfeld naming Shinseki's replacement 15 months early have to do with Wolfowitz and Shinseki's troop estimate? (Answer: Zero. You're conflating two wildly different things.)

News flash: As chairman of the JCS, Shinseki wasn't a commander. Franks was. Franks and Rumsfeld seem to have gotten on just fine.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 28, 2006 6:02 PM | Permalink

A term I've heard some opinion journalists use about Shinseki was that he was "cashiered," which means dismissed from a position of responsibility. I think that's descriptive without having to go down a rabbit hole of explaining what actions were taken in the bureaucracy.

No. There is no universe in which "cashiered" accurately describes what happened with Shinseki.

The fact that you think it does illustrates how sloppy your thinking is. The problem you're facing is you're trying to draw conclusions (outputs) without understanding the facts (inputs).

Garbage in, garbage out.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 28, 2006 6:06 PM | Permalink

Shinseki wasn't chairman of the JCS.

Posted by: Tim at December 28, 2006 6:08 PM | Permalink

Speaking of Matt Yglasias, this afternoon he has a relevant post about where things are right now:

Political strategy for the midterms... dictated that the president had to acknowledge the public's concerns about the war and concede that things weren't going well. At that point, simply staying the course doesn't work anymore. But de-escalating would be an admission of failure, so the only option is to choose escalation. Thus, the idea of an escalation starts getting pushed and we start reading things in the paper like "Top military officials have said that they are open to sending more U.S. troops to Iraq if there is a specific strategic mission for them." Consider the process here. It's not that the president has some policy initiative in mind whose operational requirements dictate a surge in force levels. Rather, locked in the prison of his own denial he came to the conclusion that he should back an escalation, prompting the current search for a mission. [emphasis added]

So the driving force here isn't the facts on the ground, it's psychology. He's got to do something because of recent politics. So... let's fight more to justify our continued presence. But now, if we could only figure out our reasons for doing that.

Shouldn't the facts on the ground come first, and then the strategy? Instead, he has a plan that works as an abstract idea ("if we just..."), but his generals can't imagine how it applies to the facts on the ground. Meanwhile, what is the cost of this in lives lost?

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 28, 2006 6:10 PM | Permalink

"Franks and Rumsfeld seem to have gotten on just fine."
Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk

Jason, that may be the first thing that you have gotten right.

And, as I have asked you before ... how exactly did that work out ?

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at December 28, 2006 6:45 PM | Permalink

Jay: "I call that culture war theatre. You can call it what you want."

I want to call it impervious, adrenaline-addicted, bulldozer contests.


Posted by: Tim at December 28, 2006 6:59 PM | Permalink

No. A good, spirited argument between two mechanics over the merits of competing custom cam shafts tractor-pull has firmer intellectual underpinnings than this crowd, when it comes to Iraq.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 28, 2006 7:05 PM | Permalink


Most commenters at Pressthink don't know squid about crab when it comes to the military and Iraq. That's not going to stop them from making their pronouncements on either subject.

Likely, their pronouncement will be fuel for their bulldozers in the direction they are already heading.

Your can set your bulldozer on a head-on collision course, or choose a different tactic.

Posted by: Tim at December 28, 2006 7:27 PM | Permalink

Jay -- Your extended quote about Senator Smith hardly portrays him as an empirical, reality-based thinker. His analogy to British casualties in WWI is only off by about 23300%.

Steve -- Your reference to wounded veterans as "the limbless" is, typically, patronizing and offensive. I don't know how many OIF vets and active duty soldiers you talk to, but I am sure that if you took a vote exclusively of Purple Heart recipients and Gold Star families, Bush would win in a landslide. By contrast, Cindy Sheehan's group lists about 100 members.

Posted by: Rx for BDS at December 28, 2006 7:27 PM | Permalink

Most commenters at Pressthink don't know squid about crab when it comes to the military and Iraq.

Well, sounds like you do. Jump in any time.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 28, 2006 7:35 PM | Permalink

I don't know how many OIF vets and active duty soldiers you talk to...

I talked to a vet a while ago. He was tending bar at a restaurant I went to. He said things were going terribly over there. Completely mismanaged. He said there were friends of his who bought into the whole venture, but he didn't. I was surprised at how categorical he was.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 28, 2006 8:18 PM | Permalink

Here's some opinions from soldiers in Baghdad:

In dozens of interviews with soldiers of the Army's 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment as they patrolled the streets of eastern Baghdad, many said the Iraqi capital is embroiled in civil warfare between majority Shiite Muslims and Sunni Arabs that no number of American troops can stop.

Others insisted current troop levels are sufficient and said any increase in U.S. presence should focus on training Iraqi forces, not combat.

But their more troubling worry was that dispatching a new wave of soldiers would result in more U.S. casualties, and some questioned whether an increasingly muddled American mission in Baghdad is worth putting more lives on the line.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 28, 2006 11:58 PM | Permalink

There you have it. That's the sum total of your recent contact with veterans: You heard it from some guy in a bar. "A while ago."


Like I said: Garbage in, garbage out.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 29, 2006 12:02 AM | Permalink

Are your comments sometimes motivated by a belief that you're an edgling and Jay's a centroid?

Nope. Honestly, I don't care.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 29, 2006 12:13 AM | Permalink

Jason, you got a detail wrong--IIRC, Shinseki was the COS Army, not CJCS. He still wasn't a commander, though; he was a service chief.

OT: Shinseki lost a lot of credibility when he loudly put the marker down in DC for many more troops...for the invasion of Afghanistan. Which was wrong in the event and along with the beret flap and the Crusader mess and siding with Tom White over trying to undercut Rumsfeld, got his butt in a sling before the World's Longest Rush To War.

Posted by: Chap at December 29, 2006 12:32 AM | Permalink

Beyond the Retreat from Empiricism:

The Cult of Wrongness

As bizarre as it is, it is simply beyond doubt that when it comes to foreign policy credibility, advocating an extremely stupid and destructive war with false and ill-informed claims is valued more highly than opposing an extremely stupid and destructive war with correct, prescient, and highly informed claims. Advocating a war -- any war -- is always worth more credibility and seriousness than opposing a war.[Emphasis mine.KMA] That twisted formula explains a great deal about many things.
The point here is not that the opinions which Steyn expresses are unpersuasive or amoral or extremist (though they are all of that). It's that his statements -- his factual claims -- are repeatedly demonstrated to be pure nonsense, completely false, purely wrong, demonstrably erroneous. And Steyn is by no means alone.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at December 29, 2006 12:56 AM | Permalink

Might makes right.

That could have been written by King George III. I guess we're back to fuedalism.

No, might does not make right. Right makes right, by definition.

This goes to my central argument in this thread - the young man at NASA was entirely, 100% correct in referring to the Big Bang theory as just that - a theory to explain observable phenomena.

The Big Bang is a theory, not a fact. That is a fact. My criticism is this: The fact didn't matter a whit to you. You wanted to slam this young man, and by extention, the entire administration, and damn the facts.

You were willing to mis-state the first amendment in order to do so.

You were willing to pervert the meaning of the word "censorship" in order to do so.

You were not willing, however, to look hard enough into this particular instance to examine whether your assumptions were correct - you are bound and determined to think the worst of this young man, and so the ignorant version of events MUST be true, because that's what gives you a warm feeling inside. Sort of like wetting the bed.

When someone like me comes along, and takes a minute to examine the facts of the case, and determines that - wait a minute - the PR guy was RIGHT about that, and brings it to your attention, you can't refute it.

Obviously, you can't sit and continue to argue that the Big Bang theory is NOT a theory - a pointless and idiotic position to take, though you did your best when you tried to argue that the Big Bang was an observable phenomenon.

And of course, you can't do the honorable thing and concede "well, you're right, the Big Bang is a theory after all, and so this probably is a lousy example of the Administration behavior I'm trying to highlight."

So, having been forced to abandon your original assumptions because your grasp of factual matters was faulty, you try to avoid any factual discussion whatsoever by invoking "might makes right" - in a situation wholly inapproprate for that construction.

You also invoke King George III because... because...well, not because of anything I can figure out. It's a big red herring designed to distract the reader from your having been p3wned on the original facts.

Nevertheless, I'm sticking to my guns, and pointing out that the Big Bang theory is still a theory, and whether the person insisting that it is a theory is small or great has zero bearing on whether he's right.

It's a very minor skirmish. After all, who really cares what these two knuckleheads think?

But it neatly encapsulates the thought patterns here.

There's an old saying among lawyers: If the facts are on your side, bang on the facts. If the facts aren't on your side, bang on the law. If you have neither the facts nor the law, bang on the table.

I find I can usually tell who has the better of an argument by looking to see who is directing the discussion to the facts, and who trying to lead the discussion away from the facts, toward the abstract and ethereal.

Hell, even worse, Rosen's name dropping. "ooh, so and so thinks like I do."

Well, that's not evidence.

I'm the one here banging on facts.

Now, Senator Smith is approvingly quoted here, saying he was "devastated to learn that we were not going to find WMDs."

Here's another fact:

Smith is wrong.

We found a number of them.

Here's another fact: A forum, ostensibly made up of journo types, let that go by without examination. Instead, they're using a falsehood as evidence to bolster their Bush = bad position.

Now, it falls to me to point that out.

The predictable reaction, of course, will be to dismiss the facts, as represented by me, as so much "culture war theater."

But it's not. It's the truth.

That remains the truth, regardless of my motivations. Even if I were here to fight a "culture war" (your term, not mine), it still would not change the underlying fact that we found hundreds of chemical munitions, intact.

That fact has to be dealt with.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 29, 2006 12:59 AM | Permalink

Yes, I was wrong: Shinseki was CoS o/t A, not CJCS. Consider the record corrected.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 29, 2006 1:01 AM | Permalink

That piece in the Times this morning was very good. It elevated Senator Gordon Smith to an heroic position and bathed him in a near mythic Profiles-in-Courage light. The segment Jay quotes does not mention that the change in Sen. Smith's thought process began after the death of his 22 year old son and Sen. Smith began to identify with those who were losing their children in a cause he could not justify.

Heart rending stories like these are very effective, especially, one might say,with people with right wing leanings. The model for this might be Ronald Reagan, who, it was said, had to be protected from people recounting him stories that might pull at his heart strings and persuade him of a viewpoint that ran counter to his policies. It made Reagan very human. And charming. And approachable. And scary.

I have spent time with highly educated, intelligent, articulate people with an effortless command of their facts and have had to sit quietly listening to terrible conversations where horrible assumptions were made and teeth-gnashing conclusions drawn. Attempts at counter argument always failed to convince until the discussion grazed against something with which I had direct personal experience. Anecdote, narrative, analogy... all suspect devices as far as logic and argumentation is concerned, but so effective at convincing others.

Or you can argue a priori assumptions with Jason.

Posted by: wif at December 29, 2006 1:23 AM | Permalink

Rosen to Jason: You need to read Ricks to know what you're talking about.

Jason to Rosen: I did read Ricks. The first couple of paragraphs of his book were demonstrably false/sloppy/wrong.

Rosen to Jason: But you need to read the rest of it! And all of these others just like it!

This is hilarious stuff.

Posted by: Dexter Westbrook at December 29, 2006 1:28 AM | Permalink

Re: Sen Smith's speech, you can read all of it on my Blog. I suggest that before buying into too much you do read it all. He's one of my two Senators, the R one. OR at state level is entirely in D hands, '08 is Smith's election year. 4/5 OR US CDs are safe D, Walden (R) holds CD2 (mine - he's safe for awhile). Smith has a history of politically convenient "conversions" that seem to hold until he talks to R leadership in other words until DC. If the Democrats can't find somebody to beat Smith in '08 they're playing the wrong game.

As far as I can tell, I was the 2nd to get that speech up, by a matter of minutes, I posted my article on news reports after searching for it and not finding it, I continued to search for it and put it up as soon as I found it. From experience with the Senator's statements I believed his actual words were more important than news analysis, you can be the judge by reading it.

I try to get things right, I've had to appologize to Jay for taking an inappropriate tone and fix it, I don't mind being a hardcase and being perceived as one, provided I'm accurate.

I've read Jason Van Steenwyk's Blog, that was sufficient to convince me that discussion was pointless, there wouldn't be one. He is a pretty good demonstration of Jay's thesis in operation.

Posted by: chuckbutcher at December 29, 2006 3:17 AM | Permalink

I don't suppose you have specifics, do you?

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 29, 2006 6:03 AM | Permalink

JJW: "Well, sounds like you do. Jump in any time."

OK, let's pick on our congenial host.

Jay wrote: "Defenders of the military ought to be very mad about it. Why they aren't is a mystery to me. Probably they are but culture war prevents them from saying so."

I think it's a mystery to Jay for three reasons: A sketchy, patchy and drastically incomplete, half blind version of the military + The Political Brain + The Political Memory.

Please understand, I'm only picking on Jay because, like the rest of us, he's human.

Question: Why does Jay rationalize that the culture war explains what is a mystery to him?

Posted by: Tim at December 29, 2006 10:13 AM | Permalink

Like I said: Garbage in, garbage out.

Back Atcha. Big Time.

So Jason, am I a latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show because I usually don't cross paths with people in the military?

Jason, lots of people don't cross paths with people in the military. In fact, I think Rangel had the right idea. If you instituted a draft, even a tiny one, to staff this little adventure, it would have gone nowhere fast. Our little Dungeons and Dragons defense intellectuals, who never wore the uniforms, but were desperate to send other people's kids to war, would have gotten nowhere fast.

But anyway, all the things that you're arguing are tangents to the substantial points of this thread, and the questions posed to you quite clearly. Keep putting your hands over your ears and going la la la, you know?

that's what gives you a warm feeling inside. Sort of like wetting the bed.

Nice discussion. I'm through with it.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 29, 2006 10:13 AM | Permalink

Phase IV, Tim? Did you--a defense intellectual--like the planning for that part of the operation? Forget reality-based, forget "empirical." Was it professional?

Phase IV: Was it smart? Was it worthy of the United States military? Are they happy about it up at West Point? Are they happy that for Phase IV the men in uniform bent over for Rumsfeld and Bush and took it all, repeatedly? Does anyone regret it? Do they wish there had been more lubricant? Tell us. Enlighten us.

I said it was a mystery to me why people in the military weren't more angry about the collapse of empiricism under Rumsfeld and Bush. I pronounce myself (again) baffled by it. That means I don't know. My speculation... that not wanting to participate in the culture war engulfing the commander-in-chief probably has something to do with it... is just that: speculation. Not "explanation."

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 29, 2006 10:45 AM | Permalink

You want to know what the military thinks about the planning and execution of Phase IV? OK.

Here's COL Benson.
Here's LTC Crane.

More posts with 2 links each to follow ...

Posted by: Tim at December 29, 2006 11:15 AM | Permalink

Here's an SSI Study, U.S. Military Operations in Iraq: Planning, Combat and Occupation.

Posted by: Tim at December 29, 2006 11:18 AM | Permalink

No, I want to know what you think. Are you happy about it the way it was done? Was it professional? Was it degrading?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 29, 2006 11:22 AM | Permalink

Here's a book review of Basrah, Baghdad, and Beyond: The U.S. Marine Corps in the Second Iraq War (which I haven't read) and here's an early NDU Study (November 12, 2003).

When you're lubricated and ready to discuss the professionalism and execution of "rolling transition", the Afghan model vs. the Iraq model, planning and execution responsibilities/realities at the strategic, operational and tactical level - let me know.

Posted by: Tim at December 29, 2006 11:22 AM | Permalink

You want to know what I think? I think you haven't spent as much time trying to understand the military as I have trying to understand journalism. I think that makes it very difficult to have a discussion with you about the military.

Posted by: Tim at December 29, 2006 11:29 AM | Permalink


Again, you do not appear understand how empiricism is actually practiced. In addition to Jason's note that you seem to think facts are in the eye of the observer, which is about as anti-empirical as can be, you don't seem to understand how events are interpreted empirically.

Let's take an assertion you've made -- the planning for Iraq was poor. Well, OK, poor compared to what? The Platonic ideal of a perfect plan, or similar operations in the past? Did you know millions in postwar Germany nearly starved to death due to problems in logistical planning? Need I even bring up Kasserine Pass, the intelligence failures leading to Pearl Harbor, the poorly armored and armed Sherman tank used right through the war, the senseless head-on charges in Okinawa that needlessly cost thousands of lives?

When you only hear about the failures of an operation, as opposed to comparisons to other, similar operations, you can be very confident the criticizers are not being empirical.

It's like complaining that when you dropped a ball, you found it accelerates at 10 m/s/s rather than at 100 m/s/s. Rather than going back and finding every other experiment finds objects accelerate at 10 m/s/s, you cry "The ball is falling too slowly!"

Posted by: TallDave at December 29, 2006 11:29 AM | Permalink

Okay, so compared to other, similar operations, planning for Phase IV was... good, not so good, excellent, poor, equal to the standard the United States military accepts for itself?

Now I know Cheney wouldn't do this, but I'm curious: did Rumsfeld promise to be gentle with the chiefs who bent over? Or did they know it was really going to hurt?

I'm surprised you don't have an opinion on Phase IV, Tim, and I'm suprised you can't render it in plain English for us civilians.

I will read those links, and thanks for them. I'll be offline for a bit and back later, probably after sunset.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 29, 2006 11:44 AM | Permalink

For exmaple, Victor Hanson, who does understand empiricism, on Ricks' book:

But above all there is a regrettable absence of perspective, both contemporary and historical. Abu Ghraib is a centerpiece of the narrative. But it pales when compared to the terrorists' own penal horrors, as we learn from a sentence or two devoted to the lopped limbs and worse that were found when Fallujah was retaken. And might we judge our folly in pulling back from the first siege of Fallujah, for example, by what happened to the U.S. in the hedgerows in 1944, the Bulge, Okinawa or the Yalu to determine whether such blunders are specific to Iraq, the American military, or war in general?

Posted by: TallDave at December 29, 2006 11:45 AM | Permalink

Well, let's compare occupations. Were millions close to starvation in postwar Iraq? Were there the massive outbreaks of disease so often concomitant with war? How long did it take for Japan and Germany to form constitutional governments and hold elections versus Iraq? What about the Philippines? How soon were our soldiers able to come home from those conflicts?

Posted by: TallDave at December 29, 2006 11:57 AM | Permalink

Jay: you disappoint (there was no need for that language -- especially not the long-drawn-out description).


P.S. I'm taking a break from reading your blog

Posted by: Delia at December 29, 2006 1:14 PM | Permalink

Well, the military and colorful language have always had something of a relationship. See Norman Mailer.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 29, 2006 2:24 PM | Permalink

Well, if I were in the military, I'd be pissed at the collapse of empiricism. All that work blown to dusty clouds by the ghost of Empedocles, or was it Epamandonas, I forget. I'm exhausted from bending over, with laughter. Never have I read such synthetic commentary. In the Greek, all lexis and no logos; in the Brit, all retch and no vomit. Talk about mistaking the map for the terrority, the retreat from empiricism etc. takes it. I thought sociologists were the masters at confusing the descriptions of things with the things themselves, but I see that honor belongs to you journalists. I agree with Mr. Steenwyck; you have your mind's made up as to what has happened, without asking those questions some other Greek would ask. Conjectural questions-did something happen? What is it? Where did it come from? Definitional questions-how is the act or thing defined? What are its parts? How are they related? qualitative questions-how serious is the thing? Good or bad, right or wrong? Procedural questions- what is to be done? What actions in regard to the act are possible, desirable? How so? Sounds a bit like the five w's. Obsessing with the one 'W' has made you forget the first five I'd say. I think it was Allistair Cook told the story about early flight in England. Just as a woman in about 1908 was saying, "Of course, they'll never fly", she glanced up to see one flying overhead. Heh.

Posted by: Kerry at December 29, 2006 2:48 PM | Permalink

See? That's how it's supposed to be done. Jason wrote something about Shinseki as CJCS; I identified an error in fact; he checked, acknowledged and corrected.

One can do that when considering identifiable facts rather than assertions or subjective assessments of deconstructionist reality.

This is why we rarely quote Hannah Arendt or Derrida in military tech manuals...

Posted by: Chap at December 29, 2006 4:35 PM | Permalink

Here's a two sentence version of Suskind: They kill the messenger of bad news. Because we're an "empire" now, they think we'll eventually kill the bad news anyway.

"Empricism" is just a fancy way to communicate to west wing types (Ivy leaguers) that that's what they're doing.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 29, 2006 5:01 PM | Permalink

Derrida? Deconstructionist? What on earth are you talking about? You've gone off the deep, deep end.

Delia: that's about the 20th time I've disappointed you, so perhaps a break would be a good thing.

TallDave: you couldn't give a straight answer, so interpreting what you said, it seems that you're conclusion was that, comparatively speaking and in proper historical context, Phase IV planning was very good to excellent, and fully met the standards the military has for itself. Thanks for your wisdom. It helps us put the rest of your comments in proper perspective.

Kerry: I couldn't make head or tails of your comment. Could you speak in plainer English? Or were you trying not to in order to make some point? By the way, "journalists" don't think there has been a retreat from empiricism-- I do and Ron Suskind does. As far as I know, we're the only ones to use that term.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 29, 2006 5:25 PM | Permalink

Fascinating isn't it? Mr. Rosen and his groupies cherry pick from a handful of polemics by way of proffering an outlandish premise, and this somehow constitutes an elevated discussion of the media (and empiricism, no less!!) I point out the obvious limitations of such an approach, labeling it for what it clearly is, namely partisan ranting, and Mr. Rosen accuses me of "culture warring." How special.

One would think the fact that Paul O'Neill had been fired (note to Jay: public officials settle scores through the press all the time) or the disavowal of his comments by other cabinet members might merit a mention -- you know, in as much as this whole exercise is being fashioned as a rousing defense of empiricism.

But it gets even better. Let's suppose for the sake of argument that O'Neill's comments can be taken at face value, and that Bush and Co. had designs on attacking Iraq before 9/11. This qualifies as a evidence that Bush has an anti-empirical streak only if one completely disregards what has transpired over the last 15 years -- the Iraq Liberation Act, the repeated bombing of Iraq throughout the 1990s, the fact that the governments of Britain, Spain, Italy, Australia and other nations actively supported the war, and so on. Are we to believe that Blair, Aznar, Berlusconi, Howard, et al are all anti-empiricists?

Here's a link to Robert Pollock's blissful demolition of Suskind's methods. You'd do well to take the underlying message to heart. That is, if you have any ambition of being taken seriously beyond the fringe...

Posted by: TD at December 29, 2006 8:35 PM | Permalink

No, I cannot.

Posted by: Kerry at December 29, 2006 9:02 PM | Permalink

Derrida? Deconstructionist? What on earth are you talking about? You've gone off the deep, deep end.

No he hasn't. You're relying on Derrida. After all, it was you who first embraced deconstructionism here:

Sometimes the humane and even noble fiction that we all live in the same factual universe snaps and it is more humane, and nobler, to acknowledge that we don't.

Ironically enough, you wrote that while simultaneously accusing others of a "retreat from empiricism."

But as soon as someone engages you empirically - specifically, by questioning the nature of the factual assumptions underpinning your argument, you abandon your original criticism wholesale and retreat to a wholly subjectivist view (we all have our separate factual universe.)

No. Rationalists would reject that. So would empiricists. So do materialists. So do realists. So do I.

You may not read Derrida. But you are certainly influenced by him, though perhaps a couple of steps removed (i.e., Derrida via Chomsky via Hirsch. Unless you read Chomsky directly. But you don't seem that far gone).

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 29, 2006 9:23 PM | Permalink

"All retch and no vomit." Seems pretty clear to me.

What he seems to be saying is the same as I'm seeing - your arguments are based on factual assumptions that do not withstand scrutiny; and you are not inclined to scrutinize your assumptions yourself.

Rather, you go out of your way to castigate those who do question your assumptions.

Accusing me of "culture warring" does nothing to buttress your argument.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 29, 2006 9:32 PM | Permalink

Dear Jason,
The troops have spoken, but they don't appear to agree with you about much. I'd like to apologize to you on behalf of the actual U.S. military for their not resembling your fantasies about them. Sorry.
Warmest Regards,
Mark Anderson

More Troops Unhappy with Bush's Course on Iraq

Only 35 percent of the military members polled this year said they approve of the way President Bush is handling the war, while 42 percent said they disapproved. The president's approval rating among the military is only slight ly higher than for the population as a whole. In 2004, when his popularity peaked, 63 percent of the military approved of Bush's handling of the war. While ap proval of the president's war lead ership has slumped, his overall approval remains high among the military...Almost half of those responding think we need more troops in Iraq than we have there now. A surpris ing 13 percent said we should have no troops there. As for Afghanistan force levels, 39 per cent think we need more troops there. But while they want more troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly three-quarters of the re spondents think today's military is stretched too thin to be effective.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at December 29, 2006 10:17 PM | Permalink

Mark argues from the wrong authority. Go ahead, take a look at van Steenwyk's avocation. Or the avocation of several of the folks disagreeing here.

You missed the snark by a mile.

Posted by: Chap at December 29, 2006 10:35 PM | Permalink


Unlike you, I don't have to fantasize about troops and their views. I know quite a few of them, personally. You might call it an occupational perk.

It may surprise you, for example, that we had a broad spectrum of opinion within my own unit in Ramadi in 2003 and 2004 - and my own copies of The New Yorker were greedily consumed by my colleagues there - especially the many Democrats, many of whom were critics of Rumsfeld, et. al back then.

You may be interested to know that, you know, having shared a veranda with some 30 soldiers myself, we might talk amongst ourselves once in a while and otherwise get to know one another.

Unlike you, I don't have to rely on polls to learn what's being said at the E-1 to O-4 level.

The survey, of course, demonstrates nothing beyond itself - and contradicts nothing I've ever said or written. It establishes that there is a continuum of opinion within the ranks of the military that looks somewhat like that within the U.S. population as a whole.

Imagine that. Those poor little "Halp Us Jon Carry" people actually hold opinions of their own.


The facts are the facts, and it doesn't matter what a survey says about how people percieve them - especially when we have a corps of newspeople so inept or corrupt.

Your red herring establishes nothing beyond your unwillingness, shared with Rosen, Lovelady, et. al., to seriously examine the faulty factual premises upon which you have constructed your argument.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 29, 2006 11:02 PM | Permalink

This absurd exercise in non-communication and culture warring will end around noon tomorrow, so get your last kicks in, and conduct your final examination of the faulty factual premises on which I have built my argument. I'm sure it will be devastating. After that I will retire this thread, which will be over 200 comments by then. We'll have to let history sort the mess out. And it is a mess.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 29, 2006 11:33 PM | Permalink

Given that Chomsky hasn't the remotest connection to Derrida, that he rather finds Derrida's work to be incomprehensible mumbo jumbo, it would in fact be impossible for Jay to have been influenced by Derrida via Chomsky. The idea that Jay might be influenced by Chomsky is itself ludicrous on its face. I should know, given that I do take Chomsky seriously. Jay and I consistently disagree on a long list of issues for precisely that reason.

Word to the wise: Self-righteous ignorance and logically impossible accusations are not a winning strategy. You repeatedly call for respect for knowledge of the military as a precondition for useful dialogue on that subject. For you to demonstrate the respect for the subject at hand that you insistently call for regarding the military, you would have to develop at least a rudimentary grasp of the positions you imagine you are combatting. If you must continue posting, please try to exercise something approaching the level of intellectual respect on your own behalf that you so tirelessly demand of others.

In this case, if you had even bothered to read as far in Chomsky as you so heroically did in Ricks (200 words), you would have realized what a howler this last post is. All you have to lose is the discredit your previous performances bring on yourself.
Mark Anderson

Noam Chomsky on Postmodernism

As for the "deconstruction" that is carried out (also mentioned in the debate), I can't comment, because most of it seems to me gibberish. But if this is just another sign of my incapacity to recognize profundities, the course to follow is clear: just restate the results to me in plain words that I can understand, and show why they are different from, or better than, what others had been doing long before and and have continued to do since without three-syllable words, incoherent sentences, inflated rhetoric that (to me, at least) is largely meaningless, etc. That will cure my deficiencies --- of course, if they are curable; maybe they aren't, a possibility to which I'll return.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at December 29, 2006 11:57 PM | Permalink

No further examination neccessary; your failure to address them - preferring instead to dismiss as culture warring what you cannot refute on the merits, speaks volumes already.

I'll be traveling tomorrow anyway

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 30, 2006 12:00 AM | Permalink


It may surprise you, for example, that we had a broad spectrum of opinion within my own unit in Ramadi.

Your capacity to imagine that an experience of yours precisely reinforcing the import of my previous post would come as a surprise is a great tribute to that thing you do. You have refined your refusal to communicate to such an artful level that you are even able to agree antagonistically. You have a very special gift.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at December 30, 2006 12:19 AM | Permalink


I think you are correct on Chomsky. It was sloppy of me to list him there.

Nevertheless, my central point in that post stands: When pressed on the facts, Rosen attempted to deny that there are such things as facts, in the objective sense.

"Good deconstructionist men sleep peacefully in their beds only because rough men stand ready to do violent heirarchies on their behalf."

The fact that you take Chomsky, the leading Western apologist for the Khmer Rouge - a sort of holocaust denier for the Eastern Hemisphere, at all seriously, is another matter entirely.

My condolences, even though it's not particularly surprising.

You guys engage in more and more unwitting self-parody all the time.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 30, 2006 12:25 AM | Permalink

Your capacity to imagine that an experience of yours precisely reinforcing the import of my previous post

No, it does not reinforce the import of your post. It reinforces its meaninglessness. If such a fact did not surprise you, you would not have triumphantly hailed an opinion poll finding the obvious like a senile man rediscovering his oatmeal for the fourth time in one sitting.

And accusing me of being antagonistic, given your prior posts to me?

Well, that's like a rat calling a fox a long-nosed varmint, don't you think?

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 30, 2006 12:33 AM | Permalink

Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine
Thomas Ricks's Fiasco
Bob Woodward's State of Denial
Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor's, Cobra II

I have read these, and I have to say I was not particularly impressed with their scholarly technique. These works relied excessively on unnamed and anonymous sources, and often "reconstructed" conversations as they might have been (should have been?) rather than as they were (if indeed they happened at all). This is a thoroughly untrustworthy and unsound practice, and this sort of "evidence" cannot and should not be used to support our understanding of reality.

I suspect that many of the people in this thread would be asking hard questions about these authors sources and methods if all the anonymous sources had been pro-war rather than anti-war. In my view, bad history is bad history, whether or not the resulting product appeals to you.

Posted by: Enoch at December 30, 2006 12:52 AM | Permalink

Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, pp.265-296:

Outside of marginal Maoist circles, there was virtually no doubt from early on that the Khmer Rouge regime under the emerging leader Pol Pot was responsible for gruesome atrocities...In early 1973, U.S. bombing increased to a scale that might truly merit the term "genocidal" used by the Finnish Inquiry Commission...Over a million refugees fled to Phnom Penh...At just this time, Khmer Rouge programs became extremely harsh...the only rational conclusion from this illuminating record is that the West was consumed with horror over Khmer Rouge atrocities during phase II not because of a sudden passion for the fate of the suffering people of Cambodia--as the record during phase I, and elsewhere, makes sufficiently clear--but because the Khmer Rouge had a useful role to play: namely, to permit a retrospective justification for earlier French and American crimes in Indochina, and to facilitate the reconstruction of Western ideology after the Vietnam trauma, so as to overcome the dread "Vietnam syndrome" and prepare the ground for a "resurgent America" pursuing its historical vocation of defending freedom ane justice. The actual facts were, and remain, of little interest, for the same reason.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at December 30, 2006 1:20 AM | Permalink

I've just finished reading the last of your links, Jay, from this paragraph (my bolding):

Today it is extremely difficult to find language adequate to "reality gets dumped," which is still in most respects an unbelievable and unbelieved tale, even though we know a lot about it from columnists like Dan Froomkin, Frank Rich, Hendrick Hertzberg and Eric Boehlert, from sites like and writers like Mark Danner.

Since I don't read any of these writers at all regularly (some not at all) I also took the time to read quite a bit of other material from all of them and check out their biographies.

Aye. Yi. Yi. Ditto Enoch.

That list is exactly why in junior high the teacher would say "Remember, guys, when you do research, you can use ONE encyclopedia only, the rest of yours sources have to be different." Those writers seem like clones of each other... ivy league, mostly Harvard, liberal arts degrees, maybe journalism with a little history thrown in. They've all made their entire livings describing and commenting on what everyone else is doing, and that from similar points of view.

This is not trust inducing. In fact, when Mark Danner starts quoting Suskind in speeches as a source and Dan Froomkin peddles Frank Rich's book you gotta wonder "Is the whole thing rigged?"

Here's one take on Hendrick Hertzberg:

BTW, I liked that Audacious link. Short to listen to, but to the point.

And Tim...thank you for those great links!

Posted by: Kristen at December 30, 2006 3:00 AM | Permalink

Yes, Chomsky is now trying to cover his tracks like a dog.

Unfortunately, he has a long history of a.) minimizing the Communist atrocities in print, b.) attacking the credibility of reporting we now know to be accurate, c.) blaming the United States for Pol Pot's actions and for the hardships Pol Pot himself imposed.

To read his 1977 writings now is to subject one's self to a moral obtuseness I usually associate with the likes of David Duke and Amadinejad.

Here's a useful fisking of his inane writing on Pol Pot.

Indeed, Chomsky lent specific support to a well-known holocaust denier named Robert Faurisson, who had claimed in LeMonde that the gas chambers did not exist.

Then there's this.

He's not a bad linguist, I'll grant. He should stick to that.

I doubt Jay wants PressThink to become a forum for people to try to defend Chomsky, though.

Like I said, I don't think Rosen's that far gone. ;-)

At any rate, that's not the ground I'd want to stake out for myself if I were an otherwise rational liberal.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 30, 2006 5:12 AM | Permalink

I think the "Halp Us Jon Carry" comment alone confirms Jason's credentials as a culture warrior.

Posted by: SpinMD at December 30, 2006 8:33 AM | Permalink

One more thing about Suskind's invoking empiricism and Enlightenment values: He does get a lot of mileage out of doing that. It both comments on this administration's break with the foundations of this country, and its basic lack of curiousity. "Dare to know" becomes "who cares if we confuse Switzerland and Sweden?" and then dangerously, "who cares if we just have vague notions about what's going to happen in phase IV?" Ideas about what's going to happen trump basic assessments of the facts on the ground.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 30, 2006 9:05 AM | Permalink


What did you think of the links provided above? Empirical?

Posted by: Tim at December 30, 2006 10:06 AM | Permalink

Jay Rosen: "... and conduct your final examination of the faulty factual premises on which I have built my argument."

It's a shame you're closing this thread, Jay. I was looking forward to a discussion on this question, "Okay, so compared to other, similar operations, planning for Phase IV was... good, not so good, excellent, poor, equal to the standard the United States military accepts for itself?"

If you do read the links and want to continue the discussion later, let me know.

Posted by: Tim at December 30, 2006 12:08 PM | Permalink

I think the "Halp Us Jon Carry" comment alone confirms Jason's credentials as a culture warrior.

Now that's a REAL abandonment of empiricism, for two reasons:

1.) because such a comment alone is dispositive of nothing.

2.) Even if I am a 'culture warrior' (whatever that means (if I am, though, so are you guys, which is the funny part), that STILL does not change the underlying facts.

No good journalist ought to be content with the notion that facts are mutable. Yet that is exactly what Rosen is settling for.

He can cry 'culture warrior' until the cows come home to roost and he will boost his thesis not one iota.

Why? Because his argument depends on an accurate grasp of the facts underlying and illuminating the decision of the U.S. Congress and President to go to war with Iraq. It does NOT depend on establishing that I am a culture warrior.

My status as a culture warrior is not readily defineable nor objective, and is not evidence which supports Rosen's thesis of "retreat from empiricism.

To the extent you think it does - and precisely to that extent - it is demonstrated that you wouldn't recognize an empirical process if it bit you on the ass.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at December 30, 2006 5:22 PM | Permalink

Kristen wrote:Those writers seem like clones of each other... ivy league, mostly Harvard, liberal arts degrees, maybe journalism with a little history thrown in. They've all made their entire livings describing and commenting on what everyone else is doing, and that from similar points of view.

The writers Jay Rosen mentions are not "clones" of "Dan Froomkin, Frank Rich, Hendrick Hertzberg," etc. Does this guy sound like a Frank Rich clone to you?

Ricks by trade is a military correspondent. As The Washington Post?s senior Pentagon correspondent, and previous to that, as a reporter covering the same beat for the Wall Street Journal, Ricks has spent the last 25 years covering the United States Military. Along the way he has published several books, including Making the Corps and Soldier's Duty, two books that have earned as much respect within the military as without. He is, in short, a consummate journalist, one who is respected both by the subjects he covers and his peers in the newspaper industry, a rare feat in today's hyper-partisan environment.

Understanding Ricks? background is critical to understanding this book. This is a history of the US military and its involvement in Iraq, first and foremost. Although political actors and decisions do indeed feature prominently in this work, they do so only with regard to their impact on the military and its mission in Iraq. Where Ricks covers the debate over pre-war intelligence, for example, he does so only to explore how this debate guided and structured the subsequent invasion and occupation. What this book is, therefore, is a history of the Iraq war from the perspective of the US military. What it is not is an account of the partisan politics associated with that mission.

As Ricks acknowledges in the book?s Notes, his goal was not to produce an academic history of the period; the events he is describing are simply far too recent for that.

This last part speaks to Enoch's criticism of Ricks' scholarly technique.

Posted by: JJWFromME at December 31, 2006 8:50 AM | Permalink

Thanks to all participants. Thread now closed.

Tim: I am working my way through your links and if I have something to say on them, I will let you know. (It's hard to read pdf's unless you can print them out and right now I am traveling and cannot do that.) Of course I was asking for your take, but obviously your feel constrained in that, which I suppose is understandable given how sensitive the subject of Phase IV planning is.

Kristen: "clones of each other" is a remarkably dismissive attitude. But as I said in the sentence you refer to, "reality gets dumped" is still in most respects an unbelievable and unbelieved tale. You have demonstrated that, and so has this thread.

I said earlier my post had failed, just as Suskind's original article had failed in its aim: to warn about the retreat from empiricism. The comments "improved" on that failure, adding Cindy Sheehan, Derrida, deconstruction, Noam Chomsky, John Kerry and all the acrid smoke of culture war to further befog the subject. The befogging was, I believe, intentional. It worked, too.

Not the worst-ever thread at PressThink but certainly one of the worst.

One of the more grimly amusing parts of it was that the retreat from empiricism was presented (by the same participants!) as both an impenetrably academic idea, out of which no sense could be made, and at the same time quite comprehensible so that it could be turned around and applied to me, as the one allegedly engaging in the retreat from empiricism, a charge repeated endlessly until by the end the word "empirical" had no meaning left at all, which was probably the point.

I'm sure I will return to the subject in another post, and the chances are that it will fail, too.

Cheers, everyone.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 31, 2006 10:03 AM | Permalink

From the Intro