Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist
When the facts aren't enough...
In early January in these pages, in We Ourselves Are Only Temporarily Modern, you would find a discussion of a short column by Eric Jager that appeared in the Los Angeles Times as the month began. Jager, who teaches medieval literature at UCLA, there argues we are not in the Information Age at all, or the Digital Age or the Connectivity Age, or whatever you choose. This is the New Middle Ages. And he thinks we ought to be honest about it - "With the resurgence of legalized torture, rampant religious fanaticism, widespread poverty and illiteracy, the threat of mysterious plagues, fascination with magic and the occult and suspicion of science, what else would you call it?"
Maybe so. There's this - a 1741 play by Voltaire, the French champion of that eighteenth-century Enlightenment thing, cannot be performed - too dangerous. You cannot even perform it in one of the more obscure corners of the world. From the Wall Street Journal via the Santa Barbara News-Press
But the performance was not canceled. The socialist mayor of the town, Hubert Bertrand, arranged for extra police for a reading last December. And there was a small riot - a car torched and a few garbage cans too. Bertrand says this was ''the most excitement we've ever had down here." No doubt. (The news item gives background on the play itself, by the way - the theme is the use of religion to promote and mask political ambition, and it may have been a thinly-veiled attack on Christianity, using Islam for ironic effect, as the Paris Roman Catholic clergy denounced the thing when it was for performed 1741. Go figure - or go read this, a hyper-scholarly discussion of the play by David Hammerback also of UCLA, if you can keep your eyes open.)
Background? There's this
Well, everyone writing about the international furor, riots and deaths following the publication of those cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in an obscure right-wing Danish newspaper, sooner or later gets around to mentioning Voltaire and Enlightenment, one way or the other. The news item mentions a headline in France Soir as the demonstrations around the world escalated into riots with embassies being set ablaze here and there and all the rest - ''Help us Voltaire. They've gone mad.'' But he's dead, real dead. Gone. He may have said ''I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it," but that's so eighteenth-century. We've moved on.
That sort of tolerance is now seen as insulting, and irresponsible - now the "good people" stand, hands over their ears, eyes closed shut, for their specific values, and their "deeply held beliefs." That's how you tell just who are the good people - the "values coalition" that always votes Republican (even against their own economic interests) over here, and the "insult The Prophet and you DIE" follow-our-rules coalition over there.
Of course, generally, we have moved on from valuing that other Enlightenment stuff that actually underpins the tolerance - relying less on God and working more with reason and "human" understanding, and working with facts and reality, using the methods of science to figure out what's up (look at the evidence, and if you have a theory of how something works, test it, and, if it works, show that anyone can do the same thing). Good enough for Jefferson and the Founding Fathers - and modern science and all the resulting technology followed, and modern medicine and safe food and all the rest.
So basically you work with the facts, the observable facts. Everything else follows. That did some good over the long years.
But then, of course, you have to agree on the facts.
So what are the facts in what is the oddest thing this country has ever done - start an elective war on evidence that turned out to be wrong, invading and occupying a country where we are now pretty much resented, inflaming anti-Western anger and resentment around the world, making us less safe than ever before, exhausting the military an transforming to economy to keep it afloat on bonds we sell to foreign governments, a few of which, or maybe most of which, don't have our best interests in mind all the time?
Will Iraq be able to avoid what seems like a slide into civil war, with the Shiite and Sunni Muslims fighting in the streets endlessly as each jockeys for power, while up north the Kurds just get rich and become a de facto nation on their own? Since now two thousand three hundred of our troops have died in this business, and more than ten thousand have been maimed for life, it would be nice to know if things will, say, work out? It's not like none of our business. If Iraq is a shambles and the world hates us - or in the case of our allies, resents us and doesn't believe what we say and thinks we're going through a period of stunning block-headed foolishness - then it would be nice to know if this will all work out and we'll be vindicated. This is the government we elected. It represents what we seem to have wanted.
Just how are we doing? These guys in Washington work for us. Time for a report to the stockholders, or whatever.
Are things getting better?
Before the Oscar stuff on march 5th you could have watched the Sunday talk shows, where such "reports to the people" are generally made, but the second and third tier folks as the man the top explains things only infrequently, and then in no detail and without much "fact" (he sees his job as to motivate us, not to explain much of anything).
So that Sunday you could listen to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Peter Pace say things are "going very, very well" in Iraq, as in "I wouldn't put a great big smiley face on it, but I would say they're going very, very well from everything you look at."
He cited political progress - holding elections and writing a constitution - and military progress - training Iraqi security forces. What about the mosques blowing up and all the dead people? Well, that Shiite mosque thing two weeks ago did cause some "problems," but that had forced Iraqis to look into "that abyss" and realize "that's not where they want to go." He said, "I believe the Iraqi people have shown in the last week to ten days that they do not want civil war."
Is that a fact? There's more detail in the Associated Press account here, but the truth of this, or its truthiness (close enough for the rubes), is not exactly clear. Work with the facts, the observable facts. Of course, he's been there. All we have is what we see in the news. The news must be wrong. His facts are better than the reporters' facts?
No - he's offering a theory (look at the evidence, and if you have a theory of how something works, test it, and, if it works, show that anyone can see just the same thing). That was on NBC's Meet the Press.
Over on CBS' Face the Nation you could see that congressman from the Deer Hunter part of Western Pennsylvania, John Murtha, suggesting the theory wasn't supportable by observation - Iraq has sixty percent unemployment, oil production well below prewar levels, water service to only thirty percent of the population. And that's not good. And as for civil war, he said we're doing everything we can militarily but our forces "are caught in a civil war" - it's that ethnic-religious thing. "There's two participants fighting for survival and fighting for supremacy inside that country, and that's my definition of a civil war."
Oh. He was a Marine for thirty years and a congressman just about as long, and he's got lots of friends in the highest levels of the military. Are all these then facts? There does seem to be aa bit more detail, detail about the electricity and all that can be confirmed.
Who to believe?
Murtha was asked if he believed General Pace. He said, "No, why would I believe him?" Dead silence.
So to help out he listed the things that didn't turn out to be so - the WMD not there, no ties to al Qaeda and all the rest. And this. "The rhetoric is so frustrating - when they keep making statements which are very optimistic, and then it turns out to be the opposite."
But we believe Pace. The administration wouldn't lie. It's all in how you look at it.
Well, no. Over at Crooks and Liars (here) there are links to video files where you can see Murtha say this -
Do people see that? Maybe so. It sounds true, not truthy - and rubes who believe "truthiness" sometime recover from their rubidity (a term used in medicine with another meaning, and in brewing, but used in a different sense here).
On the other hand, military families hate Murtha (personal experience in this case). One is reminded of the Roman Catholic clergy in Paris in 1741. "He's full of it - he doesn't know anything." Or, "He's dangerous, undermining our troops, and our faith in what we're doing." Or, "La, la, la, la - I can't hear you." (Yeah, that last one is a line in an Eddie Murphy movie.)
But then there are some odd events. You remember the AC-130 gunship things from the Vietnam War - fly low and slow and lay down a wall of 50 mm metal, circling an area for hours if necessary. Nothing lives down there. Very effective. Note here we just moved two to a base in Iraq. Things are getting better? (Note here that they're named Spectre and Spooky.)
And the day after Pace and Murtha had their say, this -
One comment here - "Reports that Bush shut his eyes, put his fingers in his ears, and began shouting "Purple Finger! Purple Finger! Purple Finger! Purple Finger!" at the top of his lungs when told of Gen. al-Dulaimi's death have not been confirmed."
Fallout? There's this -
Looks like we won't have a government there soon. Our commander in Iraq, General George W. Casey, sent condolences to "his family, tribe, and the Iraqi Army during this tragic loss." His statement included, "This tragic incident will neither impede the 6th Iraqi Army Division from continuing its mission of securing Baghdad nor derail the formation of the government of Iraq."
But there'll be no parliament for the foreseeable future. The facts be damned - nothing is derailed.
''Help us Voltaire. They've gone mad.''
Getting the Facts
So where do you get the facts? The government supplies some. People you know supply some. Some you dig up yourself. You try to sift through what seem like facts until you're satisfied a few of the, actually are like facts. And you also consult the press - they hire people to find out the facts and write them down. You pay them, one way or another, to do that - and if you get what seem like facts, well, you keep paying them. It's hard enough to figure out what the heck is going on. You tap all your sources.
But you may lose one. As Pace and Murtha gave their different "facts" that Sunday morning, on the front page of the Washington Post you could read this -
And if your read on you'll see they're talking about going after journalists - James Risen at the New York Times for writing about the NSA warrantless spying on our own citizens, and Dana Priest at the Post for revealing our collection of secret foreign prison where there are no rules, and so much more. It's not just making them choose between revealing their sources or going to jail. Yes, that would make it possible to prosecute the whistle-blowers in the government. (They're also hinting at criminal action against the Times and the Post for violating the Espionage Act - revealing state secrets in wartime. Ten years in jail, minimum. Ah, but that's only a hint. Some leaks are useful. Some are treason.)
Up at Harvard, the man who has been a top-level advisor to four presidents, three Democrats and one Republican, David Gergen, had a few things to say that same Sunday morning on CNN, on Howard Kurtz's Reliable Sources (video and partial transcript here, emphases added) -
Well, times change. But many on the web are point to this (emphases added) -
Well, Vice President Henry Wallace is not Vice President Richard "Dick" Cheney. And now, in 2006, we face a real threat, not as, in 1944, just a minor problem, that war against the Axis powers of Germany and Japan. Right.
Well, this could put a certain damper on the press. No one wants to go to jail.
And there's more.
As the widely read Glenn Reynolds says here, believe General Casey, specifically, and the administration generally. And these pesky facts the press keeps digging up about which laws we break and which treaties we violate and about all the torture stuff? A warning - "The press had better hope we win this war, because if we don't, a lot of people will blame the media."
Got it? The press reveals how we get things done. That aids the enemy. If they win, you can only blame the press.
The First Amendment attorney, Glenn Greenwald here -
Greenwald seems a bit bitter. But the talking point has been established. It's out there. Greenwald may mock it. It's gathering strength.
Who lost Iraq (if it's lost)? The press?
Funny, the chief neoconservative theorist and "preemptive war around the world for the good of the natives out there" cheerleader at both the Weekly Standard and from his perch as commentator at Fox News, William "Bill" Kristol, the same day as all the rest here, suggests, well, if Iraq is lost, maybe it's because Bush, Cheney and the rest, are, oddly, incompetent -
He's allowed to say that on Fox News - Bush and his gang can't do what they say? Glenn Reynolds will get him.
But the poll Murtha refers to, showing seventy percent of our troops say it's time to pack it in, can't be right either. That can't be "a fact." Why? Well, here Josh Marshall points to an item in the Fort Collins Coloradoan - military officers in uniform has started standing on stage at political rallies for Republican congressmen. The poll must be wrong. The military backs the Republicans. A fact?
Well, there is a ban on that -
Times change. The military takes sides.
And they side with the man who doesn't keep up on things. Out here Ron Brownstein opens his Sunday column with this -
Never mind. Say the magic words. Things will be fine. Barrel straight ahead.
Facts? ''Help us Voltaire. They've gone mad.''
And there are the facts about the odd death of Pat Tillman, NFL hero turned war hero, except our guys shot him. The Inspector General of the Pentagon has asked the army to open a criminal investigation into Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan (story here). Go here for an analysis of the whole context of why it was important to cover up the "friendly fire" thing and lie to the family for so long. The news cycle didn't allow it. Some facts need to be timed. The fact, from family and friends and from his own letters and notes, that Tillman thought the Iraq war was stupid (Afghanistan made sense to him), and that Tillman liked reading Noam Chomsky (gasp!), is dealt with here - a clip of Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity, agreeing on Fox News that they just didn't believe it. "La, la, la, la - I can't hear you."
Yeah, but people pay attention (sometimes) to the evidence. And sometimes they apply logic, not faith, and come yup with things like this - If Saddam is found guilty of genocide, can Rumsfeld be innocent? Think about it - "The question to ponder is this: If Saddam Hussein is guilty of genocide for gassing Kurds in 1982 and the Reagan Administration via Rumsfeld's efforts concluded an agreement with him one year later that supplied weapons and important weapons technology, including the wherewithal to manufacture poison gas, then can Rumsfeld and other involved parties be anything other than complicit in genocide?"
Logic can be a bitch. No wonder these guys want to move well beyond Voltaire and the Enlightenment.
Time for a little William Blake (1757-1827) - faith always wins
Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau:
Mock on, mock on: 'tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
And every sand becomes a Gem,
Reflected in the beam divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking Eye,
But still in Israel's paths they shine.
The Atoms of Democritus
And the Newton's Particles of Light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel's tents do shine so bright.