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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Sunday, 15 October 2006
Attending to Seemingly Useless Information
Topic: Reality-Based Woes
Attending to Seemingly Useless Information
There were two Friday the 13ths this year - January and October. But this isn't that bad - Friday, September 13th, 2019, is the next year to contain a full moon on a Friday the 13th. That'll be a bad day for sure.

Any Friday the 13th is an unlucky day, except in Greece and Spain, where Tuesday the 13th is the bad day. It's more the thirteen thing - Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus, was the thirteenth guest to the Last Supper and all that. The day of the week matters less, though you will find fundamentalist Christians who carefully worked out that it was on a Friday the 13th that Cain killed his brother Abel, and on a Friday the 13th Eve chatted with that sneaky snake and completely ruined things for all of us forever. So it wasn't any Tuesday, you see. It was a Friday, and the 13th. And women always ruin things. Cosi fan tutti and all.

Of course thirteen is just a bad number, one that screws things up. There are twelve months in a year, twelve signs of the zodiac, and twelve gods of Olympus, twelve labors of Hercules, twelve tribes of Israel, and twelve apostles of Jesus. So thirteen just seems… strange. And people still avoid the number these days - more than eighty percent of high-rises just don't have a 13th floor. Most airports don't have a Gate Thirteen. Hospitals and hotels pretty much don't have a "Room 13" anywhere. If you visit Florence, Italy, the house between number 12 and 14 is always 12 and a half. In France you once could find yourself one of those quatorziens (fourteeners) - available as a fourteenth guest to keep your dinner party from some unlucky fate, like deadly dull conversation or fistfights. That still may be a custom there. Who knows? But if you find yourself worried about Friday the 13th you can always try the standard folk remedies to make sure bad luck doesn't get you - climb to the top of a mountain or skyscraper and burn all the socks you own that have holes in them, or stand on your head and eat a piece of gristle.

As they say, you could it look up. All of it falls under the heading of "useless information."

But what information is useless? On this month's Friday the 13th the Washington Post published this column by Jeffery Smith - headline "Bush Confounded by the 'Unacceptable'" and subhead "President Wields Word More Freely as His Frustration Rises and His Influence Ebbs."

This is just a curious word count thing - or, as Smith contends, it means President Bush finds the world around him increasingly "unacceptable." Given that's the same world the rest of us live in, this could be a problem. The man is very unhappy. Who knows what he's going to do about it?

The gist of it is this -
[A] survey of transcripts from Bush's public remarks over the past seven years shows the president's worsening political predicament has actually stoked, rather than diminished, his desire to proclaim what he cannot abide. Some presidential scholars and psychologists describe the trend as a signpost of Bush's rising frustration with his declining influence.

In the first nine months of this year, Bush declared more than twice as many events or outcomes "unacceptable" or "not acceptable" as he did in all of 2005, and nearly four times as many as he did in 2004. He is, in fact, at a presidential career high in denouncing events he considers intolerable. They number 37 so far this year, as opposed to five in 2003, 18 in 2002 and 14 in 2001.
And there are the usual suspects - the unacceptable includes rising health costs, immigrants who live outside the law, North Korea's claimed nuclear test, genocide in Sudan and Iran's nuclear ambitions and all the rest, and now with things going in the weeds with North Korea and Iraq, and congress not getting much of anything done on any domestic initiatives, and all those polls with his approval ratings in the thirties all the time, he saying things are unacceptable more than ever. But it's his thing. Back in January he was telling a bunch of elementary school kids in Maryland that their recent scores on math and reading proficiency tests were "unacceptable." Now we're all the little kids - the whole world is the little kids who are just not doing the right thing.

Smith quotes Stanley A. Renshon, a political scientist a CYNU, saying all this is in keeping with the president's apparent self-image as a Jeremiah, "railing against the tides" and saying what "people ought to be doing something about." Of course that's not the same as doing anything about anything, but it sounds serious and important. The president is supposed to be the world's Jeremiah? That's not in the job description, but it's what we got.

And Smith charts the widening targets here -
As a presidential candidate and in his early presidency, Bush was more apt to denounce domestic events. His assertions that school performance and achievement gaps between white and black students were unacceptable account for almost a third of his usages of that term since 2000.

Bush's targets expanded from 2003 to 2005 to include nine condemnations of "unacceptable" actions by Iraq and Iran, as well as the Social Security system and the administration's own response to the Katrina hurricane. This year, he has hurled the term "unacceptable" at actions by Iraqi insurgents and police, at supporters of a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, and at a U.S. law making the degrading treatment of detainees a war crime.
You see the frustration metastasizing. Steven Kull, a political psychologist who directs the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes explains - some folks deal with failures "by intensifying an authoritarian posture and insisting that their preferences are equivalent to a moral imperative." Then they explode, of course, in some sort of tantrum. They can be a bit dangerous.

And there's this -
Moisés Naím, the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine, said there is a relationship between "how strident and extreme" the language of many leaders is and how limited their options are. For Bush, Naím said, "this comes at a time when the world is convinced he is weaker than ever."

Many foreigners think the United States is losing Iraq and are no longer in awe of U.S. military might, Naím said, and at home, Bush is so weak that Republican candidates are wary of appearing with him. "The world has noticed," Naím said. "What is happening is that a lot that was deemed unacceptable [by Bush] now has become normal and tolerable."
And what has become normal and tolerable is now unacceptable. And he's ticked off. Watch out.

And there's that other thing -
Bush's proclamations are not the only rhetorical evidence of his mounting frustrations. One of his favorite verbal tics has long been to instruct audiences bluntly to "listen" to what he is about to say, as in "Listen, America is respected" (Aug. 30) or "Listen, this economy is good" (May 24). This year, he made that request more often than he did in a comparable portion of 2005, a sign that he hasn't given up hope it might work.
But grabbing people by the lapels and shouting at them to listen to you isn't the most effective rhetorical strategy. It's hardly a way to make friends and influence people. And the more you do it, hoping it finally works, the less it works. It's kind of obvious.

Kevin Drum puts it nicely here -
This is a symptom of what I find so mysterious about Bush's popularity: his speaking style always strikes me as irritated and angry, as if he's nearly ready to jump out of his skin in frustration that his audience just doesn't get it. Even though he keeps explaining it! And explaining it again! And again! What's wrong with you people?!?

This feeling is almost palpable, and it's the reason I don't understand why his supporters continue to find him attractive. Especially over the past couple of years, he seems increasingly angry, defensive, frustrated, and completely unable to understand why he can't control events around him. Conservatives recognize how feeble and embarrassing this looks when Bush pulls this schtick over something that even they understand is dumb (Kathryn Jean Lopez on the Harriet Miers nomination: "I hate this groaning-when-the-president speaks reflex I've had all week on this issue") but they don't seem to understand that to growing numbers of people he sounds this way all the time.

Listen, George: Being hectored just isn't a good way to people's hearts, and repeating the same words over and over isn't a good way to influence actual events in the world. Is it any wonder your approval ratings are stuck in the 30s?
Yep, and Jeremiah was a bore, and really tiresome. So was Hector.

But the president is a "hard-liner" and that's supposed to a good thing in this world full of wimps and defeatists, and with North Korea tests a nuclear weapon. But is he, really?

See this from DK over at Talking Points Memo -
Just yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, no less a Bush critic than Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Colin Powell's chief of staff at the State Department, asserted that Bush's hardline on North Korea has failed.

I have no doubt that there are genuine hardliners within the administration who urged covert and overt military action against North Korea early in the President's first term, and certainly in response to the breakdown of the Agreed Framework. Every Republican administration is going to have its share of Curtis LeMays.

But those true hardliners have not prevailed in the internal administration struggle over whether the U.S. should lead with the carrot or with the stick. What has emerged as U.S. "policy" is inertia. No carrot. No stick. No nothing, unless cheap rhetoric about what is "unacceptable" counts for something.

There are quite reputable people in foreign policy circles, like former Defense Secretary William Perry, who have advocated much tougher measures against North Korea than Bush has adopted. Perry, for instance, proposed publicly earlier this year that the U.S. hit the DPRK's new ICBM with a U.S. cruise missile while it was still on the launch pad, before a test flight could be conducted.

The sad truth is that we have virtually no good options for putting the North Korean nuclear genie back in the bottle, and I am quite convinced that our military options at the moment range from bad to worse (and that the current Administration would be unable to competently execute any military option).

But in the same way that it is a mistake to conclude that the Clinton Administration offer of a carrot was a failure, it is a mistake to conclude that the stick has failed, too. Both may be needed in the future.

All that we can say with any certainty is that paralysis has failed to achieve our objective of a non-nuclear Korean peninsula. And paralysis, if I may say, is unacceptable.
But the president talks a good game. He just imagines he's on the sidelines, when he isn't. Refusing to play and just screaming at those on the field isn't an option here.

And maybe the word count thing wasn't useless information after all. The man is stuck on the stunningly ineffective "Listen, that's unacceptable." It probably didn't even work with the elementary school kids. They almost certainly looked as appropriately shamefaced as they could manage (kids all know how to do that), then went home and played videogames, or did whatever they decided they wanted to do. The same thing happens with adults, minus the feigned shame. They just shrug. Whatever, George.

But the man can do some damage. And he doesn't like how things are - they are not at all the way he knows they are supposed to be. Reality is a problem. It needs to be fixed, of course.

Or it doesn't need to be fixed, as in this from US News and World Report, also, curiously, from Friday the 13th -
Some Republican strategists are increasingly upset with what they consider the overconfidence of President Bush and his senior advisers about the midterm elections November 7 – a concern aggravated by the president's news conference this week.

"They aren't even planning for if they lose," says a GOP insider who informally counsels the West Wing. If Democrats win control of the House, as many analysts expect, Republicans predict that Bush's final two years in office will be marked by multiple congressional investigations and gridlock.

"The Bush White House has had no relationship with Congress," said a Bush ally. "Beyond the Democrats, wait till they see how the Republicans – the ones that survive – treat them if they lose next month." GOP insiders are upset by Bush's seeming inability to come up with new ideas or fresh approaches. There is even a heightened sensitivity to the way Bush talks about advisers who served his father.
This is very curious. There's no Plan B - no contingency planning. You just assume the best-case scenario, and ridicule as defeatist anyone who thinks there ought to be something in place if you're not greeted as liberators and showered with candy and flowers, so to speak. It's much like Iraq. It's that "reality is what we say it is" thing again. Or maybe all the new voting machines have indeed been rigged the right way, and Karl Rove knows it, and so does the president. Which it is - delusional denial of reality or some evil conspiracy to steal the election - doesn't matter much, really. Neither is very comforting.

And what's this "heightened sensitivity to the way Bush talks about advisers who served his father?"

Something is up with that, as Thomas DeFrank explains here, regarding the events at the recent christening of the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush, where the father (41) was with his son (43), and the rivalry was on full display -
For five years, the 41s have bit their collective tongues as, they complain, the 43s ignored their counsel. But as the war in Iraq has worsened and public support for the current administration has tanked, loyalists of the elder Bush have found it impossible to suppress their disillusionment - particularly their belief that many of 43's policies are a stick in the eye of his father.

… "Forty-three has now repudiated everything 41 stands for, and still he won't say a word," a key member of the elder Bush alumni said. "Personally, I think he's dying inside."

… "Everyone knew how Rumsfeld acts," another key 41 assistant said. "Everyone knew 43 didn't have an attention span. Everyone knew Condi [Rice] wouldn't be able to stand up to Cheney and Rumsfeld. We told them all of this, and we were told we don't know what we're doing."
So we seem to be caught in the middle of a battle between a father and a son, regarding which has a better grasp of reality. Lucky us. The president says, again and again, that we will accept nothing less than total victory in Iraq, and the Iraq Study Group, headed by his father's secretary of state, James A. Baker III, says that's not an option and best we can hope for is something else entirely, and the president refers to him as "Jimmy" Baker in the October 11 press conference, as if he's one of those ill-disciplined Maryland elementary school kids who hasn't been doing his homework. We're caught in the middle, and lots of people die. This is not good. It's almost… unacceptable.

Well, what's acceptable and unacceptable can get tricky.

There was an odd thing on the Sunday, October 15 talk shows. Two days after Friday the 13th, the pseudo-moderate conservative columnist David Brooks had this to say on MSNBC, on "The Chris Matthews Show," and he has great access to the White House -
Matthews: David, do you believe the President is looking for an out from his doctrinaire policy of staying the course?

Brooks: Not really, no I don't. I think they're looking at policy options. One of those options is trying to replace the current government which seems to be doing nothing. The second option is some sort of federation which – Joe Biden has suggested as separating Iraq. A third option and by far the least likely is going in with more troops. So there are all different three options… We have much less control over Iraq than we did two or three years ago…
Okay, we have less and less control there every day, but we will stay the course to total victory, and establish a legitimate elected democracy there, even if we have to toss out the guys they elected and replace them with the right guys, guys we know will slap folks around and get everyone to settle down. What? In establishing democracy, democracy is unacceptable?

It seems reality really is what you say it is. You have to pay careful attention to what this man says. It's not "useless information." And it may be time to climb to the top of a mountain or skyscraper and burn all the socks you own that have holes in them, or stand on your head and eat a piece of gristle.

Posted by Alan at 22:07 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 16 October 2006 07:13 PDT home

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