Monthly Archives: April 2004

a debate about revitalizing the left

I spent the day–very enjoyably–at a meeting of people who have come together to create an advocacy Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. I’ll write more about that next week. When I got home, I found that my post about revitalizing the left had provoked two extremely interesting responses on other blogs: an essay by “The Decembrist’s” Mark Schmitt, and one by Matt Stoller. I haven’t had time to absorb their arguments (or the various responses posted by visitors to their blogs), but I’m certainly open to their criticisms.

In my original essay, I accused leftish bloggers of failing to develop a positive vision. A reader told me about Mark Schmitt, whom I would definitely cite as a creative and substantive blogger on the Democratic side. See, for example, his defense of John Edwards, which is an argument for a moral and optimistic populism. I now look forward to exploring Matt Stoller’s The Blogging of the President as well.

My blog gets moderate, steady traffic–but few comments or “trackbacks.” I meet regular readers, and they mostly turn out to be people who don’t visit blogs, but who come to this site because of my civic education and democracy themes, which concern them professionally. These are not people who naturally participate in public, online discussions. Neither do I, for that matter, so I don’t blame them at all. But I must admit that it’s enjoyable to provoke discussion in the “blogosphere.” I look forward to pondering Schmitt’s and Stoller’s comments and responding.

Manet’s “Old Musician”

Yesterday, I was rereading part of Legal Modernism, a book by my friend and former colleague David Luban, and I remembered that it was thanks to this book that I first saw Manet?s ?The Old Musician? as one of the greatest and most interesting paintings ever painted. It?s in the National Gallery in Washington, where I live, and I often force friends and relatives to look at it with me.

Here?s the argument for its enormous significance (drawing heavily on Luban and on Charles Fried, but with some wrinkles of my own):

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the White House press corps

Jay Rosen wrote an essay yesterday asking why George W. Bush, at a difficult moment in his presidency, would choose to hold a press conference instead of giving a speech. Jay suggests that maybe the White House counts on the press corps to look like a special-interest group, arrogant and hostile to the president and Republicans generally. Thus the administration expects that hard questions from this particular group will make the president look good. They rely on “the idea of press as foil, the useful idiot, so outrageously biased or pedantic, so carping and clueless, that by comparison Bush appears in a flattering light, and gets the people at home cheering when he handles the situation with ease. The President re-connects this way with the audience, which also detests the press.”

Jay concluded his essay, however, by arguing that this strategy would be “folly.” The president actually needs a “legitimate” and “representative” press to talk to. If reporters look like a special interest group, then there is no point in addressing them in a press conference; but if they look intelligent and ask the questions that people want them to ask, then the president is in trouble.

As it turned out, the White House press corps acted exactly like “idiots,” “outrageously biased or pedantic,” and “carping and clueless” to boot–or so I strongly felt as I watched the live performance last night. The president was asked: “Do you feel a personal sense of responsibility for Sept. 11?” “Do you believe the American people deserve [an] apology from you …?” “Will [the Iraq war] have been worth it, even if you lose your job for it?” “One of the biggest criticisms of you is that … you never admit a mistake. Is that a fair criticism?” “After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be?” “I guess I wonder if you feel you have failed in any way?”

Reporters basically asked the president, over and over again, “Do you feel bad for what you thought or did in the past? Do you feel that you are competent?” That kind of question makes reporters look like adversaries (the “liberal media”), but it’s actually a total softball. What can the president say except, “No, I am not a failure”? There was virtually no chance that such questions would illicit interesting news.

So why didn’t reporters ask more forward-looking questions? For instance, in whom will sovereignty be vested on June 30? Does Mr Brahimi get to decide? Can we negotiate with al-Sadr, or must he be destroyed? Will the Iraqi government have veto power over US military deployments? What changes do you anticipate making in US intelligence agencies? How will democracy be restored in Pakistan?

And why didn’t they ask a few deep strategic questions? For instance, do terrorist groups still rely heavily on state sponsors? What is our policy toward repressive governments (such as Uzbekistan) that help us fight al Qaeda? Is terror a tactic or an ideology? Does Iraq need a multi-party democracy, and if so, what kinds of parties are acceptable? Is a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians a precondition for mideast peace?

A serious president would have no problem with these questions, which would be part of any decent administration’s daily deliberations. I suspect that our fearless leader would have some trouble answering cogently, but that would be his fault, not the responsibility of a hostile press.

So why did reporters pose so few substantial questions? One answer is that they are thoroughly immersed in the campaign horse race. The way the current campaign is shaping up, it’s a contest to see which individual gets to occupy the Oval Office. One contestant is reliable, passionate, but maybe arrogant, stubborn, and not too bright. The other is smarter and personally courageous, but he flip-flops a lot. Given this framework, the press mindlessly asks the first contestant, “Are you stubborn?” He says no, and they report that this proves the point.

I don’t believe that bias against Bush or the Republicans explains these poor questions. If John Kerry were the incumbent, reporters would ask him, “Do you flip-flop too much? Your opponents say that you change your mind too often. Polls show that people are beginning to agree with this charge. How do you react? Does the fact that people call you a ‘flip-flopper’ show that you have failed to communicate your message effectively?” And Kerry’s answers would be as weak as Bush’s.

Another explanation of the bad questions is simpler, but I’m afraid I tend to believe it. Namely: White House reporters simply aren’t very smart. They can grasp the story of the stubborn mule versus the liberal flip-flopper, but they cannot understand geopolitics.

I have been very hard on reporters and have passed over the president’s own performance, which would certainly get no better than a B in a respectable undergraduate course. But we know what to do if we want to replace the president; there’s an election in November. If Bush wins, the people have spoken–and so be it. Meanwhile, a small group of reporters will continue to monopolize the right to put direct questions to the Chief Executive–an enormous power. What can we do if we find them completely inadequate? I honestly have no idea, and this is a chilling thought.

Update (4/27): Jay has now posted a longer and more detailed essay on the White House versus the press that’s worth reading carefully.

expanding a community website

Working mainly with high school students, we have begun building a community website. Our ultimate goal is more ambitious: to make the website part of a whole independent, non-profit association called an “Information Commons.” The Commons would cooperate with peer associations in other communities, sharing software and ideas.

One of our latest ideas is to provide web hosting and design services to selected nonprofits that want to be nested within the Prince George?s Information Commons website. We would also offer several features to these local nonprofits–and to others that prefer to maintain independent websites.

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trying to be a responsible observer of Iraq

As citizens (of the United States or the world) we want to understand what is going on in Iraq–not just the daily body count, but deeper questions like: How much needs to be done before the US can leave the country in Iraqi hands? Some percentage of the infrastructure that must be created before we can leave Iraq has been built, and some percentage was destroyed during the last week. (“Infrastructure” means buildings, power plants, army and police units, political parties, newspapers, etc.) From reading various observers, one might conclude that 10%–or 80%–of the infrastructure is now ready. It all depends on whether one looks at an aggregator of news stories who has an anti-war stance, like Juan Cole; a major news organ like the Washington Post or the BBC; a collection of Iraqi blogs; or a news-aggregator who supports the war, like Andrew Sullivan.

The truth is not just in the eye of the beholder; there is a reality to be understood. But we face extraordinary disadvantages in trying to understand it. Much of the important information is classified or otherwise secret. It is too dangerous for reporters to go everywhere and to talk to everyone. Eye-witnesses have narrow perspectives, and those with a bird’s-eye view don’t know enough details. The culture of Iraq is distant, complex, and internally diverse. There are also practical and logistical problems. For instance, I found this BBC poll of Iraqis interesting. (The results were mixed and complex, belying what many pro- and anti-war partisans might believe.) However, as someone who’s involved in polling Americans, I know that survey samples are usually unrepresentative even when we can reach most people by dialing random phone numbers. In 2001, there were only 2.9 telephone lines per 1,000 Iraqis, so random-digit dialing is out of the question, and I have no idea how reliable any survey is.

All this leaves us with primitive methods for assessing information. We assume that eye-witnesses know something, so we hang on their words. (Yet eye-witnesses can be especially unreliable, over-influenced by the concrete sights they have seen). We prefer named sources to unnamed ones, even though people may speak the truth off the record. We discount positive news from officials and proponents of the war, even though they could be correct. (By the way, I spend a lot of time on the pro-war sites, because I desperately want things to work out OK, and the conservatives collect all the good news.) We believe those sources whose values most closely approximate our own, even though one can have the right values and be wrong about the facts.

As a general rule, I think citizens should avoid such shortcuts and try to use solid information. For example, you don’t have to listen to Democrats and Republicans argue about the federal budget and discount each side because all politicians have selfish agendas; instead, you can actually look at federal budget data and make up your own mind. But the “fog of war” makes that kind of analysis impossible in Iraq.

In the absence of reliable information, we are especially likely to take refuge in ideology, to use ad hominem arguments (calling our opponents traitors or war-criminals), to deploy easy analogies, or to withdraw altogether from citizenship into spectatorship. Or, despairing about our ability to understand (let alone influence) this foreign war, we may concentrate on matters that we can understand, like the US election. But imagine what an Iraqi would think if she knew that Americans were following the uprising in her country because of its effect on their own electoral politics–this would seem the height of callous self-indulgence.

I don’t really know the solution, but I think that all of us should be somewhat cautious about our own judgments and open to arguments from the other side. We should look for constructive opportunities rather than wish that our domestic political opponents are damaged by the war. And we should hold onto hope, even if we believe that the invasion and occupation were grave errors in the first place. (Incidentally, because the Vietnam analogy forecloses all hope, I oppose it.)