Monday, November 28, 2005

Now we're getting somewhere!

Here's an interesting story on the government's lack of real measures of success in the so-called war on terrorism. Raphael Perl makes two vital points in the report discussed in the story.

First, any raw number presented as a measure of success doesn't have the context to explain its meaning. The number indicates something is being done, but that gives a potentially misleading picture, since "we measure progress retrospectively against what we've done. And of course since we've done some stuff, we've made progress."

That reminds me of a great Max Frisch story I read in an elementary German class in college, where a bureaucrat's day is detailed. The maxim of the man's action is "etwas muss geschehen" - something must be done. If that's your motto, then anything you do is an achievement, regardless of its effect.

But Perl makes another, more subtle point: what counts as a measure of success to the US government may count as a measure of failure to someone else - for instance, to an adversary. Is increasing defense spending a success? Is removing Saddam Hussein from power and reducing Iraq from tyranny to chaos a success?

What this points out, on a deeper level, is the unexamined, unquestioned perspective of US media presentations of the events called "the war on terrorism" (or, in Bushspeak, "the war on terror"). Reporting on "insurgency" in Iraq, for instance, as part of the ongoing "war on terrorism," only makes coherent sense under the assumption of the same set of beliefs about US motivations and interests that are presented by officials. The Iraq-terrorism connection is presumed, not demonstrated, and the constellation of these notions, repeated in media, cloaks them in "objectivity" and all the other virtues of contemporary journalism. It's a currency without credit.


Another item: Rep. Cunningham (R-Calif.) resigned after pleading guilty to accepting bribes. Cunningham said he was sorry, and that he was resigning because he "compromised the trust of [his] constituents." I hate to be picky, but since he had proclaimed his innnocence as recently as July, what Cunningham really means here is that he's resigning because he got caught compromising the trust of his constituents.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

How can I tell whether the President is lying?

As George Carlin put it in one of his HBO specials, some people need practical advice. So, here's some practical advice concerning when to believe what President Bush says about Iraq: never. This will save you time and energy you might otherwise spend in vain, attempting to sort out what tiny germ of truth there might be in some dimly-lit subparagraph of a subsection of one of his statements; or trying to work out what, if anything, the President actually believes.

The current case: Not two days after raising doubts about John Murtha's honor and credibility, President Bush made protestations of his respect for Murtha. It turns out that calling Democratic critics of the Iraq war names didn't help calm anyone down. Go figure. But of course, this is the same President Bush who kept coming up with different rationales for attacking Iraq before finally just bulling his way forward, the same President Bush who declared that "you're either with us or against us" as a way of casting aspersions on the patriotism of anyone who criticized the Iraq war, the same President Bush who announced in May of 2003 that we'd won in Iraq. If there's anyone with less credibility in the US government, I think it might be Dick Cheney.

In fact, even in lying about his respect for Murtha, the President couldn't stop himself from lying about what he was lying about. Murtha called last week for a 6-month schedule to withdraw from Iraq. Republicans in Congress pushed for a vote on an immediate troop withdrawal, basically as a political stunt to force Democrats to vote against withdrawing troops, since an immediate withdrawal would be rather chaotic. In saying he respects Murtha on Sunday, President Bush imputed to Murtha the proposal for immediate troop withdrawal, as though Murtha supported it.

There's a principle of scientific reasoning called parsimony, which says that the simplest explanations of phenomena are the best. Its ancient precedent is called Occam's razor, named after the philosopher who gave us the idea that explanations of phenomena that posit the fewest causes or origins are the best. Applying this to the President's statements about Iraq, one would assume everything the President says is untrue, because it's simplest to explain his statements this way. And not only is it the simplest explanation, it's also most prudent: If what the President says (consistent with his pattern of five years) is a lie, then we are not tricked by it. If it is the truth, then there will be evidence that demonstrates its truth, and we are not harmed by disbelieving it. If we were faced with the still more logically vexing problem of what we might call "modal lies" (not direct lies, but lies concerning what the President actually believes to be true -- that is, lies about his state of belief rather than lies about the world or the facts), our vexation would be dispelled by our simply regarding everything that the President says to be untrue.

An utterly unrelated news item of note: Iran says it will not accept nuclear checks. Yes, but will Iran continue to accept nuclear Visa or nuclear MasterCard?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Two stories in the last couple days related to the ways the Bush administration has inserted a heavily partisan political agenda into federal agencies. This isn't news: it was clear from the very beginning of Bush's first term that he intended to use federal agencies as political pressure groups. After all, he made Gale Norton head of the Environmental Protection Agency - a clear sign that EPA would be protected the environment for extracting industries - oil, natural gas, and mining. (She had been sued by the EPA when she was head of Colorado's bureaucracy overseeing mining there, because she had simply refused to apply pollution control laws on mining companies. Putting her in charge of EPA is like hiring a methhead to keep watch on the Sudafed.)

First, there's the story of the FDA having decided to prohibit over-the counter sales of the "morning after" pill before hearing scientific evidence. This isn't news. The administration's position on scientific questions is consistently the same: don't confuse them with the facts, they've made up their minds. The world is flat.

Then, there's this morning's news that Bush's appointee to be head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting used the post to attempt to interfere politically in the way public radio and television operated. Again, this isn't news: remember the GOP operative inserted into the White House media corps to ask softball questions? This is part of a long-standing pattern.

I suppose what bugs me about this is the notion that suddenly this pattern is worth paying attention to, now that Bush is a lame duck, and we're stuck with him for another three years and two months.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Now that that's over

It was a long night. We stayed up way past late, watching voting returns tabluate on the Secretary of State's web site. It looked like Propositions 76 through 80 would be defeated by midnight. But Proposition 75, the big one in my opinion, didn't settle into the "No" column until about 1:30. I was able, at that point, to go to bed, comfortable in the knowledge that I wouldn't be spending countless hours every fall gathering signatures on union cards granting permission to CFA to use members' dues for political action.

CFA is probably in a stronger position to bargain for a contract as a result. The solidarity built by the election effort has to help. Plus, we've proven again that we won't be pushed around, and that those who try are in for a fight.

I'm exhausted, but today is also the last day of my official working week. The election has me in a good mood, helped further along by the bright autumn sky, the kaleidoscope of leaves, and new strings on Bennett Cerf, my office guitar. I can handle a little exhaustion today.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


I'm home sick today. I did drag myself out of bed this morning, to find something even more sick, but frankly not surprising. If I'm well enough I'll write about it later. I'm referring, of course, to my government's detaining, torturing, and killing suspects (and non-suspects) in a kind of spree of twisted, panicked reaction to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.