Sunday, November 14, 2010

How to Argue

The strangest thing about the low quality of Internet argument is that effective argument isn't really so difficult. Sure, not everyone can be Clarence Darrow, but anyone who wants to be at least competent at argument can do it. Here are a few guidelines.

I'll start with a hint: note the qualifier in the preceding paragraph: "anyone who wants to be." I have a feeling most people who suck at argument believe they're actually good at it. They're not, and in fact they're not even arguing -- they're masturbating. Good argument is intended to persuade another. Masturbation is intended to pleasure the self. It's the people who can't tell the difference who mistakenly think they're good at argument. I hope this article will improve the effectiveness of people who are interested in good argument. And I hope it will help people who until now have been masturbating to recognize what they've been doing, and to stop doing it in public.

Also, please note that word, "guideline," which is not the same thing as a rule. The points I make in this essay are primarily applicable to comments in blog posts and other one-to-one exchanges. A blog post itself, which isn't typically addressed to a single person, offers more latitude for, say, the use of ridicule or sarcasm or other techniques that, deployed against an individual, would inhibit that individual from coming around to your point of view. It's a matter of audience, and of intent. There are plenty of other exceptions, too -- but before worrying too much about what they might be, we'd do well to understand the general principles.

1. Insults and the Golden Rule. The most important guideline when it comes to argument is the golden rule. If someone were addressing your point, what tone, what overall approach would you find persuasive and want her to use? Whatever that is, do it yourself.

Let's get a little more specific. When someone addresses you with sarcasm, or otherwise insults you, has it ever -- even once -- changed your mind? I doubt it. Now, it's possible you're uniquely impervious to having your mind changed via insult, while, for everyone else, insults happen to be an excellent means of persuasion. But it seems more likely that your personal experience is representative of the way people work generally, and if you extrapolate just a bit, or if you take a moment to consider whether your own insults have ever persuaded someone else, you should be able to realize that an insult is a useless tool of persuasion. In fact, it's been my experience and observation that insults not only fail to persuade, but have the opposite effect, because they engage the recipient's ego and consequently cause him to cling more tightly to his position (see the section below on Your Ego is Your Enemy).

Let's use a non-Internet example for a moment. Ever see an irate driver flip someone off and yell, "Hey buddy, learn to drive!" or the like? Probably. Now, do you think the recipient of the advice has ever reflected, "You know, that fellow does have a point. What I did was careless and I should probably enroll in a remedial driver education course." So what was the irate driver hoping to accomplish with his insult? If your answer is, "He just wanted to insult the other guy!", you might be right, and if the irate driver was clear about his real goal, at least he's using well-tailored means (though, I would argue, his behavior is still pathetic and childish). But if the irate driver really believes he's doing something persuasive, he's obviously deluded.

Because even the most elementary common sense demonstrates the futility and counterproductivity of insults as tools of persuasion, we have to ask why so many people choose to employ them. I see two possibilities: (i) the people who are doing so are shockingly stupid; (ii) the people who are doing so aren't actually interested in persuasion, but instead insult others primarily to pleasure themselves. Neither of these possibilities is attractive.

Here are a few common insults I see on the Internet. I think the people using them aren't aware these comments are insulting. Their ignorance is likely the result of: (i) a failure of golden rule imagination (unless they feel respected when people offer them equivalent advice); or (ii) such blind certainty that they're right that on some level they honestly expect the other person to respond, "Oh, good point! I really was being stupid there, and I'm grateful to you for pointing it out."

Wake up and smell the coffee.
Stop drinking the cool-aid.
Well, duh.
(Seems innocent enough, right? But does it pass the golden rule test? No -- because the subtext is, "You just said something so stupid that I'm hesitant to bring this up in response, but...".)

But how can you you resist the temptation to respond to an insult in kind? Well, you can find strength in the knowledge that people who ignore Internet insults and respond substantively appear mature, self-confident, and sane, and are therefore almost always more persuasive to people following the conversation, for one. You can find a way to take pride in following a personal code, for another. Third, you can recognize the danger of the Fundamental Misattribution Error, and know that the person who just insulted you thinks he's a great guy, and that therefore, if you insult him back, he won't find it justified the way you do. Finally, you can ponder what Ghandi meant when he said, "Be the change you want to see in the world."

Here's a little tactical trick. When someone insults you, try to rephrase in your mind what the person would have said if he'd been trying to be polite, and respond to that instead.

And then there's sarcasm. I'll tell you what I hate about sarcasm. First, it's self-indulgent. Its intent is to make the user feel superior. Second, it's unproductive. Its effect is to irritate the recipient, after which things tend to get less substantive and more personal (see the section below on Your Ego is Your Enemy). Finally, it's chickenshit. The people who employ it from the safety of their keyboards wouldn't dream of doing it in circumstances where there could be consequences.

Also see the section below on Sham Arguments, which, in addition to their other shortcomings, are almost always insulting.

A hint: adjectives and adverbs, while not necessarily automatically insulting, are usually not your friends in argument because they tend to make you sound bombastic while adding nothing of substance. Include them in the first draft, and then take another look to see if your argument will be stronger and more dispassionate, and therefore more persuasive to your listener, without them.

2. No One Cares About Your Opinion. It might be painful to admit it, but no one cares about your opinion (or mine, for that matter). It would be awesome to be so impressive that we could sway people to our way of thinking just by declaiming our thoughts, but probably most of us lack such gravitas. Luckily, there's something even better: evidence, logic, and argument. Think about it: when was the last time someone persuaded you of the rightness of his opinion just by declaring what it was? Probably it was the same time someone changed your mind with an insult, right? And like insults, naked declarations of opinion, because they can't persuade, are masturbatory. And masturbation, again, is not a very polite thing to do on a blog.

If you think about it, believing a statement of your opinion alone to be persuasive is fundamentally narcissistic. Now, maybe a hotshot celebrity with a million Twitter followers can sway some people to her opinion just by uttering it. Doing so is still narcissistic because it depends for its effect on who is talking rather than on what is being said, but at least the celebrity has a basis for her narcissistic belief. For those of us more ordinary types, though, remember -- the sin of narcissism is worse when committed by someone lacking even the underlying beauty to justify it.

The most egregious example of this kind of useless narcissism I can remember was from one of those old American Express ads, where Annie Leibowitz would photograph a celebrity and the facing page would do a quick Q&A. There was one with writer/director M. Night Shyamalan. The question was, "Favorite movie?" Shyamalan's response: "The Godfather. Period. End of conversation." I remember thinking, "End of conversation? That should be the beginning of conversation! Who cares what movie you like? I want to know why you like it!" Unfortunately, Shyamalan thought what he liked was more significant than why he liked it. This outlook is childish and self-indulgent, of course, but but more importantly for our purposes, it's useless. Disagree? Then ask yourself this: have you ever found yourself persuaded by a bumper sticker?

Here's a simple exercise. Try to get in the habit of using the word "because" after a statement of an opinion. "I like The Godfather because....". "I think M. Night Shyamalan is a good/bad writer and director because...". Using "because" will naturally encourage you to provide evidence and reasoning, the objective underpinnings that turn subjective opinions into effective tools of persuasion. And not incidentally, the offering of evidence is an inherently modest, respectful, and therefore persuasive tactic. Someone who tries to persuade you with no more than an opinion is necessarily implying that he's tremendously important and you're in thrall to his awesomeness. Conversely, someone who takes the time and trouble to offer you evidence and reasoning is implying that you are a logical being worth the effort of attempting to persuade.

To put it another way: First comes your opinion. Next comes the word "because." After the "because" is your evidence -- the facts on which your opinion is based. In writing, an opinion is often known as a topic sentence. Here's a simple example -- note how useless it would be without the evidence that follows it.

Where can you find evidence? Well, if you don't have any to begin with, you might usefully ask yourself what your opinion is based on and why you hold it. Regardless, in the age of Google and Wikipedia, there's just no reasonable excuse for failing to minimally research your position. The only explanations are laziness, an onanistic objective, and narcissism, none of which I'd want to cop to if I could just do the research instead.

3. Your Ego Is Your Enemy. One of the primary causes of ineffective argument is the emotional attachment people develop to their opinions. A Martian might expect that humans would only develop opinions in the presence of supporting facts, and that the strength of opinions would correlate with the strength of supporting facts. But we all know the Martian would be wrong. Most people develop opinions for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with facts: I'm a Republican, I'm a Democrat, I live in a certain city, I was born of a certain race or religion, my parents taught me this, etc. And once we've taken a position, we don't want to modify it, lest we implicitly acknowledge that the opinion had no sound basis in the first place. If your opinion is based on facts, new facts can easily change your opinion. If your opinion is based on other than facts, you'll be motivated to maintain that opinion no matter what the facts.

So how do you stay out of ego trouble? First, by not getting into it. If you have an opinion, ask yourself why you have that opinion. What's it based on? And whatever factors it might be based on, how much do you really know about them? In intelligence, you're taught to distinguish between what you know, what you don't know, and what you think you know. Do this as honestly as you can with your opinions and the evidence behind them.

Second, and at least as important: don't get personally engaged. If you insult someone (see the section above on Insults and The Golden Rule), either in the first instance or in response, your ego is engaged. Once your ego is engaged, your primary motivation shifts from persuasion to ego protection. This is a waste of time. If you hadn't put your ego at risk in the first place, you wouldn't be forced to protect it now.

4. Good Argument is Good Conversation. A few years ago, I read a terrific Russell Baker review of a book called, "Conversation: A History of a Declining Art," by Stephen Miller, in the New York Review of Books. I'll quote three paragraphs from the review here because they're applicable to effective argument, too.

Both participants listen attentively to each other; neither tries to promote himself by pleasing the other; both are obviously enjoying an intellectual workout; neither spoils the evening's peaceable air by making a speech or letting disagreement flare into anger; they do not make tedious attempts to be witty. They observe classic conversational etiquette with a self-discipline that would have pleased Michel de Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, or any of a dozen other old masters of good talk whom Miller cites as authorities.

This etiquette, Miller says, is essential if conversation is to rise to the level of -- well, "good conversation." The etiquette is hard on hotheads, egomaniacs, windbags, clowns, politicians, and zealots. The good conversationalist must never go purple with rage, like people on talk radio; never tell a long-winded story, like Joseph Conrad; and never boast that his views enjoy divine approval, like a former neighbor of mine whose car bumper declared, "God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It."

Underlying this code of good manners is the assumption that good conversation is not a lecture, a performance, a diatribe, a sermon, a negotiation, a cross-examination, a confession, a challenge, a display of learning, an oral history, or a proclamation of personal opinion.

Regarding "God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It," see the section above on No One Cares About Your Opinion -- specifically, the part about narcissism.

5. False Binaries. A false binary is a false either/or. Examples would be, "Either we wage war on Islam or we're all be forced to convert!" "We have to fight communism in Vietnam or we'll be fighting it here at home!" "We have to keep drugs illegal or America will become a nation of addicts!" And my personal favorite: "What are we supposed to do if we can't torture prisoners for information, feed them tea and crumpets?"

False binaries are the result either of sloppy thinking or of deliberate attempts to mislead, neither of which is well calculated to persuade. They're usually caused by a conflation of means and ends. If you look at war as a tool, for example, you'll understand it's just one way (and usually not a very good one) for dealing with an enemy, or of otherwise getting what you want. If you conceive of war as the end and not the means, on the other hand, you'll have a hard time seeing other ways of achieving whatever it is you tell yourself you're after. Similarly, if you feel drug prohibition is itself the goal, you won't be able to see past it. If you realize instead that the goal is to keep usage and addiction rates at levels society can manage (as we do for alcohol), possibilities other than prohibition will become apparent.

Watch out for the weasel words in false binaries, too. "We have to fight militant Islam," for example. Okay, but... is there really no way to fight an ideology other than with, say, invasions and drone strikes?

As for the torture vs tea and crumpets argument, my usual response is, "Really? Those are the only two ways of acquiring information from a prisoner that you can imagine?" Because so many other possibilities are obvious -- what do police do? What did World War II interrogators do? -- it's pretty clear that people who try to narrow things down to torture on the one hand, tea and crumpets on the other are more interested in torture than they are in information.

False binaries are worth avoiding because they make you look stupid, and, aside from the indignity inherent in looking stupid, stupidity isn't usually persuasive (though I admit that in politics there are lots of exceptions). If someone offers you a false binary, the best counter is to politely expose how silly it is, chiefly by pointing out how many alternatives are in fact available.

Above all, remember: you're either with us, or you're with the terrorists.

6. Sham Arguments. A sham argument, in the guise of straw men, platitudes, cliches, and what a website I like calls glittering generalities, is a truism trotted out in arguments' clothing. Here are a few examples, all taken from the real live Internet:

"The president can't just wave a magic wand and fix everything."
"America has real enemies."
"In politics, sometimes you have to compromise."
"Freedom isn't free."
"You can't make an omelet without cracking a few eggs."
"It's as simple as that." (I actually like this one. I always read it as "I'm as simple as that.")

Anytime you argue a truism, your implication is insulting because you're suggesting the other person can't see something blindingly obvious and requires some sort of remedial lesson from you. Ask yourself, why are you making such axiomatic observations? Because you really believe the other person doesn't know these things or that he would argue the opposite? Or because you're trying to insult the other person by implying that he doesn't realize something any child would understand?

The key to recognizing a sham argument is knowing no one would ever take the contrary position. Look at the examples above and restate them as their opposites. No one would ever take such positions. "The president has a magic wand." "America has no real enemies." In politics, you never have to compromise. "Freedom is free." Etc. You might as wall try to persuade someone that "sometimes it's sunny, sometimes there are clouds." The person's already persuaded -- so what's your point? Making such obvious, unimpeachable points just makes you sound stupid and/or condescending. Indulging stupidity and condescension never feels respectful, and what's perceived as disrespectful almost always fails to persuade.

7. Cliches. I mentioned cliches above, but decided to give the topic its own heading here because although cliches are a species of sham argument, they're pernicious too because of how effectively they block actual thought. Sunlight is the best disinfectant... better tried by twelve than carried by six (which is also a false binary, BTW)... If you argue with cliches, you'll come across as a thoughtless, unoriginal automaton. I could be wrong about this, but I've never seen anyone persuaded by a thoughtless, unoriginal automaton, so why would you want to act like one?

8. Digressions. If you want to be listened to, it's best to keep your comments on point. Using a post about Obama's broken habeas corpus promises as a jumping-off point for your thoughts on why you don't like Obama's environmental policies is apt to be unproductive (see the Russell Baker excerpt in the section above on Good Conversation). Someone else's post isn't just a grand excuse for you to offer up whatever else happens to be on your mind, and overriding the topic at hand with your own priorities isn't spam, exactly, but it has a similar flavor.

Look at it this way (and this is advice is applicable more generally, too). In the real world, would you walk up to several people you see engaged in conversation, listen for a moment, learn that they're talking about baseball, and join in by offering your thoughts on the benefits of the Paleo Diet? Of course not, because you know this would be boorish and would encourage polite society to shun you (I hope you know this). Well, look, if it's rude in the real world, chances are it's rude on the Internet, too.

If someone asks you a question, answer it. If someone makes a point, respond to it. A great way to keep yourself honest is to quote the other person's exact words. I know how obvious this sounds, but so many of the comments in blog comment sections are contrary to this elementary advice. Ignoring the other person's attempts to engage you makes you come across as wormlike and gelatinous, leads to unproductive exchanges, and is never persuasive.

9. Separate the Subjective from the Objective. Remember the exchange in the movie version of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, where Todd Louiso says, "Well, I like the new Belle & Sebastion album," Jack Black cries out, "Bullshit!", and John Cusack then says, "How can it be bullshit to express a preference?"

Exactly. "I like the new Belle & Sebastian" is subjective -- that is, not subject to persuasion or proof. It's neither right nor wrong and no one will be able to persuade the speaker that it isn't so. Similarly, "I love America!" is subjective. "America is the best country!", on the other hand, is an objective statement because it's (at least theoretically) amenable to persuasion and proof. Presumably there is some basket of criteria for what makes a country good, and the country that has the most such criteria could be declared the best (though is there a sillier argument than an argument about America's bestness?). For more on this critical difference, here's an exchange on my Facebook page about whether America is the best country to live in. It's also a good example of what happens when ego, in this case, nationalism, is driving an argument and has pushed reason into the back seat.

10. My Tenth Point. Why do I feel the need for ten entries in this post? I blame George Carlin.

To sum up: if you agree that good argument should persuade, you'll argue with intent to persuade. "Intent to persuade" (sounds almost like a legal definition, doesn't it?) means: (i) providing not just an opinion, but evidence in support of the opinion; (ii) attempting to separate subjective and objective factors; (iii) a respectful tone; and (iv) generally speaking, an approach that you would find persuasive if someone else were using it and you disagreed with that person's underlying point.

I think this list is a good start, but I'm sure it's incomplete. Please feel free to add your own thoughts on how to argue effectively, and then help make this advice go viral through Facebook, Twitter, your own blog, and whatever other means are available to you. Together we can improve Internet discourse, and who knows where that might lead? Thanks.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Definition of Insanity

Earlier this month, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Jack Devine, former CIA deputy director of operations and chief of the CIA Afghan Task Force. When I read it, I thought it was perhaps the most insane op-ed I'd ever come across. But leave it to David Broder, "Dean of the Washington Press Corps," to try to one-up it just three weeks later.

Let's take Devine's piece first. Devine argues that our top priority in Afghanistan must be capturing or killing bin Laden. Devine asks, "We have entered into two problematic wars and have expended a great deal of blood and treasure since Sept. 11. What was it all about, if not capturing bin Laden?"

I think I know now why invading Iraq was "problematic." You see, bin Laden wasn't in Iraq. No wonder we can't find the guy.

But wait a minute... back in 2002, when the Bush administration was selling America on the benefits of invading Iraq, it was all about WMDs, and mushroom clouds as smoking guns. When it turned out there were no WMDs, the Bush administration realized the war was actually about building a stable democracy in the middle east. Now that the new, improved rationale has itself turned to ashes, Devine offers the silliest and most ahistorical yet: we invaded Iraq to capture bin Laden. The good news -- for Devine -- is that, if you accept his premise, capturing or killing bin Laden will mean we've won in Iraq.

If only that meant we'd be leaving Iraq, it might redeem Devine's bizarre claim. But it doesn't.

Devine's reasoning degenerates further as he plows on. He argues that if "elements within the Pakistani government [are] an impediment to [bin Laden's] capture, we should forget about nation-building in Afghanistan and, like Sherman marching across Georgia during the Civil War, march our army across eastern Afghanistan, pressing forward even into Pakistan's Northwest Frontier, and continue the march until we capture him."

Let's put this a little more plainly. Devine is proposing that if Pakistan thwarts us, we should destroy Afghanistan.

(I gave that restatement its own paragraph because Devine's proposal is so breathtaking it really needs to be set apart and observed for a moment, unadorned.)

If we were talking about individuals, I believe Devine's approach would be known as executing a hostage. At the national level, I don't know how to describe a threat to destroy Country A in order to punish Country B other than to call it state terrorism. Sherman's March, after all, otherwise known as a "scorched earth" campaign, otherwise known as "total war," was a campaign of infrastructure destruction intended to break the south's will to fight. It involved the annihilation of railroads, bridges, farms, and manufacturing infrastructure. Sherman's army provided for itself by taking whatever it needed from the southern farms it pillaged and destroyed. This was called "foraging."

This is what Devine urges we do to Afghanistan. To punish Pakistan. At least when Sherman did it, he was destroying the territory of the population whose will the North sought to break.

But wait, as the Ginsu commercial used to say -- there's still more! Devine doesn't want the US army to do a Sherman's March across Afghanistan only. He wants the army to "press forward" into Pakistan and "continue the march" until we capture bin Laden. I'd like to think that, if bin Laden doesn't turn up during the march (maybe he's in Iraq after all?), our armies would stop marching before they invaded India or China. But Devine doesn't say, and because he seems enamored of the notion of destroying one country to punish another, one is left to wonder.

One of my favorite aspects of Devine's piece is his linguistic dexterity. Not once does he use the word "invade" or any derivation thereof. Instead, we will simply "march" and "press forward" and "continue." Euphemisms, Orwellian doublespeak, and other such mealymouthedness are hallmarks of this species of op-ed because they serve to conceal the naked brutality of the author's proposal. It would be much more difficult for the Devines of the world to call for "destroying" or "invading" Pakistan, or "burning it to the ground." Orwell wrote masterfully about this style of obfuscation in his essay Politics and the English Language:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

The Orwellianisms get thicker as Devine goes on, so thick that one senses the judgment they're most effectively suppressing is his own. "We should advise the Pakistani government of our intention in no uncertain terms" means we should threaten to invade and destroy the country. In response to this threat, Pakistani officials would "surely fuss," which doesn't sound like all that much (babies fuss, right? and they never hurt anyone) until you consider that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Anyway, Devine soothes us, Pakistani officials also "fussed" in response to a recent uptick in Predator drone attacks. Which is extremely reassuring for anyone who believes Pakistan's reaction to covert drone strikes is a reliable predictor of how the country would respond to an overt invasion with the explicit aim of destroying it.

If any of this sounds worrisome to you, fear not; "it's a pretty good bet that we would have bin Laden's head on a platter before we got anywhere near the Pakistani border." It's good to know we would only be destroying Afghanistan and wouldn't have to "continue" any further, because for a moment, I had this nagging sense that our invasions of even non-nuclear-armed countries have sometimes gone not precisely in accordance with the predictions of invasion cheerleaders. And look, Devine isn't a complete madman. He acknowledges that "this is not traditionally how we deal with important allies, and it is not a formula for routine diplomatic discourse." Prudent of him to place a restraining hand on any hotheads out there who would argue for the efficacy of applying his model to other nuclear-armed allies, like Britain or France. He recognizes, after all, that these are "exceptional circumstances," but notes that, in exceptional circumstances, "hardball is called for," "hardball" being the traditionally favored nomenclature for threats to invade and destroy nuclear-armed, allied nations.

Finally, sensitive always that some nervous nelly might be reading his piece, he reassures readers that "I also suspect the fallout would be far less damaging and more ephemeral than many might suggest." Amusing use of the word "fallout" under the circumstances, though I'm reasonably confident Devine didn't intend the effect. The main thing to remember is that our threat to destroy Afghanistan and invade and destroy Pakistan, and the invasion and destruction itself, would be ephemeral, as such operations historically always are. Really, the worst that might happen from Pakistani fussing is that we could get our hair mussed.

Just in case you got overly giddy at the prospect of laying waste to two countries, Devine brings it all into focus again, reminding us that the whole thing is just about bin Laden, because "putting him to rest would provide a truly meaningful rationale for leaving" (I love that euphemism, "putting him to rest." It's almost kind). He even acknowledges that "the most recent publicly available intelligence reports show that there are few al-Qaeda terrorists remaining in the region; many have moved elsewhere, including to Yemen."

So Devine wants to lay waste to at least two countries, one of them an ally and nuclear-armed, not even in pursuit of al Qaeda, but merely in pursuit of a single man. Seems like a sensible, proportionate plan to me. Anyway, what could possibly go wrong?

And now, Broder.

There's less to say about Broder's piece, but only because he expresses his insanity more succinctly than does Devine. First, he lays out his premise: war and peace are the only forces influencing the economy that the president can control. Second, his evidence: World War II resolved the Great Depression. Finally, his slam dunk conclusion: Obama should take America to war with Iran (Congressional declarations of war are so pre 9/11) because war with Iran will improve America's economy.

There are several things I love about Broder's piece.

First, I love the euphemisms. Like Devine, Broder would never be so gauche and unsophisticated as to use a word like "invasion" to describe an invasion, and we should pause for a moment in recognition of the talent it takes to pen a whole op-ed about invading a country without once mentioning an actual invasion. Instead, Broder argues for "challenging Iran's ambition" and "orchestrating a showdown" and "confronting the threat" and "containing Iran's nuclear ambitions." None of that sounds so bad, does it? I admit I'd feel a little better if Broder could reassure me, as Devine does, that Iran wouldn't "fuss" overly much in response, and that it's a "good bet" the whole thing would never happen anyway, or, if it does, that the effects would be "ephemeral," but given that the chief effect of invading Iran would almost certainly be nothing more than an economic uptick, perhaps such reassurances would be redundant.

Another part I love is the traditional boilerplate disclaimer: "I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected." This is such a nimble dodge that I really think we should honor the mind behind it by calling such mealymouthedness "Broderian." You see, Broder doesn't suggest that the president "incite" a war only because Broder has already done such splendid work in inciting it himself.

Broder spends his whole article calculating the politics that will be in play in 2012, argues that "orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs... will help [Obama] politically," and concludes that an invasion of Iran will be good for the US economy. Then he assures us in his last paragraph, almost as a weird afterthought, that hey, it's not all about the economy and politics, that we should remember too that "Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century." Oh, and that if Obama invades Iran, he "will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history."

Is there a benefit an invasion of Iran wouldn't achieve? Broder seems to have covered everything he could think of: improve the economy, political gain to the president, good for national security, good for non-proliferation, historical icon status for the president. Incite? When food is as tasty, abundant, and nutritious as Broder promises, and he's done such fine work in stoking appetites, diners don't need to be incited. They'll be knocking down the restaurant doors.

Still, let no one suggest that Broder wants war to be "incited." That would be crass and unfair. After all, he explicitly says he is not calling for incitement, and in the complicated, sophisticated business of calling for war in an op-ed, it's understood that the one-line disclaimer trumps everything else in the op-ed itself. Or at least that's how it works on the TV shows the Broders of the world get invited on after the wars actually begin, at which point everyone (most of all, the op-ed writer himself) has forgotten everything else he wrote, and the writer gets to waive his disclaimer like a bank robber holding a bundle of loot in one hand and a get-out-jail-free card in the other.

But my favorite part of the whole thing is Broder's argument itself: war is good for the economy. You know what I'm going to say, right? It's so stunningly obvious, I know I don't need to. Still:

We've been at war in Afghanistan since 2001. In Iraq since 2003. Broder's own paper reports that we have covert forces operating in 75 countries. And in the midst of all this warfare, our economy plunged into what has become widely known as the Great Recession.

But in the mind of David Broder, none of this is relevant. Our trillion dollar deficit and 13 trillion dollar national debt don't even exist. Bloodshed and death don't even merit a casual mention. He skips past all of it, past the Cold War, Vietnam, and Korea, too, to locate a historically unique instance of a global recession meeting a global war, then uses it to argue that war is ipso facto good for the economy.

You could argue that all the wars we've been waging for the last decade didn't cause the recession. But even if all that war hasn't hurt the economy, it's a hell of a logical leap to suggest that one more war would cause economic improvement. And yet that's precisely what Broder argues.

No one wants to be called a warmonger, and certainly no one ever cops to the charge. But when someone demonstrates this much ability to ignore glaringly obvious evidence that utterly undercuts his rationale for war, when he blithely ticks off numerous imagined benefits of war and not once mentions blood -- not even the blood of his countrymen -- as part of his calculus, it's fair to ask if the person in question might be suffering from a morbid attachment to war itself.

What Broder is calling for is so insane, and so potentially destructive, that the personal disgrace he ought to feel for having suggested it is nearly beside the point. Still, I wish someone would take him gently by the arm and lead him into a quiet retirement before he embarrasses himself further, or, worse, gets someone to actually take him seriously. Given the lineup on the Post's op-ed page, however, and given that Broder's piece provides such a perfect companion to Devine's, I expect Broder will be around for as long as the lunatics are running the asylum.

Do you think my references to insanity are too much? I use them deliberately. Einstein said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." Have another look at Devine's and Broder's pieces, and tell me these men are other than by definition insane.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Fictional Politics

Though it's replete with action, sex, badass characters, and exotic locations, I'm gratified that my latest novel, Inside Out, has also garnered attention for its politics. Generally speaking, anything that gets people talking about your books is good, but the reaction to Inside Out is pleasing too because of what that reaction reveals about how some politics are perceived as political, while other politics are not.

If I had to encapsulate the politics of Inside Out, I'd say something like this: "Torture and endless war have made America less safe, not more, and America is run by a oligarchic web of media, government, military, and corporate interests who profit by keeping Americans afraid of an external enemy."

I don't deny that such a viewpoint is political. But now let's see if we can similarly encapsulate the politics of a more typical, ticking time bomb thriller:

"Alien, brown-skinned external enemy zealots seek to destroy us because they hate our freedoms, and through torture and a militaristic response, we can stop them and preserve our way of life."

For me, the second worldview is as political as the first (more so, in fact, for reasons I'll mention below). But my sense is that, for many people, only the first seems "political." If I'm correct, it suggests that the right has succeeded (at least in fiction) in establishing its own worldview as the norm, by comparison with which, other worldviews are suspiciously "political."

This success is striking for a number of reasons. Chief among them is that the "external threat is worst" view is contradicted by actual evidence. Multiple studies, including one commissioned by Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, have demonstrated that the majority of what causes terrorism isn't our freedoms, but rather our wars. To the extent a view is driven more by ideology than it is by facts, I would expect it to be recognized as more political, not less. In fiction, at least, this seems not to be the case.

In some ways, I'm surprised rightists reject the "our overreaction is the greater threat" worldview, and not just because it's the one supported by available evidence. I would expect doughty conservatives, paragons of the virtues of taking personal responsibility, to embrace a worldview that implicitly empowers us to solve our problems by changing our policies (and without running up huge deficits, too). When it comes to identifying threats to America, something must be overriding the right's nominal attachment to personal and fiscal responsibility. My guess is, that thing is the innate human abhorrence of acknowledging culpability. Psychologically, it's always more pleasurable to blame others for our problems than it is to acknowledge our own responsibility. George Carlin nailed this dynamic with his, "Have you ever noticed that everyone who drives too fast is a maniac, and everyone who drives too slowly is a moron, while you always drive at the correct speed?"

Anger, and the self righteousness that is both the cause and consequence of anger, tends to be easier on the psyche than personal responsibility. It's strange that conservatives reflexively counsel welfare recipients to take responsibility and get off the dole, and yet are unwilling to acknowledge what common sense and the data linked to above clearly demonstrate: anti-American animus is largely the result of American foreign policy.

Now granted, when it comes to politics in a novel, execution matters. But I don't think style and delivery explain too much of the discrepancy detailed above. More important, I think, is the advantage of conventionality to the construction of an "external enemies" plot. Noam Chomsky summed up the difference better than anyone with his withering commentary on "concision" on television. Watch the attached three-minute video and you'll see what I mean.

As is the case for television talk shows, conventional politics in a novel are easy to express with concision. "A blood-thirsty Islamic terrorist has planted a bomb under Los Angeles, but the hero is able to break him with torture and so save the day." What evidence does one have to offer in support of such a simplistic, conventional, and psychologically comforting view? Conversely, if you want to depict elites manipulating public fears for their own private gain, or the ways in which the war on terror perpetuates terror and thus ensures the war will be self-sustaining and unending, you have to provide an evidentiary framework, a framework that's both challenging for the novelist and also likely to be perceived as "political" in a way that the evil bomb-planter plot is not. What's easier is more commonly produced; what's more commonly produced is accepted as a norm. And thus, over time, readers habituate to how inherently political is the "Muslims are coming to get us" plot.

Not for the first time, I have to salute the right for its stellar communications skills. Persuading readers that your political fiction is apolitical? Reminds me of that line from The Usual Suspects -- that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.

P.S. Recently I participated on a great Bouchercon panel, inspired by my Huff Post piece Torture Tales, on politics and the novel. Thanks to moderator David Corbett and to my fellow panelists Mark Billingham, Gayle Lynds, and S.J. Rozan, for exceptionally thought-provoking discussion, some of which is reflected in this post.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Overton Window: More Poodle Than Panther

I'm pleased to announce that At the Tea Party: The Wing Nuts, Whack Jobs and Whitey-Whiteness of the New Republican Right... and Why We Should Take It Seriously is available today! Edited by GritTV's Laura Flanders, it includes essays from an amazing lineup of writers: Max Blumenthal, Alexander Cockburn, Lisa Duggan, Bill Fletcher, Glenn Greenwald, Arun Gupta, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Chris Hedges, Jim Hightower, Richard Kim, Rick Perlstein, Katha Pollitt, Sarah Posner, Ruth Rosen, Ken Silverstein, Tim Wise, Kai Wright, JoAnn Wypijewski, Gary Younge, Alexander Zaitchik, and Deanna Zandt. Here's my contribution, a review of Glenn Beck's novel The Overton Window.

The Overton Window: More Poodle Than Panther

The most surprising aspect of Glenn Beck’s novel The Overton Window is the banality of its politics. Coming from an entertainer whose trademark is blackboard diagrams connecting Nazism, the Lincoln penny, Woodrow Wilson, and the impending destruction of America by organizations promoting social justice, and with a back cover promise “to be as controversial as it is eye-opening,” in the end the book posits nothing more than a boilerplate conspiracy run by an evil New York public relations magnate. Could Beck have taken on a less controversial player? Perhaps he initially considered risking everything by vilifying Wall Street bankers, or telemarketers, or child molesters, before gritting his teeth and pledging his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor to outing such a powerful and well-defended foe.

But on second thought, Beck’s choice of conspiracy villain makes a kind of sense. After all, has Beck ever gone after a player who could actually hit back? Whether it’s a politically powerless organization like ACORN or the Tides Group; a peripheral bureaucrat like Van Jones or a politician so prominent he’s already a lightning rod for criticism, like Obama; or concepts so broad or amorphous that railing against them is as dangerous as screaming into a pillow, like “progressives” or “the liberal media,” Beck’s villains are always carefully screened to guarantee the only repercussions he’ll endure for choosing them is a boost to his ratings. This is true for his television and radio shows, so it stands to reason it would be true in his first attempt at a novel, too.

In fact, a reasonable rule of thumb for testing the seriousness of anyone’s claim to the role of underdog in the fight against vast, powerful forces, is this: what actual damage has the claimant sustained? Ask this question of Glenn Greenwald, or Michael Hastings, or Carol Rosenberg, or Jeremy Scahill, or Marcy Wheeler, or of any other real journalist, and you’ll learn of doors closed and financial opportunities lost. Ask it of Glenn Beck, and you’ll learn of multi-million dollar television contracts and book advances. Ah, the sacrifices this man has made in exposing the powerful forces who secretly control America.

The safe silliness of Beck’s villain aside, progressive readers would be hard-pressed to disagree with the novel’s main premise: a misinformed and apathetic populace has allowed America to be captured by oligarchic elites, elites who masterfully manipulate public opinion to perpetrate the system by which they engorge themselves on the citizenry. Not such a different conception, in fact, from the one that undergirds my own recent novel, Inside Out. Beck and I both even include an author’s note and list of sources to help readers sift out the fact upon which we base our fiction. And we both clearly intend for our novels not just to entertain, but to elucidate.

Which makes it all the stranger to consider that the author of this earnest book is the same man The Daily Show hilariously demonstrated to be in the grip of Nazi Tourette’s, whose obsession with race led him to declare that Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture,” and who has composed virtual love letters to President Bush and Sarah Palin. If I hadn’t known Beck the television huckster before encountering Beck the novelist, I would have thought that, politically, at least, we might have much in common.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Back in Black - Glenn Beck's Nazi Tourette's
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorRally to Restore Sanity

But similar premises don’t necessarily lead to a confluence of conclusions. A sobering thought for anyone hopeful that, say, the Tea Party’s small government rhetoric provides possible common ground for some sort of progressive outreach. Progressives think government is too big and therefore want to reduce secrecy and prevent the president from imprisoning and assassinating American citizens without due process; Tea Partiers think government is too big and therefore want to prevent universal health care. Progressives think the national deficit and debt are out of control and therefore want to shrink the military; Tea Partiers think the national deficit and debt are out of control and therefore want to eliminate social security. The differences in such world views are far more significant than the similarities, and an attempt to minimize the differences and try to build on the similarities is apt to lead to extremely disappointing results.

The good news, I suppose, is that whatever readership The Overton Window finds, the book’s impact is apt to be benign. Most of its readers are probably already Beck’s fans, in which case the damage is done. Those who get through the book without prior knowledge of Beck will likely be distracted from deep thought by the one-dimensional characters, unending political speeches masquerading as dialogue, and absurdity of the conspiracy Beck proposes. The Overton Window is dull and disjointed more than it is dangerous or disquieting, and therefore, as both political primer and political thriller, ultimately, inert.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

This is Your Brain on War

Andrew Sullivan's defense of President Obama's claimed power to have American citizens assassinated nicely reveals much of the illogic behind, and many of the dangers inherent in, America's Forever War. Let's examine it point by point.

1. Assassination of American citizens, even if arguably extreme, has only been ordered applied, so far as we know, to four individuals.

When the government attempts to claim some controversial power, it tends to establish the alleged principle behind that power through the facts most convenient for its case. It's no coincidence, therefore, that the government has used Anwar al-Awlaki, whose name and face are a perfect fit for the popular image of Scary Foreign Terrorist, to make its case for a presidential assassination power. From a public relations perspective, it would have been more difficult to establish the power through the announcement of the impending assassination of someone named, say, Mike Miller, a white Christian. For the same reason, Jose Padilla was a good choice for the test case the Bush administration used to establish its power to arrest American citizens on American soil, hold them incommunicado in military facilities, and try them in military commissions. Similarly, the CIA was careful to introduce the news about its torture tapes with a low number -- just two or three -- and then, once the principle of the tapes had been established in the public mind, to mention the real (as far as we know) number, which was ninety-two.

Imagine you're a top West Wing spinmeister discussing how to recruit influence-makers into supporting the president's power to assassinate American citizens. Would you claim the power as broadly as possible, right up front? Or would you soft-pedal it, by initially attaching the power to one man with a dark beard and a scary-sounding name? The answer is obvious. Then, later, once the principle has been established, you can use it more expansively, knowing the influence-makers will have a hard time reversing themselves because, after all, they've already supported the principle, and knowing that the public will go along because now it's been properly inoculated against the shock of a full-blown admission.

But even leaving all that aside, the "but it was done to only a few people" argument is pretty weak. The acceptability of government conduct ought to turn on its legality, not on how many people were subjected to it. Presumably Sullivan wouldn't offer this defense of government conduct if the conduct in question had been torture, though of course this was a primary Bush administration defense of its torture regimen -- that only three people were waterboarded.

2. We know Anwar al-Awlaki is a member of al Qaeda because we can find information to this effect on Wikipedia and in independent news reports.

This argument turns on how much we ought to trust the government when it claims someone is so dangerous that the person merits extrajudicial killing (or, with regard to another power Obama claims for himself, so dangerous that he must be imprisoned forever without charge, trial, or conviction). Logically, I would expect that if the government has evidence compelling enough to justify assassinating (or imprisoning forever) an American citizen, the government would prove its case in court. And I'd be comforted if the government would take the trouble to do so, as I have an admittedly pre-9/11 attachment to the notion that, as the Fifth Amendment puts it, "No person... shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law." In fact, given both the constitutional requirements and public relations imperatives in play, when the government refuses to make its case in court, I can't help but suspect just as a matter of logic that its case is in fact weaker than one might like a case for assassination to be.

It's especially relevant in this regard that Sullivan repeatedly bases his defense of the government's claimed power to assassinate Awlaki on Awlaki's alleged treason. Yet Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution provides, "No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court." So it's not just desirable that the government prove allegations like the ones against Awlaki in court; it's constitutionally required (and Sullivan himself seems uncomfortable with his call that Awlaki be executed on the basis of a Wikipedia entry and some news articles, because later in his post he suggests that the government does have some sort of duty to "reiterate" its case in court, if only as part of a more persuasive public relations effort. And note the use of that word, "reiterate" -- Sullivan seems to sense, correctly, that the news reports he cites as evidence are based, as such reports so often are, on government whispers).

So both logically and constitutionally, the government really shouldn't be assassinating American citizens just because Wikipedia and independent news reports claim they're doing bad things. But let's leave logic and the Constitution aside for the moment and instead examine the empirical case for trusting governmental claims that certain people are so bad they must be deprived of life, liberty, and property without due process of law.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld once assured America that the 800 or so prisoners we had locked up in Guantanamo were "the worst of the worst." It turns out not only that most of them were innocent, but that the government knew they were innocent. And indeed, most of them have since been quietly released. Guantanamo is, of course, just one instance, and the history of successive governmental lying is so long and consistent I always find it baffling when someone reflexively treats government claims as a sufficiently trustworthy basis for imprisonment and execution.

We've all had the experience of knowing someone who we realize over time has a tendency to fib. When we make that discovery, immediately thereafter we begin to discount that person's unverified claims. This is just a common-sense, automatic, adult reaction to experience in the world. And yet, when it comes to the government, no matter how many times we're subjected to much worse than mere fibbing -- whether it's Guantanamo, or WMDs, or the scapegoating and persecution of Steven Hatfill as the anthrax killer, or the Pat Tillman coverup, to name only a few of the more recent instances of government lies -- some people will continue to trust governmental assertions as though the government has an unblemished record of truth-telling. I don't know how to explain this irrational credulity. My best guess is it has something to do with denial born of the pain of knowing someone you'd like to trust is in fact a habitual liar.

3. It's okay for the president to order the assassination of Americans we know through Wikipedia and independent news reports are terrorists, as long as the assassinations are done abroad and not on US soil.

This is just incoherent. Why would it be okay to assassinate a treasonous, imminent threat to thousands of American lives when he's abroad, but not okay when he's on American soil? If anything, you'd think the treasonous, traitorous, threatening, inciting, dangerous, spiritual-advisor-to-mass-murderers (to quote Sullivan's case against Awlaki) terrorist would be even more of a threat in closer proximity to his American targets. Why would we want to offer such a dangerous terrorist sanctuary on the very soil he seeks to soak with American blood?

I like that last line. There's something satisfying about getting emotional and trying to whip up others, too (plus I'm a sucker for alliteration). All that logic and devotion to the Constitution was starting to tire me out. But look, the point is, if the president can order the assassination abroad of citizens because he deems them dangerous, he ought to be able to have them assassinated at home, too. Suggesting otherwise feels almost like the kind of dodge I discuss in my response to Sullivan's first argument about the assassinations being limited in number. The message is, don't worry, you asleep in your beds have nothing to fear from this program, which only applies abroad. But because the principle behind the power applies at home, too, eventually the program can be expanded everywhere. That's the way I'd play it, anyway, if I were introducing the program and trying to get the public comfortable with it.

4. We are at war.

This is really Sullivan's central claim -- after all, the title of his piece is "Yes, We Are At War," and he notes about a dozen times in the text itself that We Are At War. He offers some lip service to the notion that the war is not of the traditional variety, but the nature of this "war" is in fact the heart of the matter.

The laws of war don't require, and we don't expect, our soldiers to capture enemy soldiers who are firing at them on the battlefield. But what happens when we expand the concept of "war" to encompass the entire world? To continue for an indefinite period? And to include anyone, because there are no longer meaningful categories such as "soldiers" and "civilians?" That is, when there's no way of determining where the war is being waged, or against whom, or for how long?

It's hard to say for sure, because as far as I know outside Nineteen Eighty-Four it's never been tried before. But I can see some worrying trends. First, many people will start ignoring the Constitution and its requirement that only Congress can declare war. Yes, there were two Authorizations for Use of Military Force -- the first, against those who the President determined "planned, authorized, committed, or aided" the 9/11 attacks; the second, against Iraq. The first might apply to Awlaki, but it's telling that Sullivan doesn't ever bother to cite it. For many people, and I suspect Sullivan is one of them, war is more a state of mind than a condition of hostilities. How else to explain his claim -- which would be scary if it weren't so obviously absurd -- that, "There is no 'due process' in wartime"? The original legal authorization, such as it was, is forgotten, and "We Are at War!" becomes the all-purpose excuse for all government excesses and the all-purpose dismissal all civil liberties concerns.

(For more on this, I recommend Chris Hedge's superb War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning).

Indeed, one of the things that strikes me about the resort to war (and to violence and punishment generally) is that war is more an end than it is a means. Sullivan doesn't argue for war as a tool; he repeatedly argues for war itself:

"We are... at war with a vile, theocratic, murderous organization that would destroy this country and any of its enemies if it got the chance...

"The idea that this is not a war [is] a ludicrous, irresponsible and reality-divorced claim that I have never shared...

"I believe it is the duty of the commander in chief to kill as many of these people actively engaged in trying to kill us as possible and as accurately as possible...

"The point of targeting key agents of al Qaeda for killing is precisely to fight a war as surgically and as morally as we can...

"Treating this whole situation as if it were a civil case in a US city is not taking the threat seriously...

"And so the inclusion of Awlaki as an enemy is not an "execution", or an "assassination", as some of my libertarian friends hyperbolize. It is a legitimate and just act of war against a dangerous traitor at war with us and enjoining others to commit war...

"We ignore these theocratic mass murderers at our peril...

"We have every right, indeed a duty, to kill them after they have killed us by the thousands and before they kill us again."

Rather than articulating an objective (crippling al Qaeda? Reducing the threat of terrorism to manageable levels, as we do for crime? Ending tyranny in our world? Sullivan doesn't say), and then explaining why a given set of tactics is well-suited for achieving that objective, Sullivan repeatedly argues for war itself, and everything that war entails. And why not? War has its own logic, and with a war as all encompassing as the one we're in, that logic takes on a powerful and seductive life of its own. Once you accept, and embrace, that "We are at War," the rest, as they say, is just commentary.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Militarization and the Authoritarian Right

Yes, former Bush administration speechwriter and current Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen's demand that "WikiLeaks Must Be Stopped" is, as his colleague Eva Rodriguez notes, "more than a little whacky." But it's useful, too, because an infatuation with the notion of using the military in non-military operations, particularly domestic ones, is a key aspect of the modern American right and of the rightwing authoritarian personality. Examining Thiessen is a good way to understand both.

Thiessen lays out his premise in his first sentence: "WikiLeaks is not a news organization; it is a criminal enterprise." The premise is silly -- unless the Washington Post for whom Thiessen writes and every other news organization that seeks and publishes leaks is a criminal enterprise, too (apparently Thiessen didn't bother to read 18 USC 793, which he cites as the basis for his opinion about criminality, citing it instead just to sound authoritative). But as whacky as the premise is, it's nothing compared to Thiessen's conclusion.

Which is: that the government "employ not only law enforcement but also intelligence and military assets to bring [Wikileaks founder Julian] Assange to justice and put his criminal syndicate out of business." This notion -- that crime should be fought with the military -- is part of the creeping militarization of American society. You can see it, too, in rightist support for military tribunals to replace civilian courts in trying terror suspects; in the increasing militarization of our border with Mexico; in the numbers of soldiers deployed in American airports and train stations; and in then Vice President Cheney's attempt to have the military supplant the FBI in arresting terror suspects on American soil.

Thiessen tried to back away from his authoritarian argument when Rodriguez called him on it, but his disavowal rings false. First, Thiessen claims that when he said "military," he only really meant the National Security Agency, because (after all!) the NSA is part of the Department of Defense. But the NSA, which specializes in signals intelligence, would logically fall under the "intelligence assets" Thiessen had already called for is his op-ed. If all Thiessen had in mind was the NSA, the call for "military assets" on top of "intelligence assets" would be redundant. Second, Thiessen claims he was also merely referring to the Defense Department's Cyber Command. But if by "military assets" he meant only the NSA and the Cyber Command, why didn't he just specify these two in the first place?

Regardless, the Cyber Command has on its website the following (style, grammar, and clarity-challenged) mission statement:

USCYBERCOM plans, coordinates, integrates, synchronizes, and conducts activities to: direct the operations and defense of specified Department of Defense information networks and; prepare to, and when directed, conduct full-spectrum military cyberspace operations in order to enable actions in all domains, ensure US/Allied freedom of action in cyberspace and deny the same to our adversaries.

This is one of the organizations Thiessen now wants to task with... law enforcement? That Thiessen believes it exculpatory to explain that he was merely calling for the use of the Cyber Command, in addition to the NSA and whatever other "military assets" he might have had in mind, to fight crime is as revealing as his argument itself.

In a probably futile attempt to forestall a barrage of partisan responses, I'll emphasize that the policies and views I describe above don't correlate neatly with either of America's two major political parties. President Obama, for example, has (in addition to escalating the war in Afghanistan and privatizing the one in Iraq) deployed the National Guard to the Mexican border, has secretly deployed special forces to 75 countries, and favors military commissions to try some terror suspects (and indefinite detentions and assassination for others, including American citizens). But the notion that Obama is by any meaningful policy definition liberal is at this point as laughable as it is baseless, and the popular view of Obama as a progressive is testament to the astonishing power of certain brands to outlast the loss of their underlying substance.

Still, my sense is that Republicans argue for authoritarian policies out of conviction, while Democrats cave in to them out of cowardice. The distinction is interesting, though of course in the end the result is the same. Either way, if you believe tasking America's military with investigating, pursuing, apprehending, holding, trying, and imprisoning criminal suspects and criminals is a profound and insidious threat to democracy, you'll fight this excrescence wherever you find it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Ministry of Truth

Recently, I had the good fortune to be invited by NPR to submit an essay on a favorite thriller of mine. I decided to write about George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is both an excellent thriller and an increasingly powerful and relevant political warning -- a combination readers of my latest novel, Inside Out, will know I find appealing.

Though I'm of course pleased that NPR decided to run the essay (which you can find here, along with an unrelated radio interview I did with Michelle Norris on All Things Considered), I'm also disappointed that NPR insisted on watering down the essay through successive drafts. The NPR editor I was in touch with, Miriam Krule, found the first three drafts "too political" (my response -- that an essay on Nineteen Eighty-Four that's too political is like an essay about the Bible that's too much about God -- was unpersuasive), and though Ms. Krule didn't articulate the precise nature of her objections, the parts of the essay that had to go nicely demonstrate what in this context "too political" really means. Here are two versions of the offending penultimate paragraph, neither of which NPR deemed acceptable:

As prescient as Orwell was about events, though, I believe his purpose wasn't so much to forecast the future, which might take many forms, as it was to describe human nature, which is immutable. So no, we don't have quite the kind of organized Two Minutes' Hate depicted in the novel, but it's impossible to recall the populace turning on our NATO ally France before our misadventure in Iraq, or more recently on our NATO ally Turkey over the Gaza flotilla incident, and not remember the scene in the book where a crowd instantly and obediently redirects its hostility from Eurasia to Eastasia. It's impossible to watch pundits like Tom Friedman, Jeffrey Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, and Bill Kristol—who were wrong about everything in Iraq—still being taken seriously as this time they agitate for war with Iran, and not imagine the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Truth sending the historical record down the memory hole for incineration. And it's impossible to look at people who can't see the obvious parallels I just described and not see Party members vigorously practicing their doublethink, by which they have "the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.

Most of all, we have the language—the "newspeak"—Orwell predicted. No, there's no Ministry of Truth, but such an institution would anyway seem superfluous given that The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post all now refuse to use the word "torture" to describe waterboarding, beatings, and sleep deprivation of prisoners, adopting instead the government-approved phrase "enhanced interrogation techniques" (as Chris Hayes of The Nation has observed, this is like calling rape "unilateral physical intimacy"). Even NPR, alas, has banned "torture" from its reporting. Escalation in Iraq is a "surge," prisoners are "detainees," assassinations are "targeted killings," and the 60,000 barrel-a-day ongoing undersea oil eruption is nothing but a "spill" or "leak." As bad as it is, imagine how much worse it might be if Orwell hadn't warned against it.

NPR wasn't objecting to my argument (Nineteen Eighty-Four's political warning is relevant today); they were objecting to my evidence (Tom Friedman et al's mistakes are disposed of as though via a memory hole; NPR and other named organizations are using government-approved Orwellian language). This matters not only because an argument's persuasiveness depends (at least to a rational audience) on what evidence is offered in support. It matters too because preferences like the ones Ms. Krule expressed tend to reveal an otherwise hidden media ideology, one more important and insidious than the left/right labels that are the dominant -- and distracting -- prism by which we generally classify people's politics. If you want to understand the politics of NPR and other such organizations, forget for a moment left/right, and focus instead on what might loosely be called an establishment ideology, for NPR is an establishment media player following establishment media norms.

What do I mean by "establishment media"? Newsweek's Evan Thomas, in the course of declaring himself an establishment journalist, put it well:

By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are. Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring.

At the government's urging, NPR has adopted Orwellian speech. It prefers to suppress this decision rather than debate it. It extends its injunction to similar decisions of peer organizations -- specifically, the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. No matter how outlandishly wrong and destructive a pundit's predictions have been subsequently proven, NPR believes it unacceptably indecorous for the pundit in question to be held accountable by name. Generally speaking, NPR is okay with evidence that might loosely be classified as "what," while being not at all okay with evidence that might loosely be classified as "who." I can't think of any media behaviors more revealing than these of an establishment ideology and bias.

Before the rise of the blogosphere, a writer had no real means of rejoinder to editorial decisions like NPR's, and even now, relatively few readers will come across the larger context within which my NPR essay was edited. Still, there's no question that the Internet, by democratically distributing a megaphone previously held exclusively by an establishment media which behind the left/right facade marches in ideological lockstep, is permitting unprecedented means of media accountability. Speaking of which: I just finished an advance reading copy of a superb critique of media bloviators: Barrett Brown's Hot, Fat, and Clouded: The Amazing and Amusing Failures of America's Chattering Class, which, by coincidence, includes chapters about some of the stunningly failed pundits whose mention in an essay NPR found "too political." I highly recommend this horrifying, hilarious, devastatingly persuasive book, which as Brown notes in his epilogue could not have been written in the absence of the Internet. And for another example of the increasing power of the Internet to foster media accountability, here's a video challenge from Brown to TNR's National Review's Rich Lowry, who could easily have provided the basis for an additional chapter in Brown's book:

Now, I don't mean to be too hard on NPR. First, as an establishment media organ following establishment media rules, NPR is hardly unique, as I hope the many other examples NPR edited out of my essay will demonstrate. Second, NPR has a lot of good and sometimes eclectic coverage, including their current "Vote for the 100 Best Thrillers Ever" campaign, in which, hint, hint, you can find my novels Rain Fall and Fault Line among the nominees, and vote accordingly.

A number of people whose counsel I value urged me not to write this post, lest NPR blackball me from future coverage. Obviously, I decided to take that chance. If I keep these thoughts to myself because I know where my bread is buttered, then by my own standards I'm part of the problem rather than the solution. And besides, at heart, I'm an optimist. I want to believe that eventually, media institutions like NPR will come to understand that public discussion of their pro-establishment ideology and practices will benefit not just their journalism, but their bottom line. After all, in the long run, media organizations perceived as subservient to the powerful, unwilling to debate their practices, and devoted to concealing the shortcomings of other establishment players, will be eclipsed by the blogosphere, which today engages in debate and accountability to which the establishment media seems not yet to aspire.

* * * * *

If you're curious, here's the unedited Nineteen Eighty-Four piece:

A lone man hunted by faceless government spies. A doomed love affair, its urgent moments stolen against a backdrop of terror and war. Surveillance, capture, torture, betrayal. If this doesn't describe a thriller, the thriller doesn't exist.

I'm talking, of course, about Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Orwell's novel makes for such devastating political commentary that in spite of the classic elements I mention above it isn't usually recognized as a thriller. This is a shame, because in addition to its many other virtues, Nineteen Eighty-Four demonstrates the potential power of the form to deliver a dire warning in the guise of entertainment.

I first read the book in high school, and at the time thought of it almost as science fiction: commentary about events set in a remote future that hadn't come to be. There was no Big Brother. Certainly no one was staring back at me while I watched television. And relatively speaking, the country was at peace.

Of course, that was a long time ago. Now we have a civilian population eager to believe the president is "our" Commander-in-Chief, increasingly pervasive government surveillance, and a "long war" against a shifting global enemy so ill-defined it might as well be Eurasia and Eastasia.

Most of all, we have the language—the "newspeak"—Orwell predicted. No, there's no Ministry of Truth, but such an institution would anyway seem superfluous given that The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post all now refuse to use the word "torture" to describe waterboarding, beatings, and sleep deprivation of prisoners, adopting instead the government-approved phrase "enhanced interrogation techniques" (as Chris Hayes of The Nation has observed, this is like calling rape "unilateral physical intimacy"). Even NPR, alas, has banned "torture" from its reporting. Escalation in Iraq is a "surge," prisoners are "detainees," assassinations are "targeted killings," and the 60,000 barrel-a-day ongoing undersea oil eruption is nothing but a "spill" or "leak." As bad as it is, imagine how much worse it might be if Orwell hadn't warned against it.

It's interesting to consider that Orwell addressed the major themes of Nineteen Eighty-Four a few years earlier, in his essay Notes on Nationalism. And yet Notes, as excellent as it is, is read much less widely. Why? Because certain themes resonate more powerfully when presented within the structure of a thriller—when brought to life in the conflicts and confusion of characters on the page. For readers, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a warning. For thriller writers, it's something to aspire to.

Monday, July 05, 2010

It's Just a Leak

One of the great things about being a novelist is that the form enables me to dramatize the way the government and establishment media collude to manipulate public opinion. The phenomenon of the mainstream media laundering government talking points into news in exchange for access to even more such talking points has been ruthlessly documented by many outstanding bloggers such as Glenn Greenwald, Dan Froomkin, Charles Kaiser, Jay Rosen, and Matt Taibbi. I hope to draw more attention to their work by my fictional -- or not so fictional -- representations of the actual process at work.

And so, here's what I imagine took place during a hastily convened April 20th late-night White House meeting of panicked BP executives, incompetent Mineral Management Service officials, and one very slick West Wing PR flack.

Flack: Calm down, everyone, calm down. I need to get the facts from you and if everyone's yelling, I can't. So simmer down, please.

[The room quiets down, the attendees grateful for someone giving them direction, any direction.]

Flack [pointing at the most senior BP executive]: Okay. What happened?

BP Exec [taking a deep breath and visibly attempting to calm himself]: We're not sure exactly. One of our Gulf of Mexico oil rigs, the Deepwater Horizon, blew up.

Flack: Don't say that. It didn't "blow up." That's not helpful.

BP Exec: What?

Flack: It... collapsed. You say it collapsed. If you say it blew up, you create scary images -- bombs, terrorists, 9/11. Collapse is better. Small things collapse, and when they do its discrete. You know, grandma passed out and collapsed. There isn't any fire or smoke. Better imagery for us.

BP Exec [not really getting it, but shellshocked enough not to protest]: Okay... the rig collapsed. It collapsed, and the explosion--

[Stern look from the flack]

BP Exec: Right, the "collapse" tore a huge fucking gash in the seabed, and--

Flack: Stop. First, we don't swear. Swearing is unprofessional, and above all, we have to look professional. Public confidence depends on our appearance of professionalism.

BP Exec: Are you fucking kidding me?

[Stern look from the flack]

BP Exec: Okay, sure, whatever, the collapse tore a gash in the seabed.

Flack [nodding]: Better. I like the way you got rid of the adjective "huge." Adjectives like that aren't helpful to us. In fact, I don't want you using adjectives at all. They make it sound like you're trying too hard. We'll manage this story with well-chosen nouns. Much more effective way to create a proper narrative.

BP Exec: "Proper narrative"? Look, there's a giant hole--

Flack: Stop. Giant is like huge. You need to stop describing things and just give me the facts.

BP Exec [raising his voice]: But I am giving--

Flack: There's no gash. There's no hole. What we have here, people, is an oil leak.

MMS Official: Leak? Have you seen the underwater video footage? That's no leak, it looks like a fucking... it looks like Mount Vesuvius erupting oil out of the seabed!

Flack [expression understanding and patient]: This is good, this is the place for you to get these mistaken words out of your system so you'll know never to use them again. "Erupt" is a very loaded word and as you correctly note, it immediately conjures up unhelpful images of volcanoes spewing lava. Speaking of which, "spew" is also an unhelpful word. Likewise, all forms of "gush" and "geyser." From now on, you will use two words, and two words only, preferably in their drier, noun form, to describe this incident: "spill" and "leak."

[The room is silent as the executives and officials try to understand the flack's point]

Flack: Spills are small and finite. If I accidentally knock over this glass of water, we'll have a spill. And the moment it's happened, it'll already be over. It'll just be a matter of cleaning it up. We've been using the phrase "oil spill" for decades for just this reason and it's been exceptionally effective at calming the public. We want people to understand that what's happening in the Gulf is far from unprecedented; it's just another oil spill, a significant one, certainly, but not qualitatively different from the many that have come before it. Leak is also fine because it conjures images of a ceiling dripping water that's being neatly contained in a pan on the floor. Leaks are small, slow, and containable, and we have to position those notions in the public mind with regard to this latest oil spill, too. The words we employ to do so will be crucial. Trust me, people, I'm far from new at this form of damage control, and you can believe me when I tell you that the nomenclature we deploy starting now will be our most powerful weapon in shaping public consciousness and opinion regarding the incident itself. Don't believe me? Note how I've deliberately referred to what happened as an "incident" -- a small, dry word that conjures no unhelpful imagery. "Event" would be too weighty a word, and I'm sure I needn't mention that words like "disaster," "catastrophe," or "calamity" would be extremely unhelpful.

[Silence in the room again, but several people are nodding their heads, comforted by the distraction of talking about the message, which the flack seems to know how to manage, rather than the substance of what happened, which they don't]

Flack: Now, how much oil is actually leaking?

BP Exec: God, we don't even know... our best guess at this point is, at least 60,000 barrel s a day.

Flack [shaking his head]: That's too much. We can't say that, at least not right away.

BP Exec: Well, it is what it is.

Flack: We don't know what it is. You just said yourself that you're guessing. We'll start with a low number -- let's make it a thousand barrels a day.

BP Exec: Look, you can't just say it and make it so. There's --

Flack: Isn't it true that the leak includes a thousand barrels a day?

BP Exec [snorts]: Yeah, and another 59,000 barrels on top of that.

Flack: We don't have to mention the second part. Not yet. In fact, doing so would be irresponsible because as you just pointed out, we don't really know. We're just guessing. So I want us to guess lower. We'll introduce the lower number into the public's mind to ease the entire incident into their consciousness. Once they realize there's a spill, we can gradually walk the number up without unduly shocking people. We'll be sure to use the word "estimate" in connection with all numbers to ensure we have the necessary flexibility to increase the number with the passage of time, as we gain more information.

MMS Official: I don't see what difference any of this makes. We're not the ones who are going to control the words that get used to describe this... this incident. The media will call it whatever they want.

Flack [chuckling at this display of incredible naivete]: Whatever gave you that notion?

MMS Official: Well, I mean, it's not like we can control the media...

Flack: "Control" isn't a good word. It sounds so totalitarian. "Persuasion" is much better.

MMS Official: Look, I don't care what you call it...

Flack: I called it "persuasion" when I got the media to describe our escalation in Iraq as the "surge." Strong, assertive word, don't you think? With such great inherent imagery of waves crashing powerfully against the beach, and then -- this is the best part -- receding! And with none of the unhelpful Vietnam associations of "escalation." And I called it persuasion when I got the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post to stop calling waterboarding "torture" and start referring to "enhanced interrogation techniques," instead. Who do you think got the media to call the people we've been holding at Guantanamo, Bagram, and the black sites for nearly a decade "detainees" rather than "prisoners"? Forgive me for boasting, but "detainee" was such a brilliant word... high school students get detained for failing to turn in their homework, so nothing but a big yawn from the public. And have you noticed that the media has dropped "assassination" and now uses the soothingly dry phrase "targeted killing," instead? Who do you think persuaded them to do that? And look at Israel's "Security Fence" -- my God, if you can get the media to refer to a double-lined, razor-wire-topped, 18-foot-tall concrete wall snaking for miles through the desert as just a "fence"... well, people, I submit to you that we can also get the media to refer to the Gulf incident as nothing but a spill or a leak, too. I guarantee you, two months from now, if you Google the phrase "Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill," you'll get 23 million hits, easy. The few instances you'll find of eruption, geyser, gusher and the like will be eclipsed and our job will be done.

[The room is silent. Attendees are nodding their heads in grudging respect at the flack's apparent mojo]

BP Exec: Okay, fine. But how do we stop the... leak?

Flack [shrugs]. My job is just to prevent public outrage and a meaningful discussion of the inevitable dangers -- sorry, "risks" -- of drilling for oil 5000 feet underwater and 18,000 feet below the seabed. It's up to you to stop the leak.

[Silence again. The attendees look at one another, their wide eyes moving from face to face]

Flack: You can stop it, can't you? I mean, it's just a leak, right?

For another depiction of the way the government and establishment media collaborate to launder government talking points, in this case regarding the missing CIA interrogation videos, here's the prologue of my latest thriller, Inside Out.