Thursday, September 25, 2003

Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds is leading the charge against media misrepresentation of current conditions in Iraq. I'm not sure why he's harping on this particular issue, given that he doesn't seem to be all that convinced of the accuracy of media representations of current conditions in America, either.

For that matter, it's not even clear that the notion of "current conditions in America" (let alone in Iraq) can even be defined, independent of media representations of it. In huge, diverse countries populated by millions of people, it's extraordinarily difficult to characterize "current conditions" in any meaningful way. In modern democratic societies, there are enormous industries--journalism, polling/market research, electoral politics--dedicated to gauging "current conditions" and catering to them for financial or political benefit. The outputs of these industries--press reports, advertising, election results--can then be used to infer a reasonable aggregate picture of the society's beliefs, concerns and interests. But in non-democratic societies, these mechanisms don't work, and any attempt to construct a substitute from the scanty evidence available is doomed to be hopelessly distorted.

Historical descriptions of ancient and medieval societies, for example, tend to concentrate overwhelmingly on a tiny fraction of the population--the ruling elite--whose lives and actions generally had a negligible effect on the vast majority of the population. However, because these groups had control of the only means available for propagating information about their "current conditions", their surviving stories eventually became a proxy for "current conditions" (at the time) in those societies. Something similar may be happening in Iraq today: because the occupying American forces are largely in control of the flow of information in the country, "current conditions" in Iraq are a function of the perceptions and concerns of those troops. Since those troops are naturally highly preoccupied with the rate of guerrilla attacks on their comrades, these events are portrayed in the press as a key criterion for evaluating "current conditions" on the ground--even though most Iraqis probably care little about them.

In time, Iraqi society will no doubt reach the point where its institutions convey a coherent picture of "current conditions" there. (Whether that picture is one of rigid fealty to an absolute ruler, chaos and civil strife, or something more akin to the peaceful freedom of modern democratic states remains to be seen, of course.) Until then, however, complaining that the foreign media's portrayal of "current conditions" in Iraq is inaccurate--when the fragmented, shoestring local media are themselves far from agreeing on one--makes little sense. One would do better to complain about foreign media purporting to portray "current conditions" in Iraq in the first place.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler has provided us with some telling insight into the mindset of journalists reporting on the Middle East. In explaining why the term "terrorist" is rarely used when describing so-called "militants" who launch murderous attacks on Israeli civilians, Getler implicitly concedes precisely what he is explicitly trying to deny--that the terminology his newspaper employs is determined by political judgments.

Some of his points are in fact well-taken--for example, that "[t]errorism and terrorist...[l]ike all not convey much hard information", and are often better replaced with more specific terms. It's also understandable that he'd prefer that his newspaper "not resolve the argument over whether Hamas is a terrorist organization", since "adopting particular language can suggest taking sides" in the political debate over the issue.

Or rather, it would be understandable if the ombudsman considered taking sides on political questions surrounding terrorism to be anathema. But Getler shows no such squeamishness when definitively distinguishing between, say, Al Qaida and Hamas.
Hamas conducts terrorism but also has territorial ambitions, is a nationalist movement and conducts some social work. As far as we know, al Qaeda exists only as a terrorist network. It is composed of radicals from several Islamic countries. The Palestinian resistance is indigenous. Al Qaeda launched a devastating surprise attack on the United States. Israelis and Palestinians have been at war for a long time. Palestinians have been resisting a substantial and, to Palestinians, humiliating, Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza since they were seized in the 1967 war.
Now, Getler is free to believe, along with his employers, that these distinctions are real and meaningful. (Or he could be more like me, and consider these "distinctions" to be false, meaningless rationalizations for a shamefully spineless refusal to condemn terrorism.) But he cannot seriously claim that his position on the question is not political in nature. And indeed, he implicitly admits it:
That resistance has now bred suicide bombers. These are terrorist acts, not to be condoned. But the contexts of the struggle against al Qaeda and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are different. News organizations should not back away from the word terrorism when it is the proper term. But as a rule, strong, descriptive, factual reporting is better than labels.
In other words, labelling "terrorist acts" is a matter of objective description. But use of the label "terrorism" must take into account "context". (Readers can decide for themselves whether the context to which he refers is planetary, pedagogic, pharmaceutical--or perhaps some other word beginning with "p".)

Why all this bending over backwards to avoid being explicit about political judgments? Well, if Getler were to admit that he and his paper are taking a political position on this issue, then he would have to mount some kind of explicit defense of it. Unfortunately for him, his position--that the history of the region somehow lends a degree of legitimacy to Hamas' ongoing campaign of terrorist murder--is morally, logically and politically indefensible. Clearly, then, it's in his interest to pretend, however implausibly, that his blatantly political plea for consideration of "context" is instead an expression of impartial, objective neutrality.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Roger Simon (no relation) and Daniel Drezner have both noted the striking contrast between Christiane Amanpour's and John Burns' criticisms of American press coverage of the Iraq war. Both of these journalists agree that the coverage was compromised by heavy-handed pressure, but Burns points to the former Iraqi regime as the culprit, whereas Amanpour accuses the Bush administration and--believe it or not--Fox News--of being responsible for the "muzzled" press in Iraq.

Needless to say, Burns comes off looking far better in this comparison, simply because he's obviously much closer to the mark than Amanpour. For one thing, his claim of journalistic obsequiousness to Saddam Hussein's regime has been documented elsewhere, whereas Amanpour gives no evidence that the White House (let alone Fox News) successfully pressured CNN to change its coverage in any significant way.

But there's a similarity of tone, and even of substance, in these two reporters' somewhat over-the-top remarks that I think deserves more attention. Both see themselves, first and foremost, as deliverers of an important message that's not being heard because of nefarious attempts to suppress it. Both revel in the drama of their own role as speaker of truths that powerful people wish unheard. And both seem to care more about overall themes than about specific facts and events. The two seem to see themselves as, in a word, storytellers, for better or worse, observing a romantic tale in the making before their eyes, and recounting it with flair and passion (not to mention self-flattery).

The traditional model of the journalist--at least in the domestic sphere--is very different: a hard-bitten cynic who believes no one, his job being to uncover the hard, unpleasant facts that everyone would rather not hear. This journalist is neither glamorous nor daring; vaguely despised by all, he roots around among his sources until he uncovers the ugly facts that the journalist's reading public needs to know for its own protection, delivering them with hard, skeptical bluntness.

Of course, the foreign correspondent has always been a far more romantic figure, in the Burns-Amanpour mold. It's worth asking, though, if this ideal is as effective at keeping an audience practically informed as the domestic one. A nose for a thrilling yarn is not, after all, the same as a nose for the pertinent facts on the ground. Perhaps the inevitable price of the occasional dedicated, indefatigable, and (fortunately) essentially accurate John Burns is a profession dominated by preening, melodramatic and deeply confused Christiane Amanpours.
Michael O'Hanlon has produced another in what seems like an endless stream of op-eds arguing for an ambitious approach to North Korea negotiations. The idea is to offer everything to North Korea, but to demand a lot of concessions (or promises, at least) in return. For example, the US could offer full recognition and security guarantees to the North, along with generous food aid and other assistance. Kim Jong-Il and friends would be expected in return to refrain from going nuclear, to cut back the size of their military, to reduce their weapons exports and to begin opening up their country's economy.

Sounds like a great idea--all that's missing is the right venue for the talks. I propose Oslo.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem once wrote a story about a planet where it is decided that all the inhabitants shall live and breathe underwater. The tale is an obvious satire of Communist utopianism, but its crucial lesson--that deciding on idealized ends, irrespective of either the practicality or the morality of the means to them, is a sure path to disaster--has unfortunately never really been absorbed by Western intellectuals. On the contrary, recent political philosophy has been dominated by discussions roughly as absurd as whether we should all really be breathing underwater.

Consider, for example,, a Website (independently endorsed by two different members of the "Crooked Timber" collective) devoted to cataloguing and explaining the prominent schools of thought on the question of "distributive justice". This question was popularized by the late John Rawls, a widely revered philosopher most famous for positing the following thought experiment: imagine that you are permitted to design, top to bottom, the rules of operation for a society, with the proviso that you would then be placed in that society, in a "position" (role, social status, economic status, etc.) as yet unknown to you, and not of your choosing. How would you decide, for example, to order the allocation of wealth? Of honor? Of power? Rawls argues that the best strategy in this experiment would be to design something like a modern egalitarian welfare state, with a generous safety net to guard against the possibility of being cast in the role of indigent. Others, of course, have proposed alternative strategies, and outlines a few.

Well, political philosophers may love this type of question, but to me it's of a piece with Lem's characters' pondering what they really should all be breathing. After all, nobody in real life is in a position to order a society per Rawls' experiment, and any order proposed under its conditions is thus a "pure end", blissfully disconnected from any means that might achieve it. Unanswered are such questions as, "how much change has to be imposed upon the current society to reach the desired one?" "What will be the practical effects on economic prosperity, political order, or social peace?" "How much suffering will result from the transition?" And, of course, my perennial favorite: "will the new order be imposed forcibly by a dictator, stealthily by a Platonic oligarchy, or democratically by a supportive populace?" Discussing the morality or practicality of one distributive end or another without considering these questions about the morality and practicality of the means is, in my opinion, mere idle game-playing, offering no useful moral insight whatsoever.

It is often said that "the ends justify (or do not justify) the means". In fact, neither statement is true. Ends may or may not justify the means, but more importantly, ends and means simply cannot be teased apart and dealt with separately in evaluating the morality of the combination. And it's not as if the folks at "Crooked Timber" are unaware of this principle--the well-known ethical exercises referred to as "trolley problems", discussed there, illustrate it perfectly. Somehow, though, the temptation to imagine a world of ends freed from the chains of their means always seems just too tempting for philosophers to ignore.

Friday, September 05, 2003

In an old joke about the French, a trio of little boys is ambling through Paris when they spy an amorous couple through an open bedroom window. "Look," says the six-year-old, "they're fighting!" "Non," replies the eight-year-old, "they are making love!" "Oui," concludes the ten-year-old, "and rather badly."

I am reminded of this joke by the controversy over Frederic Beigbeder's new novel, "Windows on the World", which imagines the fates of the diners at the restaurant of the same name atop the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th, 2001. In one widely-quoted passage, a collection of affluent, materialistic Americans, identified only by their designer attire, spend their last moments discussing their cars, homes and investments before losing themselves in a frenzy of sexual coupling as the flames rise around them.

In other words, Beigbeder paints these Americans as embodying the very crudest stereotypes of....the French. They revel in fine luxuries. They pay close attention to fashion. They value self-interested pragmatism before moral principle. And they embrace a sophisticated, carefree sexual hedonism. One would expect any Parisian to feel a warm glow of fellow-feeling when reading this description of Americans by a Frenchman. Why, then, would anyone interpret it as critical of--let alone insulting to--Americans?

The problem, it seems, is that the Americans in the passage are portrayed as French without the style. Their fashions are mass-market American fashions like Kenneth Cole and Ralph Lauren. Their luxuries are modern and unsophisticated: a Porsche, a villa in Hawaii, a health spa membership. Their venality is in the service of increased wealth rather than elevated social status. And they kiss "comme dans un bon porno californien".

Worst of all, they don't spend a single moment sneering contemptuously at those they deem culturally beneath them. For that alone, the Americans in the novel (and in real life) have clearly failed to live up to the Gallic standard, and have thus earned an eternity of callous French ridicule. Rather badly, indeed.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

In the course of his New York Times op-ed piece, former oil executive and self-proclaimed Mideast pundit Donald Hepburn, inadvertently makes an important observation about the current situation in Iraq:
Iraq will need long-term loans from the World Bank, the United Nations Iraq Development Fund, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Arab Development Fund, the European Union Aid Program and others. Yet few of these organizations will be keen to make loans until Iraq has a new constitution and an elected government that has put in place effective legal, arbitration, banking and fiscal systems.
Now, where did these organizations get the idea that a country is an unfit borrower without all the fancy trappings of modern Western governments? In fact, these bodies lend buckets of money all the time to corrupt autocrats and brutal juntas running their countries ruthlessly into the ground. Far from being concerned about democratic legitimacy or well-structured institutions of governance, these lenders have only ever cared about the likelihood that if they sink a bucket of their cash into somebody's coffers, they will be paid back (more or less) on time.

And that's the problem--in order to have that confidence, the lenders need to see somebody at the top who is (a) willing to commit to repayment, (b) likely to stick around when the due date arrives, and (c) enticed by an incentive (like the prospect of further loans) to live up to the commitment. Right now, in Iraq, there simply isn't anyone who meets these criteria, and there likely won't be until the country has a new constitution and an elected government etc. etc. Why? Because the US has promised all this, and now cannot establish a plausible long-term governing authority based on anything less.

In other words, it is not really the absence of stable democratic rule in Iraq, as its (unfulfilled) promise, that's holding up the capital flow that could bankroll the country's reconstruction. Perhaps, then, the chorus of perfectionists who consider anything short of Switzerland-on-the-Euphrates a disastrous failure on the part of the American occupiers should consider the consequences of their position for the ordinary Iraqi, desperately hoping for some kind of effective government to end the chaos and begin the rebuilding in earnest.

Not that I wouldn't love to see Iraq join the club of vibrantly open, democratic societies, of course. But between that depressingly distant ideal outcome and the nightmare of Saddam Hussein, surely there's a lot of room for pragmatic compromise. And it's worth asking (as I already have, in fact) how many American--and Iraqi--lives are worth sacrificing for the sake of making "perfect" the enemy of "good enough".