Saturday, March 18, 2006

David Brooks on self-censorship

The server that houses my blog seems to have been having problems yesterday, so anyone trying to access my recent blog entries probably received the same message that I did -- strange words to the effect that one does "not have permission" to view the blog.

That's an odd way for "Blogspot" to inform readers that repair work is being done.

How do I know that repair work was going on? Because I was able to access "Blogger," which houses "Blogspot," and a message there informed me, more accurately, that the server had a faultly 'filer' that was causing difficulties. Since I can now again see my blog, I conclude that the problem has been fixed.

Does this mean that my blogroll will be more stable from now on? It has manifested an irritating tendency to delete links or scramble them.

But you're wondering what any of this has to do with David Brooks or self-censorship.

Only the most tenuous of connections: missing information.

I don't read the New York Times, but I do subscribe to and daily read the International Herald Tribune, and in my exile from blogdom yesterday, I caught up on my mainstream media reading, where I found a fascinating article by David Brooks, "When pundits get it right," IHT (Friday, March 17, 2006, Seoul Edition).

Brooks argues that General Tommy Franks and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were in such a hurry to occupy Baghdad and destroy Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard that they missed the early signs indicating that the Fedayeen Saddam, a group selected by Saddam to fight against the American forces and their allies after his fall in 2003, were organizing a guerrilla war of insurgency against the American occupation.

Brooks notes that already in late March 2003, a number of pundits, bloggers, and frontline officers saw what was happening in the territory already occupied by the American forces and were trying to call attention to the incipient stage of a guerrilla war, but so long as the computer icons showed American troops advancing toward Baghdad, Franks and Rumsfeld judged the United States to be winning.

The two of them were seeking a decisive battle that would decide things once and for all, but that's not the way this Iraq War has shaped up.

The significance of the article by Brooks is that it avoids cheap shots against Franks and Rumsfeld in describing their analytical failures in the week of March 24, 2003, and it thereby gives us clearer insight into how those failures occurred:
Debate inside any administration is less sophisticated and realistic than the debate among experts outside. The people inside have access to a bit more information. But they are more likely to self-censor for fear of endangering their careers. Debate inside is much more likely to be warped by the egotism, insecurity, power lust and distracting busyness of people at the top.

That's true in general, and it's true in spades in Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon. "Cobra II" ["the definitive account of the war by the New York Times reporter Michael Gordon and Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor"] makes Rumsfeld and Franks each seem like Barry Bonds: a formerly intimidating figure who now just seems pathetic. Those two were contemptuous of the armchair generals and the TV kibitzers. But at the crucial moment in their lives, they got things wrong, and the pundits often got things right.
Noam Scheiber, commenting in the New Republic Online (March 16, 2006) on this same Brooks article, also notes the same insights ("The Plank: That Curious David Brooks Line"):
If someone like [John] Tierney or Maureen Dowd were handling the analysis on this, you'd get a lot of snark about how dumb people who work in government generally are (Tierney) or how dumb people who work in this particular government are (Dowd). (In Dowd's defense, hers would at least be entertaining.) But Brooks offers a much more subtle understanding of what's going on: There are structural obstacles to clear-mindedness present in any administration, and they're exacerbated by the unique brand of pig-headedness this administration's principals bring to the table.
Scheiber puts his finger on precisely the right point, namely, that much of what passes for criticism is mere snarkiness occasionally leavened with humor but lacking insight into the actual workings behind the events.

Brooks, however, writes with a depth of understanding that I -- like Scheiber -- find convincing.


At 10:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad I once again have permission to view your blog. Yesterday I was wondering how to upgrade my security clearance from "don't tell that commie pinko nothin'" to "let him read gypsy scholar", but it seems you've been declassified much to my relief.

I think that what a lot of people accept (and probably want) as analysis is actually entertainment. That's probably why so many people are so ill-informed about the workings of government: the entertainer is not attempting to study or understand and yet the readers take it for studious commentary.

At 10:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with James there. I am forever tired of the news being more about ratings and ad dollars than about any actual information. My in-laws watch a cable news network, literally, from the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep.

So far its only product has been my mother-in-law getting an ulcer and my father-in-law learning new ways to curse.

At 6:54 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

James and Gabe, thanks for the moral support -- or is that 'morale' support?

I'm still writing every day, but now Blogger isn't posting my entries to Blogspot. They're just sitting in Blogger's memory banks...

I hope that this problem gets resolved soon. I'd be willing to pay 25 dollars a year if that would get me consistent service.

Jeffery Hodges

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