The March of Folly, continued

The government policy which immediately sprang to my mind as I read “The March of Folly” was (obviously, I think) the US invasion (or, if you prefer, liberation) of Iraq. In fact, I often felt as I read the section on Vietnam that entire paragraphs and pages might be taken as accurately describing Iraq if only the word Vietnam were replaced with Iraq throughout.

After finishing the book, however, I second-guessed myself. Was the invasion so clearly a folly in hindsight? Was not the war justified solely on the grounds of removing Saddam from power? Were we clearly going to fail? (After all, a correct policy incompetently pursued is not a folly at all, either by Tuchman’s definition or in common parlance.)

I was quite staggered, however, to read the latest Atlantic Monthly feature story, “Blind into Baghdad”. The upshot: almost every problem encountered by the US in its occupation of Iraq was predicted (and in many cases workable solutions proposed) by organisations inside the US government (e.g. the State Department, USAID) and NGOs before the invasion took place. Their advice was wilfully ignored by the Office of the Secretary of Defence, which went so far as to forbid the participation of Pentagon officials in crucial meetings.

It is important to point out that critics of the war — especially politicians — have focussed almost solely on (a) the way the US went into it alone without gathering allies, and (b) the fact that Weapons of Mass Destruction (the ostensible justification for the war) were not found. The first is not an argument of justification but of means — if the war was just then the US’s lack of allies does not make it unjust and vice versa. (French and German participation in a war are hardly indicators of its being just, and yet almost all such criticism would have been squelched had they been involved.) The second is not as important as you think: many wars are not fought for their stated reason. E.g. we did not fight WWII simply because of Pearl Harbour or the Civil War simply because of Fort Sumter.

Neither of these criticisms (if they were accurate) would qualify this war as folly. The real questions we should be asking are: (a) was the war in our interest? and (b) has the war been conducted competently? Unless the occupation turns into an absolute fiaco of Vietnam proportions or another vicious tyrant takes over Iraq as soon as the US leaves it may never be possible to answer the first question definitively. As to the second, it seems quite clear that the rift between the Bush II administration and the State Department (or indeed any sources of information not wholly in agreement with its wishful thinking) has seriously degraded the quality of US policy.

The March of Folly

I’m reading Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly” at the moment. The basic point of this book is that nations can be as irrational and dysfunctional at a policy level as individuals are in managing their own affairs. To this end she cites the Trojans (in their war with Greece, and particularly in bringing the horse into their city against the dictates of caution and prophecy), the Renaissance popes, England’s handling of her American colonies, and US involvement in Vietnam. The book was written in the context of the arms race with the Soviet Union just prior to Perestroika (I hope I spelled that correctly), with the hardly tacit implication that this was the Great Folly of that time.

Tuchman’s definition of Folly is very precise. It’s much more specific than simply “a really stupid thing to do”.

To qualify as folly for this inquiry, the policy adopted must meet three criteria: it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. … Secondly a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. … third … the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual leader.

These are quite exacting criteria. The first means that there must have been a reasoned outcry against the policy at the time. The second that reasonable alternatives were put forward. And the last that the whims of individual fools are discounted.

It’s easy to look at government policies in today’s world of which one might disapprove (I’m sure you can think of several) and, on the assumption that they will fail, mark them as follies, but it seems to me that in any reasonably free or democratic society, there will always be arguments that a policy is “counter-productive”, and many “feasible alternatives” (such as doing nothing) tabled. As such, almost any failed policy of a modern democracy will qualify as folly by Tuchman’s definition.

For democracies, it seems that to qualify as folly a policy should have nearly overwhelming public support (rather than merely being pursued by a group) at least at its inception. Sadly, the examples I’m thinking of easily meet this criterion as well.

The World’s Favorite Conspiracy Theory

Since it’s timely to do so, I’ve been thinking a little about the assassination of JFK. (Oh no! thinks the alert reader and promptly closes this web page.) I guess there are three basic viewpoints on this event:

  1. A lot of people assume Lee Harvey Oswald did it alone, heck stranger things have happened. Ho hum, what’s on TV tonight?
  2. A lot of people assume there was some kind of complex conspiracy, we’ll never know the truth about it any more than we’ll know what was in Nixon’s blank spots, whether Reagan remembered those meetings, if Bush was “out of the loop”, or whatever. Ho hum, what’s on TV tonight?
  3. Then there’s conspiracy nuts.

It’s not exactly clear where the division between category 2 and category 3 lies. In my brief review of the current “literature” I see that one fellow claims he can prove that the Zapruder film was a very clever fake. As a former Super-8 afficionado, I find this credible. 8mm movie film (super or otherwise) is incredibly lousy and faking it would probably be well within the capabilities of government agencies; but why bother?

More disturbingly, Newsweek (usually the Democrat’s answer to TIME) has an article calling for the CIA to finally disclose what it knows (and hasn’t already shredded) about Lee Harvey Oswald. Fascinatingly, this is written by Gerald Posner, author of “Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK” (which claims to definitively settle the matter). Indeed, the entire article is disingenuous. Posner claims that “the massive document release of the past decade reinforces the growing concensus that Oswald alone killed the president”. A more accurate statement may have been: “following the massive document release … many, including this writer, have concluded that…”

I am not aware of any such concensus, or even of anyone having changed their minds following any massive release of documents.

But what set me off was an article in the local free newspaper written by someone claiming to have once been a staunch conspiracy theorist who was converted along with his even more conspiracy-befuddled friends when he read “Oswald” by Norman Mailer. Aside from having gotten the title of the book wrong, he seems to have been convinced by a book that is not trying to do any such convincing. This seems like another highly suspect piece of persuasive writing. Mailer, as best I can judge without having read his book, has pieced together the life of Oswald. It’s a character study.

The best face you can put on the evidence available is, as far as I can see, this:

Lee Harvey Oswald may have shot at the president, but it is highly unlikely he hit him. The evidence that Oswald actually took the rifle to the Book Depository that day is utterly implausible, so at minimum he moved it there earlier or had an accomplice.

It is highly likely that at least one other person may have shot the president, or at the president. It is highly likely that the fatal shot was fired by someone other than Oswald (from somewhere other than the Book Depository).

More shots were fired than are admitted by the Warren Commission. Probably far more.

It is highly unlikely that Oswald fired the fatal shot, since he fired from the wrong direction.

When it became obvious that some of the perpetrators had, most likely, escaped cleanly, the FBI arranged the evidence it had into a neat, tidy package. It would probably have stood up fine in most courthouses of the day, but falls apart under scrutiny. As anyone with a passing familiarity with the FBI under Hoover (and even perhaps now) would know, this was standard operating practice for the FBI, why change it for a presidential assassination?

Probably the favorite claim of conspiracy nuts is that the number of key witnesses to die of unnatural causes within ten years of the assassination is so large as to exceed any reasonable probability. Having looked at this list, I have a simple explanation: a huge number of the people who died were connected to the mafia. Remove them and the list seems much more reasonable. Now, for an explanation of why so many of the key witnesses to the assassination were mob-connected, I can only refer you to James Ellroy’s excellent work of fiction, “American Tabloid”. (As distinct from Posner’s “non-fiction”.)

My favorite dismissal of conspiracy theories goes like this: “Surely if there were some vast conspiracy, someone would have come forward by now and blown the lid on it.” Of course, this is at best stupid and at worst disingenuous. So many people have come forward to blow lids on it that it’s impossible to tell whom to believe. The problem isn’t a lack of testimony, the problem is sorting signal from noise.

When I was a child, parents (including my mother) still told their children to eat carrots because carrots were scientifically proven to be good for one’s eyes. In fact, no such scientific proof exists; it was the result of a disinformation campaign by the English during WWII to cover up the fact that their night fighters had radar (they claimed their pilots were eating carrots to improve their night vision).

Similarly, it appears that the “alien landing” at Roswell was a simple hoax perpetrated by the US Air Force to cover up the crash of a secret experimental aircraft. Of course, maybe it’s possible that we’ve been reaping benefits from studying alien technology ever since (just look at our magnificent Space Shuttle!) and were it not for this the superior Soviet system would have “buried us” with its 200lb vacuum cleaners, etc.. Somehow, I think not.

So I guess I fall somewhere in category 2 (although some adherents of category 1 make no distinction between categories 2 and 3 — you either believe in Oswald’s magic bullet — two magic bullets if you’re Posner — or you’re a nut). To quote Southpark: “dumb dumb dumb”.

Lying Begins at Home

I’ve just finished reading Al Franken’s “Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them”. I read this book after considerable internal debate. I know I pretty much agree with Franken’s point of view, since I’ve read snippets of “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot”, and I really don’t see the point of reading books that preach to the choir. In fact, I’ve seriously considered reading either Anne Coulter or Bill O’Reilly on the basis that one should “know one’s enemy”, but both of them just make me feel angry.

In general, it seems to me that the media treat Al Franken as being the “liberal equivalent” of Anne Coulter (a woman who claims all liberals are traitors to the USA, while conveniently forgetting that Ronald Reagan broke his oath of office and then perjured himself about it — or was simply unfit for office — and all in the interests of Hondurans and Nicaraguans having the right to work for $0.10/h in sweatshops). Aside from technical differences — e.g. Al Franken is funny; Anne Coulter isn’t — I really don’t think they’re similar at all. The real difference is that Al Franken is actually quite “fair and balanced” — he is reasonably well-informed (with a definitely liberal viewpoint) and has a grip on reality — while Anne Coulter is either a bald-faced liar or completely nuts. Or both.

So where are the liberal liars? Or if liberal liars are less common or less popular, why is this so?

I have a theory!

The really nutty right wingers in the US seem mainly to be a peculiar form of Christian who thinks that Jesus Christ was in favor of tax cuts for the rich, upholding the establishment, and that anyone they consider socially undesirable should be locked up in overcrowded prisons. In other words, people whose core beliefs involve willful ignorance or self-deception. To paraphrase John Kenneth Galbraith, part of the popularity of the Bible stems from its inconsistencies: it’s possible to read into the Bible almost any set of prejudices. For example, it’s easy to find excuses for sexism and racism and slavery and exploiting animals in the Bible (and many have). But there’s really no way to read tax breaks for the rich into the teachings of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t say “That thing about a rich man getting into heaven and a camel getting through the eye of the needle, well I was exaggerating.” The only way to be a right wing Christian is to be (a) utterly ignorant of the Bible, or (b) self-deceptive. Or both.

It’s just a theory.