The Mountains of Instead

From The New Criterion

It takes but a slight acquaintance with the newspaper business to see that the large corporations which run America’s newspapers are worried sick about the demographic profile of their product. The average age of newspaper readers in this country is somewhere in the mid-fifties, and the paucity of more youthful readers has led a number of the established companies, including the owners of the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Dallas Morning News, recently to set up separate, youth-orientated papers to compete with the parent product in the same market. This they do by offering the much abbreviated news-sheet approach that busy, non-reading young people with many electronic sources of news available to them are supposed to favor. The Dallas project, called Quick, was rushed into production ahead of schedule in November because of a rival start-up called A.M. Journal Express.

At the time Eric Celeste, a writer for an alternative newspaper called The Dallas Observer wrote what I took to be a not-entirely facetious article pointing to a potentially fatal lacuna in the kiddie papers being produced by established newspaper companies.”If you want your newspaper to appeal to young people,” he advised his own paper’s new competitors, “you must be willing to print the word —” But then you know what the word is don’t you? It’s the same word that writers used first to shock, in the days of Joyce and D.H. Lawrence, and then, since Norman Mailer misspelled it in The Naked and the Dead, as a kind of signifier of authenticity. Amazingly, after more than half a century, this is how Mr Celeste still sees it. “Smartly written publications must be willing to offend those of average or below-average intelligence, and newspapers will never do that.”

Perhaps anticipating the objection that it takes no very elevated IQ to use this word, Celeste attempts to explain himself. It seems that it is not so much intelligence that he means as reticence or a sense of decorum. Here I am forced to paraphrase, as Mr Celeste himself hasn’t the wit to make his own argument. But I infer that he thinks such a sense of decorum is a species of dishonesty, and that any life which includes sexual activity must therefore include verbal allusion to same, and that in the most vulgar and obscene terms, or risk incurring a charge of hypocrisy. “Young people want the world as they see it: without filters,” he writes. Because they use this word in conversation and because they do the thing which it describes when it is not functioning as a mere expletive, they want the word in their newspapers too. “That’s their world, and if you wanna live in it, you’d better print it.”

As an explanation of the peculiar functioning of this linguistic register — a long-standing taboo whose violation is by now also of long-standing yet still seems a violation — this leaves something to be desired, but about the basic point Mr Celeste may well be right. At any rate, John Kerry, the junior senator from Massachusetts seems to think so because he used the word in an interview with Rolling Stone, another paper said to appeal to the young, in what could only have been a desperate attempt to administer CPR to his flagging presidential campaign. When asked by the magazine’s interviewer, Will Dana, “Did you feel you were blindsided by [Howard] Dean’s success?” Kerry replied, and again I paraphrase, that he had, in voting for the war himself, expected Dean to oppose it programmatically but that he had not expected George Bush to make of the war a — and here he used a familiar compound construction of the offensive word with “up” which could, interestingly enough, also have described the state of his own campaign.

Hilariously, the White House Chief of Staff, Mr Andrew Card, demanded on behalf of President Bush and the American people an apology for Kerry’s offense to those, presumably of advanced age and/or average or below average intelligence, who might disapprove of such language in a prospective president, and was met with this stinging reply by a Kerry’s spokesman, Stephanie Cutter: “John Kerry saw combat up close, and he doesn’t mince words when it comes to politicians who put ideological recklessness ahead of American troops. . .I think the American people would rather Card and the rest of the White House staff spend more time on fixing Bush’s flawed policy in Iraq than on Sen. Kerry’s language.” By this time, the story was vying with that of the President and the Thanksgiving turkey-cum-centerpiece in Baghdad as the dumbest story of the year and the reductio ad maximum absurdum of the media scandal-culture.

Yet it masked an instructive example of the way in which that culture is coming more and more to function. For the assumption behind Kerry’s accusation that the war had been reduced by the President’s conduct of it to the shambolic condition of the Kerry-for-President juggernaut was that the standard by which success and failure are measured in politics is now entirely subjective and so virtually identical with that of the all-knowing punditocracy, who have never been shy about announcing the success or failure of measures on the day they are introduced and on no better grounds than their own say-so. If you knew only what you read in Paul Krugman’s column in the New York Times for instance, you would wonder every day that anything continues to function in America, so comprehensive is the failure of the Bush administration in the portrait he paints of it. Does even the opposition take this stuff seriously? Even the most rabid Bush-hater must be aware at some level that he would have to be supposed to get something right, if only by chance.

But Kerry’s announcement of failure in Iraq is by way of becoming a commonplace on the left — and so, of course, it no longer needs to be justified. Not long before, the New York Times had editorialized that “the failure of American policy in Iraq” — also, by the way, in Afghanistan — “in recent months has been painfully visible.” Really? How so? The writer does not of course say, but he appears to mean nothing more than that there are still attacks on American troops there. If your definition of success is nothing short of a complete cessation of violence, who can ever succeed? Here the Times thinks it not worth even making a pretense of giving credit to the American administration in Iraq — or in Washington — for its attempts to impose civil order in the country. Anything less than perfect security is no security, ergo “failure.” As with Kerry’s comment, the only acceptable standard appears to be a hypothetical perfection which is assumed, absent any compelling reason to suppose that the pundit (or rival politician) could not himself have achieved it, to be the norm.

In the same spirit, General Wesley Clark claims that “despite the worldwide outpouring of sympathy for the United States in the aftermath of 9/11, we squandered the chance to create a strong international coalition that could address the problems of terrorism beyond the limits of sheer US military power, and also help to share some of the enormous political, diplomatic and economic burdens that the struggle would entail.”And just how did we “squander” this chance? At what point did the “outpouring of sympathy” translate itself into military and diplomatic promissory notes which we then failed to redeem? At no point, actually. Clark like Kerry merely takes the out-of-power politician’s license to assume that if he had been in power things would have been, well, different. This is made easier for him by his contention that the war in Iraq was a “distraction” from the war against al-Qaeda and therefore that the alternative to conquering Saddam Hussein was conquering al-Qaeda — surely a worthy goal but one no closer to being achieved for not accomplishing the other.

But perhaps, just as Richard Nixon claimed to have a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam in 1968, Clark has a secret plan for winning the war on terrorism? I hope so, for what his public plan consists of is nothing but the panacea prescribed by the anti-Bush coalition for everything: increased international cooperation. In Afghanistan, Clark writes, “the United States was left wrestling with a hundred governments bilaterally — an enormously difficult endeavour in something so complicated and sensitive as the war on terror. So what sounded easy at the top — a ‘floating coalition’ — proved far more difficult to enact at the bottom of the government, where much of the heavy burden was being undertaken. Consequently, despite the thousands of al-Qaeda suspects detained worldwide, the network was (and remains) far from broken.” As non sequiturs go, that is a real doozy, implying that greater international cooperation between national police forces would have seen off al-Qaeda by now when, as — for once it is true to say — everybody knows, the problem isn’t the suspects we have identified or caught but the ones we haven’t.

This kind of intellectual sleight-of-hand is typical of Clark’s book, Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism and the American Empire — whose title implies that it offers something like a blueprint for fighting a war against terrorists. Anyone attempting to use it in this way, however, would find it worryingly short on the specifics, even of what he would have done had he been in Bush’s place. “The way to beat terrorists,” writes Clark, “was to take away their popular support. Target their leaders individually, demonstrate their powerlessness, roll up the organisations from the bottom. I thought it would be better to drive them back into one or two states that had given them support, and then focus our efforts there.” Sounds great, doesn’t it? Simple too! A thousand pities that our moron president didn’t think up such a killer plan for himself, or at least put Clark in charge. Because, see, that way we wouldn’t have any of these problems we’re having in Iraq today.

The willingness of people to believe such arrant nonsense is obviously not unrelated to their political predilections — which, in the media as in the Democratic party — are all anti-Bush. But there is another reason why the media and, increasingly, politicians too are so ready to measure every reality against a fantastical standard of perfection. It is that, that way, everything that happens which is not entirely wonderful can be presented as a scandal. This occurred to me recently [November 20, 2003] when I saw the headline to a Washington Post story by Peter Behr that read: “Probers Say Blackout in August Was Avoidable.” Do they indeed? said I to the phantom headline writer, I think not aloud. You astonish me. What an extraordinary thing! Who would ever have guessed, without the investigations of the “probers” to guide us, that the system which broke down might not have broken down — at least not if we had known that it was going to break down, and when it was going to break down, and taken precautionary measures to prevent it from breaking down?

Nincompoop! Every misfortune is avoidable if you know of it in advance and have the means to prevent it and can apply them specifically. The only problem is that you never do know in advance and so your measures must always be general and not specific ones. Who had decided that this was news, or that these “probers” — a “three-month task force investigation” by the Department of Energy and the Canadian Ministry of Same — were needed to tell us of it? Last year, another task force, headed by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, of the Council on Foreign Relations was insisting that the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001, were also avoidable. At the time it was accepting the congratulations of the media for having “predicted” seven months before the event that America would be attacked somewhere, some time soon, by somebody (See “Shooting for Literary Immortality” in the December, 2002, New Criterion). A congressional report on the attacks by a joint committee of the House and Senate intelligence committees issued last July came to a similar conclusion, faulting the relevant security agencies on the grounds that, well, they should have known.

To be fair, both reports identify a number of reasonable and general measures which were not taken and which would have made a difference had they been taken. In the case of the blackout, the “probers” found that the control room operators of the FirstEnergy Corporation of Akron, Ohio were not properly trained, while trees which it was the responsibility of others of the corporation’s employees to trim were not trimmed as, according to normal prophylactic practices, they ought to have been. But it was obvious that the purpose of the reports, like that of all similar exercises, was less to apportion blame than to deflect it. Even if the blackout had been entirely, as it certainly was partly, a matter of bad luck, some task force or another would have had to be commissioned to come up with a series of recommendations for action, even pointless action, lest those in a position to gain some political advantage from the misfortune should be able to accuse those in authority of “doing nothing.”

Accordingly, the report produced a programmatic response from the Energy Secretary, Spencer Abraham, who pretended to a degree of indignation on behalf of the fact that power companies have hitherto been left to regulate themselves in these matters, presumably on the not unreasonable assumption that it is bad for them as well as for their customers when the power goes out. Nous avons changé tout cela, says the Secretary, his list of recommendations for action firmly in his hand. “There need to be consequences that are well known and enforceable,” for any future such instances of presumptive negligence, he said. “Very serious consequences.” Clearly, he was not thinking of such consequences as the power company’s going out of business, or its management’s being replaced by its board of directors. Equally clearly, he has absorbed the bureaucratic principle that there must always be someone to blame — someone “accountable,” to use the jargon of the trade, within a hierarchy of authority.

The Post’s headline was therefore merely a reminder of how quickly the passion for accountability can become a presumptive need to turn every conceivable contingency to political advantage — or to prevent the other side from doing so — particularly where, as in the case of September 11th or the blackout, popular passions have been aroused. Every misfortune thus becomes a temptation that is all-but irresistible to opposition candidates for public office, and especially candidates for president, among whom General Clark has I think become the first directly to blame the Bush administration — as opposed to a more decorous hinting at blame — for the deaths at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Others can hardly be far behind him, though the rest of us might do well to remember in the midst of their enthusiasm for identifying the guilty parties that some share of guilt for the 3000 American dead ought to be apportioned to the hijackers themselves.

Whether you are selling newspapers to adults or to children, the demand for stories — at least for the stories that you think are good ones — is quite likely to exceed the supply without some such effort to manufacture scandal, to make non-stories into stories in order to win and keep readers or viewers. That’s why we’ve become accustomed, almost without realizing it, to seeing less reporting of what happened and more imagining what might have happened in some set of ideal circumstances which can plausibly be made a reproach to those who have had imperfectly to deal with real circumstances.On the same front page with its report on the blackout task force, the Washington Post took another plunge into hypothetical waters with a story by Peter Slevin headed: “Wrong Turn at a Postwar Crossroads,” which speculated that the decision by America’s proconsul in Baghdad to disband the Iraqi army was a terrible blunder. “‘This was a mistake, to dissolve the army and the police,’ said Ayad Alawi, head of the security committee of the Iraqi Governing Council. ‘We absolutely not only lost time. The vacuum allowed our enemies to regroup and to infiltrate the country.’”

General Anthony Zinni, U.S.M.C. (ret.), described as “a vocal opponent of the war,” agrees, according to Slevin, calling the decision to disband the “worst mistake” — presumably among many lesser mistakes — of the Bush administration since the war. To be sure, Slevin allows, “supporters of the decision counter that the army posed a potential threat to a fledgling Iraqi governing authority and U.S. forces — and that it was so second-rate and so infiltrated with Baath Party figures that it could not be salvaged,” but the evidence for the “mistake” hypothesis lay only in the outcome of the decision. “Now, the Americans are trying to recover — including rehiring some of the same soldiers they demobilized — at what one top Defense Department official called ‘warp speed.’ And while the administration’s handling of the Iraqi army has been widely viewed as a fundamental decision of the occupation, a number of U.S. officials and analysts” — all of them, of course, anonymous — “are saying it was fundamentally wrong.”

Their view is summed up in the words of “a former intelligence officer who recently returned from Iraq” and who, says Slevin, “said more could have been done.” Once again, one has that talking-to-the-newspaper moment. When can it not be said that “more could have been done”? The question is what should have been done, and the answer to it is often no more knowable in retrospect than it was in advance. The article itself acknowledges the school of thought which holds that, in effect, less should have been done. Who knows which is right? And when, at length, we think we do know, it is only by refusing to speculate further on the range of outcomes — the better or the worse — which could have come from the decision not taken.

Clear, unscaleable ahead
Rise the Mountains of Instead,

wrote W.H. Auden —

From whose cold, cascading streams,
None may drink except in dreams.

What strikes me is not so much that politicians and media people should delight in inhabiting this dream-world when it suits their political purposes as that there are so few voices raised to remind us that it is a dream-world, and that it is illegitimate to pretend that the results of all political decisions could have been, and should have been, foreseen. Even easily foreseen.Where this is in fact the case, the decisions are all easy ones — which no one would presumably say of the decision as to what to do about the Iraqi army. It is fair enough in politics for those who make bad decisions to be made to pay a political price for them, even though they could not have known any better, but it smacks of the insufferably self-righteous for those who are in a position to make them pay the price to keep insisting that they should have known better, as they themselves would have done in their place. I wonder if it is this prevailing spirit of priggishness which is really turning the youngsters off the mainstream media.

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