Thursday, December 30, 2004

Re: The Times and its Columnists

----- Original Message -----

From: hoybean@comcast.net
To: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
Sent: Wednesday, December 29, 2004 10:48 AM
Subject: Re: The Times and its Columnists

Dear Larry:

By far, the number one movie last week was a silly, inept, and worthless piece of film entitled, "Meet The Fockers." While part of the draw may be due to Barbra Streisand playing the mother Focker, the choice of movie goers says a lot about our contemporary culture. Dumb is in.

Harvey

-------------- Original message --------------

December 29, 2004
Re: Part I: The Times And Its Columnists.
Part II: Competence and Costs.
From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
VelvelOnNationalAffairs.blogspot.com

Dear Colleagues:

Two days before Christmas this blog criticized a Times columnist, William Safire, and specifically criticized a column he wrote on December 22d. The December 23d blog also took to task a December 22d news story in the Times entitled Fighting Is The Only Option, Americans Say.
On December 24th another Times columnist, the much ballyhooed Thomas Friedman, wrote a column saying that the Iraq insurgents are the face of pure evil, are murderers, are horrible fascists, and that we are fighting for freedom and democracy in Iraq. The much publicized Friedman then went on to say that we may lose in Iraq because of the "defiantly wrong way" that Rumsfeld has pursued the war, the tolerance for this of Bush, Cheney, right wing Republican and others, and other reasons too. Among the other reasons are that "most Europeans, having been made stupid by their own weakness, would rather see America fail in Iraq then [sic: than] lift a finger for free and fair elections there."

Well, Friedman is right about Rumsfeld’s incompetence, and the tolerance of this by (the equally or more inept) Bush, Cheney and company. And nobody in his right mind, however opposed he may be to the Bush family’s latest dynastic war, is going to let Friedman or anyone else get him in the position of claiming that the Iraqi insurgents are nice guys or democrats: Nobody is going to chant the equivalent of Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh. But to say that the Europeans have been made stupid by their own weakness is really a bit much, is just a bit arrogant, isn’t it? Especially when it is the Europeans who seem to be gaining strength while America loses it (viz, in the financial realm, the dollar versus the Euro). The arrogant Friedman -- I have never heard anyone accuse him of not being arrogant -- seems to know all about The Lexus And The Olive Tree, but to be oblivious to the saga of The Dollar and The Euro and the underlying reasons for it.

Because of this writer’s views about Safire, the Times December 22d news story slanted towards the necessity of fighting on and on in Iraq, Friedman, and Friedman’s December 23rd crapola, this blogger was delighted to see that it took Times’ readers no time at all to lambaste these clowns, their clownish positions, and the Times’ clownish, slanted so-called "news story" of December 22d. By December 23d, several letters to the editor lambasting the news story and its ideas appeared in the Times. Since only a tiny percentage of letters are printed, who knows how many letters blasting the Times’ story may have been sent to the paper. By December 24th, letters blasting Safire and Friedman appeared in the Times. Again, who knows how many letters may have been sent to it?

So this writer is pleased that there are Times readers whose opinions of what these columnists write, and of some Times articles, is no higher than mine, at least in these instances. Of course, one might also say that the derelict recent columns are merely symptomatic of an underlying problem. Just as the Times once played down (and mainly ignored) what was happening to Jews in the Nazi death camps lest it be perceived as a "Jewish" newspaper, today the Times wants conservative representation on its op ed page in order to diminish criticism of it as supposedly being a liberal newspaper. Seeking this cover, the in-reality-not-very-liberal Times has employed columnists of dubious thought and judgment. Two of them, Friedman and Nicholas Kristof, appear to be guys who are always in motion traveling around the globe, which apparently enables them to pretend to know everything about everything. Not since the liberal Ralph Nader had hoards of p! eople writing books for him on every imaginable subject has one person claimed to know so much about so much as Friedman and Kristof each claim to know. Yet the views they express are often laughable or simply outrageous.

Of course, I suppose some people would claim that they are not conservatives. Well, if they truly are not conservatives, but rather are middle of the roaders or something, you could have fooled me, and Friedman’s December 23rd column did.
Wordsmith Safire has previously been commented on here. Then there is David Brooks. In one person’s judgment, about one column in five written by Brooks is brilliant. The rest are largely rubbish.

All of which raises the question of why can’t the august Times find conservative writers whose quality is such that even liberals like me feel a need to read them? There are people like Thomas Sowell and Glenn Loury in this world, after all. There are people who are like Richard Posner but are not constrained by being judges. So it really should not be necessary for one to think that he needs to read The Times’ conservative columnists about as much as he needs to read the editorials and op ed page of The Wall Street Journal.

But now let me throw a bouquet to The Times. Its Bob Herbert is one of the best columnists in America today. He is right-on about so much. It’s not just that he is liberal (so that I am prejudicially prone to like him). There are lots of liberals who are not worth a damn as columnists, after all, who are not worth reading. It is, more importantly, that often he is poignant, he calls ’em as they are, and he is on the side of justice. One can see much or all this in his column of December 24th (which is set forth in its entirely as an attachment to this post). Let me quote here a few paragraphs.

This week's hideous attack in Mosul reminded me of those long ago days [of Viet Nam]. Once again American troops sent on a fool's errand are coming home in coffins, or without their right arms or left legs, or paralyzed, or so messed up mentally they'll never be the same. Troops are being shoved two or three times into the furnace of Iraq by astonishingly incompetent leaders who have been unable or unwilling to provide them with the proper training, adequate equipment or even a clearly defined mission.

It is a mind-boggling tragedy. And the suffering goes far beyond the men and women targeted by the insurgents. Each death in Iraq blows a hole in a family and sets off concentric circles of grief that touch everyone else who knew and cared for the fallen soldier. If the human stakes were understood well enough by the political leaders of this country, it might make them a little more reluctant to launch foolish, unnecessary and ultimately unwinnable wars.
* * * * *
We have completely lost our way with this fiasco in Iraq. The president seems almost perversely out of touch. "The idea of democracy taking hold in what was a place of tyranny and hatred and destruction is such a hopeful moment in the history of the world," he said this week.

The truth, of course, is that we can't even secure the road to the Baghdad airport, or protect our own troops lining up for lunch inside a military compound. The coming elections are a slapstick version of democracy. International observers won't even go to Iraq to monitor the elections because it's too dangerous. They'll be watching, as if through binoculars, from Jordan.
These paragraphs are jam packed with savagely pertinent ideas. I wish to focus on two of them, although it almost feels as if isolating two of them inevitably will be an unhappy automatic down grading of the others, which certainly is not my intent.

One of the two ideas is that the political leaders of this country do not understand the human stakes sufficiently well, or else they would be "a little more reluctant to launch foolish, unnecessary, and ultimately unwinnable wars." In this view Herbert is coming fairly close to an idea that has been and will be continuously repeated here (since my own mind, unlike that of media people, tends to run to a continual focus on continuously relevant basic principles.) Our leaders don’t understand or care about the human cost because it is not they, their children, their friends and associates, or the children of their friends and associates who fight these wars on the ground and get killed. It is other people and other people’s children. So our leaders don’t give a damn about the deaths (except as the deaths affect them politically), and give a damn even less because they are not people of compassion or empathy. We would have fewer wars if the leaders had to reckon with the po! ssible deaths of their own kids in combat, if, that is, George the Second’s two playgirl daughters were at risk in Fallujah or Mosul, or Cheney’s daughter were, or members of Winnetka Don’s family were.

The other point is Herbert’s statement that our leaders are "astonishingly incompetent." That Herbert said this causes this blogger to raise yet again a question raised here before. Why is it that, apparently, only African American columnists in the major media will call it like it is, will say, that is, that these clowns in high office are clowns, are incompetent? The question has been asked here before, and there was no reply. I asked it in person of an African American gentleman who, after thinking about it, said he could imagine two possible reasons. One was that what the African American columnists were saying was in accord with what their (African American) constituents think. The other was that they knew that, if attacked for saying the truth, they could raise the defense of racism. Maybe one or both of these reasons are the cause of the willingness of African American columnists to point out that the emperor lacks clothes, that Bush and his colleague! s are incompetent. I don’t know. What I do know is that it is a moral disgrace that non-African American columnists in the major media refuse to say that Bush and company are incompetent. Yet, despite this moral disgrace, this moral delinquency, newspapers and columnists want us to believe they care about and print the truth? Gimme a break.
Part Two: Competence And Costs.

With regard to competence, let me raise again a point discussed in part here in the blog of December 23rd. Where will this Iraqi war end? How many American deaths will there be? To put it crudely and bitterly, how many American deaths will it take to dissuade Bush and his followers to forego this apparently doomed crusade that even supporters like Tom Friedman admit has been handled incompetently? As said on December 23rd, numbers like 10,000 American dead, or 20,000, or more once seemed as inconceivable in Nam as they do today in Iraq, but Johnson and McNamara and Bush and Nixon and Kissinger -- the Viet Nam criminals -- got sucked in and sucked in until the total was 59,000 American dead -- and three million Viet Namese. How many is it going to be in Iraq?

Government and peoples historically have a way of not understanding that war will and does do this to the contenders. Everyone on both sides thought the Civil war would be a short and glorious romp in some fields. None of the leaders or peoples of Europe foresaw ten million dead in World War I. The German leaders and people did not foresee what would happen to them in World War II. Nobody on our side foresaw 59,000 dead in Nam. George Bush the Second, whose only war service consists mainly of dodging combat and then not even going to meetings, has given no sign of understanding any of this. Neither have his friends, Dick Cheney (who says he had better things to do than fight in Nam), Winnetka Don Rumsfeld, or Paul Wolfowitz, none of whom has ever heard a shot fired in anger but all of whom have -- or had -- grandiose ideas of world domination (like Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin and other ultimate losers). So as I have asked before, where will it end? How many American deaths will there have to be? How many Iraqi deaths?

You know, when corporations plan a major new project, they consider the expected costs as well as the expected benefits. Perhaps George the Second doesn’t know this, because his only experience in business was as a serial failure. But surely Dick and Don know it, since they led major corporations (albeit the only reasons they were picked for this was because they are politicians). Early on in this mess, Larry Lindsey and Eric Shensiki estimated that the costs of the Iraq adventure would be something like $200 billion in money and at least 200,000 men for pacification. For making these estimates, which now look quite low, they were fired. Our leaders did not want the public to consider that this might be the cost of this latest War of the Bushes, lest the public and Congress find these costs of adventure unacceptable and the adventure itself to therefore be undesirable. (Is it purely an accident, or mere bad luck, that our three major wars since Nam have all come under the! Bushes -- hence the "Wars of the Bushes" -- whereas people like Ford, Carter, Reagan and Clinton had the good sense not to get involved in major wars or to cut our losses and get out real quick before situations became major wars (e.g., in Beirut and Somalia)? Why do I not think that the Wars of the Bushes are mere bad luck or sheer accident?)

Even if the estimates of Lindsey and Shensiki were low, however, the question I have is how did they arrive at those estimates? One would assume that, especially in a culture as possessed by business methodologies as ours, there must be methods of estimating the costs of a war in money and lives under alternative scenarios of what could occur. One presumes that under one scenario, the cost in Americans dead might be 200. Under another it might be 2,000. Under a third, 20,000. If the Pentagon does not have such alternative scenarios of what could happen, and does not have them despite all of its powerful Cray-type computers and America’s worship of business methods, then something is really wrong, then incompetence is as rampant in our military leadership as in our political leadership.

So what are the alternative scenarios, and why isn’t anyone in the thoughtless traditional media asking this question? In forming their views of what course we should pursue, legislators and citizens need this kind of information as much as some business, even if run by incompetents like Dick and Don, needs information on the projected costs and expected benefits of a project. Can the traditional media not see this rather obvious point? Can the politicians in Congress not see it? One wonders, after all, what would be the reactions of people whom The Times’ slanted article of December 22nd quoted for the proposition that now that we are in Iraq we must carry on, if they were to learn that under one, perhaps likely, scenario the expected final total of American dead (which now stands at about 1,350 would be 10,000 if we continue to try to defeat an insurgency in Iraq. Would these people still say we have no option but to carry on? What! if the expected total under a plausible scenario were 15,000 American dead? As I’ve said before, and as bears continuous reiteration because it is so basic an idea, such numbers once seemed inconceivable in Nam, yet they were far surpassed there.

Of course, if alternative scenarios exist, George the Second, George the Ultra Secretive, no more wants them made public than Johnson wanted Congress and every day Americans to know the scope and costs of intended efforts in Nam. And for the same reason: knowing the truth, or at least what the possibilities were, legislators and citizens might recoil, might say forget it. They might say we want no part of this and, to boot, we don’t believe your bovine defecation about what and how much is at stake. But that George the Second is afraid of this is no reason -- is no reason -- why legislators, the press, and citizens should not be asking the question of what are the scenarios? What are the expected costs in deaths and serious wounds under alternative scenarios? What are the expected benefits? Why do you expect those benefits given reactions of other countries to date? These questions have not been asked to date. The traditional media, like so many others, has,! as always, been both dumb and asleep at the switch even though assessments of possible costs is, as they say, as American as apple pie.

You know, I have been in the academic world for 28 of the 38 years since 1966. For much of that period schools of journalism and schools of education, as a by and large proposition, as a generality, were regarded, and for all I know may still be regarded, as taking the weakest students, the students who could not have made it in economics, philosophy, science, English literature, history or, after undergraduate school, in law. One can’t help wondering whether we are paying the price for this in today’s media and in K-12 education. One also can’t help wondering whether the situation today isn’t even worse than it otherwise would be because the rise of television -- which almost all journalists seem to aspire to in one way or another -- has led to the rise of often brainless face men -- good looking men and women, without much gear upstairs, who can read fluently off a teleprompter.*


*This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at velvel@mslaw.edu. Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

December 24, 2004
OP-ED COLUMNIST
Families Pay the Price
By BOB HERBERT

It's like watching your son playing in traffic, and there's nothing you can do." - Janet Bellows, mother of a soldier who has been assigned to a second tour in Iraq.
Back in the 1960's, when it seemed as if every other draftee in the Army was being sent to Vietnam, I was sent off to Korea, where I was assigned to the intelligence office of an engineer battalion.

Twenty years old and half a world away from home, I looked forward to mail call the way junkies craved their next fix. My teenage sister, Sandy, got all of her high school girlfriends to write to me, which led some of the guys in my unit to think I was some kind of Don Juan. I considered it impolite to correct any misconceptions they might have had.
You could depend on the mail for an emotional lift - most of the time. But there were times when I would open an envelope and read, in the inky handwriting of my mother or father or sister, that a friend of mine, someone I had grown up with or gone to school with, or a new friend I had met in the Army, had been killed in Vietnam. Just like that. Gone. Life over at 18, 19, 20.
I can still remember the weird feelings that would come over me in those surreal moments, including the irrational idea that I was somehow responsible for the death. In the twisted logic of grief, I would feel that if I had never opened the envelope, the person would still be alive. I remember being overwhelmed with the desire to reseal the letter in the envelope and bring my dead friend back to life.

This week's hideous attack in Mosul reminded me of those long ago days. Once again American troops sent on a fool's errand are coming home in coffins, or without their right arms or left legs, or paralyzed, or so messed up mentally they'll never be the same. Troops are being shoved two or three times into the furnace of Iraq by astonishingly incompetent leaders who have been unable or unwilling to provide them with the proper training, adequate equipment or even a clearly defined mission.

It is a mind-boggling tragedy. And the suffering goes far beyond the men and women targeted by the insurgents. Each death in Iraq blows a hole in a family and sets off concentric circles of grief that touch everyone else who knew and cared for the fallen soldier. If the human stakes were understood well enough by the political leaders of this country, it might make them a little more reluctant to launch foolish, unnecessary and ultimately unwinnable wars.

Lisa Hoffman and Annette Rainville of the Scripps Howard News Service have reported, in an extremely moving article, that nearly 900 American children have lost a parent to the war in Iraq. More than 40 fathers died without seeing their babies.
The article begins with a description of a deeply sad 4-year-old named Jack Shanaberger, whose father was killed in an ambush in March. Jack told his mother he didn't want to be a father when he grew up. "I don't want to be a daddy," he said, "because daddies die."
Six female soldiers who died in the war left a total of 10 children. This is a new form of wartime heartbreak for the U.S.

We have completely lost our way with this fiasco in Iraq. The president seems almost perversely out of touch. "The idea of democracy taking hold in what was a place of tyranny and hatred and destruction is such a hopeful moment in the history of the world," he said this week.
The truth, of course, is that we can't even secure the road to the Baghdad airport, or protect our own troops lining up for lunch inside a military compound. The coming elections are a slapstick version of democracy. International observers won't even go to Iraq to monitor the elections because it's too dangerous. They'll be watching, as if through binoculars, from Jordan.
Nobody has a plan. We don't have enough troops to secure the country, and the Iraqi forces have shown neither the strength nor the will to do it themselves. Election officials are being murdered in the streets. The insurgency is growing in both strength and sophistication. At least three more marines and one soldier were killed yesterday, ensuring the grimmest of holidays for their families and loved ones.

One of the things that President Bush might consider while on his current vacation is whether there are any limits to the price our troops should be prepared to pay for his misadventure in Iraq, or whether the suffering and dying will simply go on indefinitely.

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