Please invade me

Every now and then it’s fun to go back into history. Not far back, just enough to peak at public arguments concerning invading Iraq. War, as we know from much reading and history channel watching, can involve all of those things Mark Twain’s anti-war prayer speaks of:

>O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

Whatever the likelihood of any of that–or the absence of even more likely things from that prayer–it’s a reminder of the dreadfully serious consequences of justified or unjustified belligerence. War is pestilence.

Here are three paragraphs from a prewar article by George Packer:

>One chilly evening in late November, a panel discussion on Iraq was convened at New York University. The participants were liberal intellectuals, and one by one they framed reasonable arguments against a war in Iraq: inspections need time to work; the Bush doctrine has a dangerous agenda; the history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East is not encouraging. The audience of 150 New Yorkers seemed persuaded.

>Then the last panelist spoke. He was an Iraqi dissident named Kanan Makiya, and he said, ”I’m afraid I’m going to strike a discordant note.” He pointed out that Iraqis, who will pay the highest price in the event of an invasion, ”overwhelmingly want this war.” He outlined a vision of postwar Iraq as a secular democracy with equal rights for all of its citizens. This vision would be new to the Arab world. ”It can be encouraged, or it can be crushed just like that. But think about what you’re doing if you crush it.” Makiya’s voice rose as he came to an end. ”I rest my moral case on the following: if there’s a sliver of a chance of it happening, a 5 to 10 percent chance, you have a moral obligation, I say, to do it.”

>The effect was electrifying. The room, which just minutes earlier had settled into a sober and comfortable rejection of war, exploded in applause. The other panelists looked startled, and their reasonable arguments suddenly lay deflated on the table before them.

Their mistake was making reasonable arguments.

Morality tales

Sometimes you read the same column over and over again. Today provides one example. A still very confused Robert Samuelson writes:

>But the overriding reality seems almost un-American: We simply don’t have a solution for this problem. As we debate it, journalists should resist the temptation to portray global warming as a morality tale — as Newsweek did — in which anyone who questions its gravity or proposed solutions may be ridiculed as a fool, a crank or an industry stooge. Dissent is, or should be, the lifeblood of a free society.

A little context. Newsweek featured a story about industry-funded global warming deniers–the oil and auto-industry types that claim the global warming “consensus” isn’t all that, or that “consensus” shouldn’t be the basis of such judgments, or worse, that the whole thing is a hoax dreamed up by Al Gore for the purposes of self-aggrandizement.:

>Since the late 1980s, this well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change. Through advertisements, op-eds, lobbying and media attention, greenhouse doubters (they hate being called deniers) argued first that the world is not warming; measurements indicating otherwise are flawed, they said. Then they claimed that any warming is natural, not caused by human activities. Now they contend that the looming warming will be minuscule and harmless. “They patterned what they did after the tobacco industry,” says former senator Tim Wirth, who spearheaded environmental issues as an under secretary of State in the Clinton administration. “Both figured, sow enough doubt, call the science uncertain and in dispute. That’s had a huge impact on both the public and Congress.”

The article concerns the ridiculous amount of coverage the naysayers have gotten–especially in light of the strength of their view. But Samuelson seems to think this amounts to squelching dissent. Worse than this, he thinks global warming is an undeniable scientific fact. But he also seems to think that people who deny undeniable scientific facts ought to have equal time or consideration when it comes to public discourse–for every global warming story, perhaps, we ought to have a global warming denier present the “con” position. For every story about DNA, then, perhaps we ought to have someone represent the homuncular theory of human reproduction–dissent is the lifeblood of a democracy after all.

Few scientists would want to squelch dissent about any topic. But many would rather the media played things differently, that it represented scientific authorities (and cranks) in their proper context. Dissenters–such as science fiction novelists–perhaps ought not to get any coverage in a story about a scientific fact. But unfortunately that’s not the case. And the net result of the controversy style of press coverage is the confused mind of Robert Samuelson. While he thinks global warming is a reality we should do something about, he doubts whether anything can be done to stop it. Even he ought to realize that that is a separate question from whether it occurs.

Besides, this–like any other scientific question–is a fundamentally moral question. Do I believe things that have basis in reality, or do I deny them in the face of all evidence?

Special relation to the facts

In a comment on yesterday’s post about expertise, frequent commenter Matt K observes:

>If I need my car fixed I go to an automotive mechanic and not a plumber. When I need to get a good handle on some set of facts, say the historical/cultural circumstances of Iraq, I seek the knowledge of academics who are experts in that area. Politicians and their lackeys (aka pundits) are NOT the relevant experts on almost any matter. I don’t understand why a large bulk of the American public finds this hard to believe.

>We live in a society where we put a lot of trust into experts. Experts are people who we believe not only have more knowledge than we of certain subjects, but also who we believe are qualified to form solid well-informed opinions on those subjects, opinions that we can use to make good decisions. Pundits are certainly not experts, so we should trust there opinions no more than we would trust the opinion of any other non-expert. So we need to focus closely on their arguments since they have no special relation to the facts. And, when actual experts come to conclusions that differ from pundits we should cast a very critical eye toward the pundit’s arguments.

>So my point is that it is a very good thing to evaluate arguments found in op/ed pieces, but if we want to show the wider public the biggest weakness behind such foolish argumentation we need to help them understand the difference between experts and non-experts. Experts can make foolish arguments too, even in their area of expertise. But, the argument of the expert should begin at a different status than the argument of a non-expert. And, perhaps if Goldberg understood that then he wouldn’t say such foolish things.

He makes I think a number of important points about our impoverished public discourse. At the risk of generalization, public discourse (and by that I mean stuff that you’ll find on an op-ed page, or other similar public forum) is largely run by invested advocates. These are (1) pundits, people whose sole function consists in partisan advocacy of some variety (and there are many varieties–more on that another time), (2) members of ideologically defined “think tanks” whose sole function is, wait for it, advocacy (on special issues such as the economy, foreign policy, “family values” and so on) or (3) actual partisan political operatives (members of congress, or the administration) whose function again is to, you guessed it, advocate for their position. Don’t bother pointing out exceptions to the rule. They are few (Paul Krugman is a real economist at an Ivy League institution, but, at times unfortunately, he’s also a general pundit of everything).

It’s fairly rare that anyone other than these three classes of people finds her or his way onto an op-ed page. And now a number of rather famous bloggers types have simply replicated the kind of generalized a priori pontificating proper to the print pundit. You can probably guess who I mean. This is really unfortunate. The neat thing about blogging (not ours of course) is that it gives you greater access to people who know things. It’s too bad that some have chosen to replicate all of the defects of the op-ed page.

Back to the point. Among those who fall outside of these classes are academic (as well as other) experts. For the reasons Matt states above–the car mechanic reasons–you’d think we’d hear more from people with the kind of basic knowledge of the sundry areas of human knowledge. I think I can speak for a lot of people when I say that I don’t know much about anything, really. I’m especially ignorant of Middle Eastern cultures, history, economics, military strategy, to give a few recent and relevant examples. When called upon to think about these matters, I follow the advice of Gene Hackman in Heist: I think of someone who knows more than I do and I ask: what would she do?

After all, so many questions of vital public interest differ very little from the kinds of questions that interest me on a daily basis: how do I make crispy French fries? Start by asking Alton Brown.

Conquering opinions

In reference to a post last week about academic experts and the war (and pro-war liberal apologetics), I came across the following document (thanks samefacts):

>Advertisement in the New York Times
>Op-ed page


>As scholars of international security affairs, we recognize that war is sometimes necessary to ensure our national security or other vital interests. We also recognize that Saddam Hussein is a tyrant and that Iraq has defied a number of U.N. resolutions.

>But military force should be used only when it advances U.S. national interests. War with Iraq does not meet this standard:

>Saddam Hussein is a murderous despot, but no one has provided credible evidence that Iraq is cooperating with al Qaeda.

>Even if Saddam Hussein acquired nuclear weapons, he could not use them without suffering massive U.S. or Israeli retaliation.

>The first Bush Administration did not try to conquer Iraq in 1991 because it understood that doing so could spread instability in the Middle East, threatening U.S. interests. This remains a valid concern today.

>The United States would win a war against Iraq, but Iraq has military options–chemical and biological weapons, urban combat–that might impose significant costs on the invading forces and neighboring states.

>Even if we win easily, we have no plausible exit strategy. Iraq is a deeply divided society that the United States would have to occupy and police for many years to create a viable state.

>Al Qaeda poses a greater threat to the U.S. than does Iraq. War with Iraq will jeopardize the campaign against al Qaeda by diverting resources and attention from that campaign and by increasing anti-Americanism around the globe. The United States should maintain vigilant containment of Iraq – using its own assets and the resources of the United Nations – and be prepared to invade Iraq if it threatens to attack America or its allies. That is not the case today. We should concentrate instead on defeating al Qaeda.

>Roobert J. Art, Brandeis University
>Richard K. Betts, Columbia University
>Dale C. Copeland, University of Virginia
>Michael C. Desch, University of Kentucky
>Sumit Ganguly, University of Texas
>Charles L. Glaser, University of Chicago
>Alexander L. George, Stanford University
>Richard K. Herrmann, Ohio State University
>George C. Herring, University of Kentucky
>Robert Jervis, Columbia University
>Chaim Kaufmann, Lehigh University
>Carl Kaysen, MIT
>Elizabeth Kier, University of Washington
>Deborah Larson, UCLA
>Jack S. Levy, Rutgers University
>Peter Liberman, Queens College
>John J. Mearsheimer, University of Chicago
>Steven E. Miller, Harvard University
>Charles C. Moskos, Northwestern University
>Robert A. Pape, University of Chicago
>Barry R. Posen, MIT
>Robert Powell, UC – Berkeley
>George H. Quester, University of Maryland
>Richard Rosecrance, UCLA
>Thomas C. Schelling, University of Maryland
>Randall L. Schweller, Ohio State University
>Glenn H. Snyder, University of North Carolina
>Jack L. Snyder, Columbia University
>Shibley Telhami, University of Maryland
>Stephen Van Evera, MIT
>Stephen M. Walt, Harvard University
>Kenneth N. Waltz, Columbia University
>Cindy Williams, MIT

In light of all of that heft and expertise–not to mention the argument in the advertisement–I wonder about things like this:

>I must confess that one of the things that made me reluctant to conclude that the Iraq war was a mistake was my general distaste for the shabbiness of the arguments on the antiwar side.

That’s Jonah Goldberg. He thought this was a good argument for invading Iraq:

>Q: If you’re a new sheriff in a really bad town, what’s one of the smartest things you can do?

>A: Smack the stuffing out of the nearest, biggest bad guy you can.

>Q: If you’re a new inmate in a rough prison, what’s one of the smartest things you can do?

>A: Pick a fight with the biggest, meanest cat you can — but make sure you can win.

>Q: If you’re a kid and you’ve had enough of the school bullies pants-ing you in the cafeteria, what’s one of the smartest things you can do?

>A: Punch one of them in the nose as hard as you can and then stand your ground.

>Q: If you’re the leader of a peaceful and prosperous nation which serves as the last best hope of humanity and the backbone of international stability and a bunch of fanatics murder thousands of your people on your own soil, what’s one of the smartest thing you can do?

>A: Knock the crap out of Iraq.

>Why Iraq? Well, there are two answers to that question.

>The first answer is “Why not?” (If it helps, think of Bluto burping “Why not?” in Animal House.)

>The second answer: Iraq deserved it.

>Now. Here’s the important part: Both of these are good answers.

Confirmation herring

Today one finds a fairly typical George Will hit job on a “liberal” (complete with insults borrowed from the right blogosphere) and racial innuendo. The apparent purpose of this op-ed is to show that Barack Obama has no justification for opposing Leslie Southwick’s appointment to the 5th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. Unfortunately, Obama has had little to say about it. That makes it hard for Will to criticize Obama’s position, so he turns instead to the position of “some” who are “liberal.”:

>But because he is a white Mississippian, many liberals consider him fair game for unfairness. Many say his defect is “insensitivity,” an accusation invariably made when specific grievances are few and flimsy.

Kind of like this accusation–which doesn’t seem to belong to anyone in particular (least of all Obama).

He continues:

>To some of Southwick’s opponents, his merits are irrelevant. They simply say it is unacceptable that only one of the 17 seats on the 5th Circuit is filled with an African American, although 37 percent of Mississippians are black. This “diversity” argument suggests that courts should be considered representative institutions, like legislatures, and that the theory of categorical representation is valid: People of a particular race, ethnicity or gender can be understood and properly represented only by people of the same category.

We’re meant to conclude that these are also Obama’s reasons–even though they’re not. One wonders, therefore, what they’re doing here in the middle of a piece about Obama’s opposition to a judicial appointee. If perhaps George Will finds Obama’s stated reasons unsatisfactory–then he ought to stick that those. Thus we have a fairly classic red herring–change the subject from what Obama has said to things that will inflame right wing passions (racial quotas, identity politics, judicial activism, etc.).

Saint Gore

I’m going to borrow this from the Howler. In a recent Newsweek article about the charlatans who pollute our scientific discourse (particularly that about global warming), editor John Meacham writes:

>As Sharon Begley writes in this week’s cover, however, we are living in a very different time. On global cooling, there was never anything even remotely approaching the current scientific consensus that the world is growing warmer because of the emission of greenhouse gases inextricably linked to human activity (like, say, driving).

>When Sharon and I—along with Julia Baird and Debra Rosenberg, the editors on the project—began talking about what Sharon calls “the denial machine,” I was somewhat skeptical. Corporate America is calling for action and thinking green. California is curbing emissions. Al Gore is now an Oscar-winning PowerPoint presenter. If Gore, whom George H.W. Bush called “Ozone Man” in 1992, and ExxonMobil could agree on the gravity of the issue, then who, I wondered, wasn’t onboard?

>Too many people, as it turns out. Sharon’s reporting illuminates how global-warming skeptics have long sown doubt about the science of climate change, doubts that have affected—and are still affecting—our response to a real and growing problem.

>Our story is not a piece of lefty cant. Honest, well-meaning people can disagree about what we should do about climate change, but it is increasingly difficult to maintain that the problem simply does not exist, or is a minor threat.

>We are not saying that it is time for all Americans to give up their cars and bike to work, or that Gore should be canonized or that the board of the Sierra Club should be given emergency powers to run the country. But Sharon is saying that to reflexively deny the scientific consensus does a disservice to the debate, which is shortchanged and circumscribed when Rush Limbaugh tells his listeners, as he did earlier this year, that “more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not likely to significantly contribute to the greenhouse effect. It’s just all part of the hoax.”

Americans probably should bike to work (where and when possible) and Gore should be rewarded for putting up with this kind of crap. Even though that’s a concessive phrase, it suggests that one major group in the global warming discussion has a religious, not a scientific, character. That group, of course, is the one that’s been right all along (even about things other than global warming, by the way) about the science. Perhaps they ought to be accorded with a little rhetorical respect. Such characterizations, even outside of the bounds of argument, do a worse disservice than the classic National Review straw man–at least there one knows what one’s getting.

Culpa istorum

**Quick update below I've noticed several mea-culpae about Iraq floating around lately. We talked about one of them (Ignatieff) the other day. Being wrong about such a thing as monumental as war ought probably to carry serious consequences for the credibility of the person who was wrong. In light of that obvious but completely ignored imperative, it's entertaining to watch the ones who were wrong explain themselves:

We might test judgment by asking, on the issue of Iraq, who best anticipated how events turned out. But many of those who correctly anticipated catastrophe did so not by exercising judgment but by indulging in ideology. They opposed the invasion because they believed the president was only after the oil or because they believed America is always and in every situation wrong.

So Ignatieff was wrong, but some of those who were right were right for the wrong reasons (so he claims). We might then say that they're wrong too. Because after all it's just as bad to have a true belief which is unjustified as it is to have a unjustified false belief (like Ignatieff had). Any mature person can see that Ignatieff has picked on the college socialist again–a slogan chanting and capitalistically challenged representative of the anti war left. Everyone ought to know by this point–especially a former Harvard Professor of political science–that such a lefty exists in Rush Limbaugh's mind. Pointing out that someone might have had stupid reasons for being right doesn't have anything to do with your stupid reasons for being wrong. Now to his stupid reasons:

The people who truly showed good judgment on Iraq predicted the consequences that actually ensued but also rightly evaluated the motives that led to the action. They did not necessarily possess more knowledge than the rest of us. They labored, as everyone did, with the same faulty intelligence and lack of knowledge of Iraq's fissured sectarian history. What they didn�t do was take wishes for reality. They didn't suppose, as President Bush did, that because they believed in the integrity of their own motives everyone else in the region would believe in it, too. They didn't suppose that a free state could arise on the foundations of 35 years of police terror. They didn't suppose that America had the power to shape political outcomes in a faraway country of which most Americans knew little. They didn't believe that because America defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo it had to be doing so in Iraq. They avoided all these mistakes.

First off, I think a good number had some knowledge of Iraq's "fissured sectarian history." It was no secret to experts in Middle East history. But the more perplexing thing (aside from its self-serving comparisons) about this mea culpa is that it puts the entire matter in terms of gambling about an uncertain future–where no one could possibly predict the outcome. And this is just the point that Ignatieff and others fail to get. A person with even a casual knowledge of the history of the region (say the recent war between Iraq and Iran) could have predicted the outcome of this war with a good deal of precision. It's not a question, as Ignatieff frames it, of being unduly critical of the motives of the administration (which one always should be in any case), it's rather a more straightforward matter of good judgment. And so this underscores the shallowness of Ignatieff's thinking about matters of life and death (which is what it was to think about invading Iraq in case that wasn't obvious). The experts he trusts don't have any knowledge of the very public and relevant facts about the history of Iraq (and the entire region). So it's not only a case of taking wishes for reality. It's simpler than that.

**Update: Here's Crooked Timber, always a worthwhile read. I'd be interested in seeing more apologiae pro errore meo if anyone knows where to find them.

Four out of five doctors

Normally we don’t talk about the letters to the editor. They’re just ordinary citizens, after all, and there’s no need to poke fun at them on the internet. But when the letter writer is someone important, that’s a different story. Today one finds a letter from the Chairman of the Board of the American Medical Association in the New York Times (which, by the way, has taken down or will take down the firewall protecting the brilliant work of Maureen Dowd and Tom Friedman). He writes:

>Your assertion that reducing physician income will significantly reduce health care costs doesn’t acknowledge that physician income only accounts for 5 to 10 percent of total health care spending (“Sending Back the Doctors Bill,” Week in Review, July 29).

>The American Medical Association agrees that strategies are needed to contain health care costs and achieve greater value for health spending. Health care spending has yielded substantial clinical, economic and quality-of-life benefits, but the overall growth in health care costs has outpaced general inflation.

>While physicians play a key role in efforts to contain costs, problems like obesity, tobacco use, alcohol, substance abuse and violence will require action by stakeholders from inside and outside the health care system to drive major societal change.

>With a predicted shortage of 85,000 physicians by 2020 and an aging population, we need to attract the best and brightest students to medicine. We must fix the flaws in our health care system, including ensuring that all Americans have health care coverage, reforming the broken medical liability system and stopping Medicare cuts to doctors that make it hard to care for seniors.

>Edward L. Langston, M.D.
>Chairman, Board of Trustees, American Medical Association
>Chicago, Aug. 3, 2007

He was on to something with the “significantly.” But if Dr. Langston had bothered to read the piece he takes issue with more carefully, he would have noticed that the argument did not concern the base income of doctors; rather, the author of that piece took issue with the method (and to some extent quantity) of compensation for the reason that it places incentives in the wrong places. So Langston ignores the core argument.

The funny thing–for me at least–is his turning attention away from the doctor’s fat paycheck to the doctor’s fat patient. Indeed, the man who needs to see the doctor is primarily the cause of the health care cost, and if he needs to see the doctor a lot (for reasons he can avoid) then even more so. But the percentage of health costs caused by the doctor rather than the patient was never the issue. It’s certainly distracting, however, to think about all of those fat patients. Almost makes you forget what you were talking about.

Since the dawn

I can’t make any sense of this:

>In a time deluged by ideology — when everyone is urged to take a side and join the political battle — Shakespeare offers a different message: that the most important and dramatic choices are made in the human soul. Some steps, once taken, cannot be retraced. Some appetites, once freed, become a prison.

“Choices made in the human soul” may involve taking sides in a political battle–and they may not be retraced: you can’t unkill all those people. After all.