Thursday, October 3, 2013

Skeptic tank

Image from Reepicheep.
Glenn Greenwald (to be fair to a writer I'm about to disagree with in a pretty decided way) properly roasted the NBC News anchor Brian Williams the other day for his ignorance of the Iranian nuclear program—
"This is all part of a new leadership effort by Iran -suddenly claiming they don't want nuclear weapons! ; what they want is talks and transparency and good will. And while that would be enough to define a whole new era, skepticism is high and there's a good reason for it."
—as if the Iranian government had not been explaining very carefully and clearly for years and years that it has no intention of building a nuclear weapon. Not to mention no serious evidence to suggest that they weren't telling the truth (though the respectable media have been [jump]
 extremely shy about letting on; but as Greenwald notes, US and Israeli intelligence have acknowledged that the Iran nuclear weapons program does not seem to exist, and of course tons of actual experts, as well as nobodies like me, have been saying it for a pretty long time too).

Anyhow, in the course of his piece, he throws in a parenthetical remark that goes to the heart of what I object to in Greenwald himself:
(and one can only dream of the day when US media stars subject the statements of their own government to the same skepticism accorded to those of leaders of non-allied countries)
Unless by "skepticism" you mean "astonishment at hearing an ostensibly serious person say something in conflict with your own preconceived opinions", you can hardly say Brian Williams was "skeptical" about President Rouhani's statements on Iran's nuclear research program.

In fact, of course, Williams wouldn't be so vulgar as to show any skepticism on his own part, or any views of his own at all: as a good Villager, he merely lives in the light of a view that is what Cokie calls "out there"—"skepticism is high" meaning it is widespread among the clients where Cokie gets her hair done, not that Williams himself would be so unprofessional as to feel it, or believe that he feels it. One of the big problems in US media is the stars' invincible belief that they are themselves opinion-free, when they are in fact retailing a Received Opinion of such flat, bland conviction that it is as it were camouflaged as objective fact.

The writers Greenwald follows on Iran—you can see some of their names on the blogroll over to the right—are skeptics in the true as opposed to the Brian Williams sense: that is they recognize that the story is not going to be very simple, and that none of the characters will be the hero, or the villain, that they might seem at first sight. Iran's government is nothing like the simple hierarchical thugocracy of Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Bashar al-Assad's Syria, for one thing, but a very complex situation rather more like the United States, with a lot of competing interests and power centers, and a great deal of political discourse, democratic to a degree, with lots of smart among the stupid (Ahmadinejad of course was very nearly as ignorant as Bush, and in some respects quite a bit worse), and good deal of truth among the political lies and special pleas. Writing truthfully about it is really hard work.

This is precisely why Nima Shirazi or Juan Cole have known for many years that the Iranian government was not planning to build a nuclear weapon: not because they imagined President Ahmadinejad or Ayatollah Khamenei was a saint, but because they weighed the specific evidence, skeptically, before making up their minds, and then weighed the language in their heads, cautiously, to make it adequate to the task. And this is the kind of skepticism that needs to be applied to the study of the US; not the Brian Williams kind (amounting to little more than a kind of "Rouhani must be lying, because he's the president of a Bad Country").
Via Storm Jewel's Spirit Blog.
But that is not Greenwald, when he writes things like his famous 2012 Salon defense-by-offense of Ron Paul:
The candidate supported by progressives — President Obama — himself holds heinous views on a slew of critical issues and himself has done heinous things with the power he has been vested. He has slaughtered civilians — Muslim children by the dozens — not once or twice, but continuously in numerous nations with dronescluster bombs and other forms of attack. He has sought to overturn a global ban on cluster bombs..............
This is the opposite of skepticism—the language of a man who has unquestioningly adopted a particular story and then finds that everything he hears is evidence for it.

I'm not going to attempt to prove here that President Obama is not a slaughterer of children "by the dozens" or at all. At least not until Greenwald has satisfactorily answered the question whether he has stopped beating his wife (yes, I realize he doesn't have one, that's the point). I would like to look quickly at the Christmas-tree ornamentation of links in that passage, though, because of the way it illustrates the anti-skeptical thinking style.

  • "children"—leads to the New Yorker story of the accidental killing in Afghanistan of three children by coalition troops and one by Afghan forces; infuriating and unspeakably sad, but not a dozen, not slaughtered, and not by Obama (I'd defend him against charges of criminal neglect, but Greenwald's charges need to be dismissed without comment)
  • "numerous nations"—leads to the number six, for how many countries have been subjected to drone attacks; is any Obama defender falsely insisting it's only four or five? how is this supposed to contribute to the argument other than by lighting up two more words in the accusation?
  • "drones"—leads to disturbing coverage of the CIA drone attacks in Waziristan and their effects in producing anti-American feelings among the locals; doesn't note that these attacks were not even under the president's direct control or his notorious "kill list", unlike JSOC attacks in Yemen and other countries in which casualties have been far more successfully limited
  • "cluster bombs"—one admittedly terrible cruise missile attack killing 14 women and 21 children in Yemen, December 2009; president's responsibility not discussed, though I wouldn't deny the fact that he's commander-in-chief, or for that matter entertain Pentagon claims that there were fewer casualties; and it was, one year into Obama's first term, the last time in history that the US used a cluster bomb
  • "forms of attack"—General Stanley McChrystal on unwarranted shooting of civilians at military checkpoints in Afghanistan in May 2010, in the context of McChrystal's attempting to stop it
  • "sought" —a Greenwald article quoting The Independent:
According to The Independent [two links to a single article, as if to suggest he has twice as much evidence as he actually has!]the U.S. is playing the leading role “to torpedo the global ban on cluster bombs” through a “proposal that would permit the use of cluster bombs as long as they were manufactured after 1980 and had a failure rate of less than one per cent.” The paper also reports that despite Britain’s long-time role in supporting the ban, its conservative government is now backing the Obama administration’s efforts to codify their use. The Pentagon claims that newer cluster bombs can be used more safely, but activists have documented that “many modern cluster bombs have far higher failure rates on the field of battle than manufacturers claim.”

The last misses the fact that Senator Barack Obama voted in favor of a partial ban on cluster munitions in 2006 and might well have voted to ratify the 2008 treaty limiting them if it had been submitted to the Senate; that Obama signed a ban on sales of cluster munitions among his first actions as president, in March 2009 (although it doesn't seem to have been very effective); and that the Obama administration has not yet responded to the July 2013 letter from Senators Feinstein and Leahy and Rep. McGovern demanding a review of the policy, so we simply don't know what his current views are.

The Chelsea Manning/Wikileaks State Department cables show that the Independent's story is more or less accurate, though it needs to be stressed that US policy is to discourage the harm done by cluster munitions (just by making them safer instead of banning them). The hypocrisy of the administration in condemning indiscriminate Syrian use of the munitions while giving Israel a free pass is pretty revolting, though hardly surprising. The US position as it is is clearly unacceptable, and Obama has hardly covered himself in glory on the issue since his promising beginning. But to say in Greenwald's summary of the story that he has "sought to overturn the ban" or to imply that he feels some kind of "heinous" affection for cluster bombs is just plain false, and to argue it in this way, in a series of links so thick that few readers are going to check any of them, is what I call dishonest. And not, in any case, "skeptical".
Maya Calendar from Tucson Citizen.

No comments:

Post a Comment