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Thursday, July 03, 2003

 
PERCEPTION VS. REALITY

Poll results without context are not news.

Yesterday we learned, from poll results published by the Associated Press, that Americans have differing opinions about the relative safety of SUVs:

[The public is] split on whether SUVs are safer - people tend to think they're safer for those inside them and more dangerous for people in other cars.

People were more likely to think SUVs are safer for their own occupants, by 42 percent to 35 percent, according to the poll conducted for the AP by ICR/International Communications Research of Media, Pa. And they were more likely - by a smaller margin - to think SUVs are more dangerous for other motorists on the highway, by 45 percent to 41 percent.


The article continues in this vein, offering more quantitative summaries of public opinion extrapolated from a "poll of 1,001 adults ... taken June 20-24."

What the article does not do -- and doesn't even seem to consider possible, interesting or noteworthy -- is report on how these carefully enumerated perceptions match up to the actual question at hand: How safe are SUVs?

Rumor has it that some agency somewhere actually studies and measures such things. The question of safety for various makes and models of cars is not merely a matter of subjective and uninformed random opinion. It's based on concrete, real-world facts about how well the brakes work, what happens during various impacts at various speeds, and the measurable likelihood of a vehicle rolling over during sharp turns.

(Here, for example, is a .pdf/PowerPoint document with more data than you might ever want on the subject of SUV safety. And here, in testimony before Congress, Dr. Jeffrey W. Runge, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, reviews that agency's findings on the facts, rather than the random opinions, of the relative safety of SUVs.)

This is not a rant against SUVs. This is a rant against lazy, irrelevant journalism that is more than happy to reinforce public ignorance by reporting only perception and ignoring reality.

Imagine, for example, that the AP decides to conduct a poll asking 1,001 adult Americans "What is the capital of Australia?"

Soon after, we would open our newspapers to find an article titled "Public divided over seat of Aussie government." In it we might learn that 71.3 percent of Americans say Sydney is Australia's capital, 15.7 percent say Melbourne, 5 percent say Vienna, 4 percent Australia City, 2 percent say Foster's and 2 percent say Canberra. What we would never learn from the article -- because it doesn't factor into opinion-poll journalism -- is which of these answers is actually correct.

Perception trumps reality. Instead of a newspaper, we get a mirror reflecting back our own ignorance. And if the Australians perversely insist on clinging to the idea that Canberra is their nation's capital well then Donald Rumsfeld's right about them. They're just stupid Old Europeans. Everybody knows it's Sydney. After all, it's in the newspaper.

Measurements of public opinion are often newsworthy, but only if these opinions are reported in context. The job of the journalist is to provide that context, to compare the public's opinions with the facts as they are known.

Reports about whether the public thinks the war in Iraq is going well, or whether they perceive the president as "honest and trustworthy" don't matter a whit unless those reports also bother to find out whether, in fact, the war is going well and whether, in fact, the president is honest and trustworthy. Such questions, admittedly, cannot be answered with the same degree of definitive certainty as the capital of Australia or the safety record of SUVs, but there is evidence to be considered.

There are facts to be reported, and those facts matter. Opinions, divorced from these facts, are a waste of everybody's time.



posted by Fred Clark 2:53 PM

 
THE OPPOSITE OF JUSTICE

From John M. Barry, in today's Washington Post:

The nation’s jobless rate jumped to 6.4 percent last month as the number of people looking for work but unable to find it surged past the 9 million mark for the first time in 10 years, the Labor Department reported today.

The rate rose from 6.1 percent in May as more than 600,000 people joined the workforce and only about 250,000 got a job, according to the department’s monthly survey of American households. The jobless rate among whites rose only to 5.5 percent from 5.4 percent, but for blacks it increased a full percentage point, to 11.8 percent.

Meanwhile, continuing massive job losses at manufacturing firms contributed to an overall 30,000 drop in payroll jobs last month. Downward revisions in figures for April and May brought to the total decline in payroll jobs to 122,000 in the last three months.


From John Paul II, in the 1981 encyclical Laborem exercens ("On Human Work"):

The opposite of a just and right situation in this field is unemployment, that is to say the lack of work for those who are capable of it. It can be a question of general unemployment or of unemployment in certain sectors of work. The role of the agents included under the title of indirect employer is to act against unemployment, which in all cases is an evil, and which, when it reaches a certain level, can become a real social disaster.


posted by Fred Clark 2:45 PM


Wednesday, July 02, 2003

 
"BRING THEM ON"???

Bush's bravado puts lives at risk. Again.

CalPundit's Kevin Drum (and his commentors) have some worthy caveats about the report cited in the previous post on the demoralized Sgt. Pollard, whose unenthusiastic assessment of the situation facing U.S. troops -- "We have no business being here. ... All we are here is potential people to be killed and sitting ducks" -- was reported yesterday in the Washington Post.

But the image conveyed by that report -- and by the even more jaded perspective from the Harper's correspondent -- is worth hearing. Fareed Zakaria echoes what both of those reports said, but puts it in amore positive, glass-half-full way:

American soldiers are the best in the world. But 22-year-old Marines are trained to fight, not to rebuild houses, manage group rivalries, adjudicate legal claims and help found civic groups. What we need in Iraq—and what we would quickly need in Liberia—are armies of engineers, aid workers, agronomists and, most important, political and legal experts to negotiate the myriad problems of peace. They would also know how to get help. Without aid from other countries and international organizations, America is simply not going to intervene in all the failing states around the world.

For the past three decades America’s foreign-affairs budget has been slashed while military spending has remained high. This has starved the civilian agencies of resources and turned them into disgruntled, ineffectual organizations. Meanwhile, the military, the only agency with money, has been pushed into areas well beyond its core competence. The result is that we’re untouchable at war but clumsy at peace.


"Clumsy" is starting to look overly generous. The half-empty version of what Zakaria is saying is this: We can win a war against anyone, but that hardly matters.

Eric Alterman (who provided the Zakaria link) doesn't share Zakaria's optimism:

No, it’s not a “quagmire” yet, Mr. President. But it almost certainly will be almost any day now. I mean you’ve got a guerrilla war, religious resistance, no civilian authority, no civil order, no legitimacy for your foreign occupation save that which comes from a barrel of a gun, and no bloody idea what the hell to do about any of it. And to top it all off, you lied your way into it.

Given all that, it is perfectly reasonable (and about time) for L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. colonial governor in Iraq, to call for "more American troops and dozens of civilian officials to help speed up the restoration of order and public services" -- which is what the Philadelphia Inquirer reported he was doing.

Such a step seems necessary and prudent -- which is probably why the Pentagon is denying that Bremer has sought or needs any such additional support:

A senior Pentagon official, who asked not to be identified, denied that Bremer had asked for more troops to restore order and stem attacks. ...

"There has been no such request." the official said. "... if you put more troops in, you put more targets in there."


This from "a senior Pentagon official." The troops are not "liberators," or "peacekeepers," or even "occupiers" -- they are "targets." This is not essentially any different from Sgt. Pollard's "sitting ducks."

This is the reality that has so demoralized Sgt. Pollard and that has made other troops as panicky and profane as the Harper's account describes. They have been stationed far from home, indefinitely. Their military and civilian leaders have no clear plan forward. And the brass who put them in harm's way consider them "targets."

Into this situation steps President Bush who is -- he keeps reminding anyone who will listen -- the commander in chief of these "targets." Here's what the president had to say:

"There are some who feel like that conditions are such that they can attack us there," Bush told reporters at the White House. "My answer is 'bring them on'."

(Link via Leah and quote via Atrios -- who correctly calls this "a new low.")

The president of the United States, the commander in chief of the U.S. military, has just decided that it would be cool and tough-looking to pose in front of a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback and challenge the enemy to attack U.S. troops. He invited more ambushes. For the thrill of posing as a machoman, President Bush is willing to risk American lives. Again.

Will someone at the White House please get this irresponsible, egocentric idiot away from the microphone before he gets anyone else killed?

posted by Fred Clark 3:52 PM


Tuesday, July 01, 2003

 
HEARTS AND MINDS

If this is what "Mission Accomplished" looks like, I'd hate to see failure.

In the past week, the war on Iraq quietly reached two significant milestones -- it is now more than 100 days old, and the number of American dead now exceeds 200.

Writing in The Washington Post, Anthony Shadid provides one American soldier's take on how the war is going on its 103rd day:

"U.S. officials need to get our [expletive] out of here," said [Staff Sgt. Charles Pollard, a] 43-year-old reservist from Pittsburgh, who arrived in Iraq with the 307th Military Police Company on May 24. "I say that seriously. We have no business being here. We will not change the culture they have in Iraq, in Baghdad. Baghdad is so corrupted. All we are here is potential people to be killed and sitting ducks." ...

Pollard is a 22-year veteran, and he had thought about retiring before his Iraq tour. Now, he says, he doesn't know when he will return to his job at the maintenance department at a community college in Pittsburgh, and that uncertainty nags at him.

Asked when he wanted to leave, he was blunt: "As soon as we can get the hell out of here." ...

"It's not fair to our troops to build a country that's not even ours and our lives are at risk," he said. "They've got to take control. They may have to kill some of their own people to make a statement that we're back in control. No doubt."


Pollard, part of America's new permanent-reservist corps, is a military policeman charged with helping to establish an indigenous police force in Makshal, a working-class suburb of Baghdad. His belief that "we have no business being here" is about the only thing the local policemen seem to agree with him on.

Here's Sgt. Sami Jalil, an Iraqi cop with 14 years on the job in Makshal:

"The truth has become apparent," he said.

"The Americans painted a picture that they would come, provide good things to the Iraqi people, spread security, but regrettably" -- his voice trailed off.

"Iraqi people hate the Americans," he said.


This is, of course, just one outpost in one small corner of Iraq, a country (say it with me) the size of California. How are things going elsewhere? Are we seeing better morale? Better relations with the locals? Better evidence of the kind of mutual respect and cooperation that will be needed if this hostile occupation is to evolve into an independent Iraq, shining as a beacon of democracy in the region?

Not exactly.

The following is an excerpt from Paul William Roberts' dispatch from Iraq in the July 2003 Harper's. Chase down a print copy of Harper's and read the whole thing.

(I usually follow the convention of putting quotations in italics, but for readability's sake, I won't do so with this excerpt. This is, of course, copyrighted material and full credit is given to Harper's and Paul William Roberts, to whom I am grateful for the presumed permission to quote it here. And Harper's is wonderful and you really ought to subscribe, etc. etc.)

= = = = = = = = = = = =

We made the egregious mistake of approaching the U.S. Army 3rd Brigade Combat Team, which had finally arrived to intimidate a city already prepared to fete their presence and victory.

I don't know what it is about coiled razor-wire barriers with tanks behind them, or about men and women not so much dressed as bedecked for extreme danger and laden down with the stuff of killing, or about those wraparound sunglasses that all the grunts seem to wear, but the overall effect is both alien and ludicrous. Packed into the old Baath Party headquarters in Samarra, the U.S. Army looked very much like a bunch of poorly educated, very scared post-teens from a distant planet, beamed down into what they believed to be very hostile terrain and absurdly over-armed.

"Hey!" shouted one of these creatures as I approached. "Stop right there!"

The dishdasha and turban had obviously thrown him, so I reached for my Harper's press card, saying, "It's okay, I'm a Brit journalist."

"I said, 'Stop,' fucker!" he growled, pointing his machine gun at me. "You understand 'Stop'?"

I nodded.

Another soldier appeared and asked me in an Arabic worse than my own what I wanted.

"I do speak English," I pointed out, in my best Oxonian accent.

"Get this motherfucker!" the first soldier shouted to no one in particular.

After the grace and courtesy of the Arabs, this jolt of American culture unnerved me. I removed the turban in an attempt to convince them I was friend and not foe, but the combination of tightly wound cloth and heat left my hair looking like a toupee basted in Vitalis or motor oil.

The second soldier patted me down roughly, then scrutinized my Harper's press card minutely. I had just got myself ready to defend its authenticity when he said, "What the fuck is Harper's?"

For the first time in my life I wished I was on assignment for National Review, to which I hastily compared Harper's -- inasmuch as they were both magazines with a political focus.

"It have naked chicks in it?" he asked.

"Not as many as we'd like ..."

"Am I gonna see my name in it?"

"If you tell me what it is, I guarantee it."

I noticed that many soldiers, deliberately or otherwise, concealed the name patches on their helmets under sand goggles. Flak jackets hid the breast patch. He now turned the press card over and examined the two dense paragraphs on its back. I realized I'd never read them myself.

"Who the fuck is Ben Metcalf?" he asked, after two minutes.

"Editor. Senior editor."

The expression on his face made me wonder if I'd said "pimp" or "crack dealer."

"You report to him?"

"Yeah. He's like the general. And I'm like ... you guys. The ground troops."

I thought this inspired.

"I never talk to no fucking generals," he said, bitterly.

I quickly demoted Ben Metcalf to sergeant.

"Sergeant he'd fucking be here. Like me."

I wondered how he even knew about Ben, soon discovering the tiny print on the press card's back declared that all questions regarding the I.D. should be directed to Ben. I hoped Ben knew about this.

"What the fuck is this?" the soldier then demanded, thrusting the card under my nose and prodding the second paragraph angrily, as if it contained something terrible. Maybe it did ...

Mercifully, it proved to be a French translation of the former paragraph.

"Why the fuck is that there?"

"Good question," I said. "Maybe it's because I live in Canada."

"Let me get this straight," he said. "You got a British passport, you live in Canada, and you write for an American magazine ..."

"Right."

"You gotta admit it sounds weird."

I admitted it did.

"So why you dressed like this fucking scum?" He indicated the growing crowd of locals ... I told him I found his remark deeply offensive.

"Thatta fact?"

"Yep."

"Fuck you."



posted by Fred Clark 3:29 PM

 
CLEANING THE ATTIC (cont'd)

These links have been in the back of the fridge a long time. Think they're still okay to use? Here, take a sniff.

= = = = = = = = = = = =

Lieberman, Joe, campaign site parody: Mr. Charisma probably won't get far enough in the race for the designer of this site's worst fears to be realized, but it's good to know it's there if it's needed.

Norman, Stormin': Gen. Schwarzkopf, star of the first Gulf War miniseries, is skeptical about the sequel.

Oceania, we've always been at war with.

Oil, Iraqi: We're buying more than ever.

Osaddam bin Hussein: Stories like this highlight the failure of the press and the success of the Bush administration's propaganda efforts.

Peace, in Danish: It's a Fred thing, you wouldn't understand.

Philly blogs: Thanks to Karl Martino, we have an ever-growing list. (And thanks, Karl, for making room for "greater Philadelphia" blogs like the Delco contingent of slacktivist and pandagon.

Prager, Dennis, arguing that "jews and black [sic] vote democrat" not because it is in their interest to do so, but because of fear and stupidity. The dilemma on the horns of which Prager finds himself is this -- How does the GOP account for the fact that 90+ percent of black voters vote Democratic without either: A) portraying the GOP as racist, or B) claiming black voters as stupid and easily duped. Prager does the latter, which of course also means he does the former.

Predatory lending: A subject I've written about in print, but not on the blog. here is a fine report from ACORN.

Reese, Charley: Thank you to whoever it was whose link I followed to this guy's column. Even when I disagree, I'm entertained.

Regime change: A brief overview from the Christian Science Monitor's Peter Ford.



posted by Fred Clark 3:16 PM


Monday, June 30, 2003

 
PRIVACY = FREEDOM

Court ruling spawns totalitarian backlash.

The Supreme Court has struck down a Texas law banning sex between people of the same gender. The allegedly conservative backlash has been uniform: the claim that the right to privacy upon which the court based its ruling is somehow extra-constitutional and therefore illegitimate.

I say "allegedly" conservative, because the premise is anything but. The argument these people are making is that any behavior not specifically blessed in the text of the Constitution is therefore presumed illicit.

Conservative Peter Hitchens, discussing a different point (the anti-conservative war on Iraq), neatly summarizes this distinction. A century of war, Hitchens argues, has turned Britain from:

A conservative country of free individuals where everything was permitted unless specifically prohibited became a collectivist state where everything was prohibited unless specifically allowed.

Hitchens' description of British society is polemical and overwrought, but his essential point stands. In a free society, the burden of proof is on prohibition, not on freedom. That is, after all, what a "free society" means. Freedom, in other words, is the default.

The currently popular argument that the right to privacy is extra-constitutional is absurd on its face. This right is not a conclusion of the Constitution, but rather one of its foundational premises. It infuses the entire document. To say this right is a fiction because it is not explicitly delineated in the text of the Constitution is as foolish as a similar argument against, say, respiration.

Unlike Peter Hitchens, I am not a conservative. But we liberals share this basic tenet -- that freedom is the default, and that the burden of proof weighs, heavily, on those who would limit freedom.

Along the so-called "spectrum" of liberal-to-conservative, we liberals, I would argue, are those who see more of a need to balance or protect the freedoms of some -- particularly the poor and the powerless -- against the freedoms of others. Totalitarianism is not an extreme point at either end of this spectrum, it is a wholly other thing. Totalitarianism rejects the presumption of liberty shared by liberals and conservatives alike. Totalitarianism denies the basic premise of individual freedom. It denies the idea of limited government. It claims that the right to privacy is a fiction.

Texas' anti-sodomy statute was incompatible with the idea of limited government. Its enforcement would require an omnipresent state, hovering about in the most intimate of settings like the nuns at a Catholic school dance, insisting that citizens "leave room for the Holy Spirit" and not engage in any behavior that might offend Sen. Santorum.

Gay and lesbian advocacy groups are celebrating the Supreme Court's ruling, as well they should. So should we all. This isn't just about homosexuality. It's about freedom. And about freedom's opposite: a world without privacy.

posted by Fred Clark 6:25 PM


Sunday, June 29, 2003

 
FOR THEIRS IS THE KINGDOM

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley's $1.2 billion tax reform plan aims to restore his state's fiscal responsibility, while also turning the nation's most regressive tax structure into something more fair. Riley, a conservative Republican, has framed this effort in religious terms -- saying that justice for the poor is not just prudent policy, but also in keeping with God's will, correcting the grievous sin of Alabama's oppressive system (see here).

This hasn't escaped the notice of Alabama's powers and principalities -- such as the timber industry and other corporate interests who own more than 70 percent of the state's land but pay only 2 percent of its property taxes. It also hasn't escaped the notice of the rest of Riley's party or of the vast right-wing network of radio demagogues and opportunist Fox News wanna-bes.

An anti-Riley, anti-tax reform rally yesterday didn't represent very much popular support (only about 250 people showed up), but such efforts don't rely so much on the people as they do on the vast sums of money provided by the right-wing Powers That Be.

Speakers included the president of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, the former head of the state Republican Party, radio host Russ Fine (who called for Riley's expulsion from the GOP), and the organizer of a newly formed anti-Tax Reform PAC. The lineup reminds me of that scene in Blazing Saddles where Harvey Korman tells Slim Pickens to assemble "an army of the worst dregs ever to soil the face of the West."

Anyway, since Gov. Riley has recently exhibited such an interest in the Sermon on the Mount, I thought I'd remind him of this passage:

"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:11-12)



posted by Fred Clark 4:08 PM


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