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The Daily Briefing 30/11/05
1 Predictions and getting it right
A brief thought. The powers that be and their hallelujah chorus in the media have gotten the two biggest issues of this generation - Iraq and climate change - wrong. Stone-cold, motherless, helplessly and hopelessly wrong, with massive loss of life and disastrous consequences that will ripple through the ages. And yet the leaders who made those mistakes, and the sycophantic commentators (on the home front that means Bolt, Blair, Ackerman, Albrechtsen, Henderson et al) who urged them on, hold their positions and are taken seriously as people who know stuff. Is there no justice?
Perhaps not, but there may be a reason for it, and a way to improve things. Before you take the slightest bit of notice of the next "expert" thrust upon us by the media, you might like to read the essay linked to below by Louis Menand, based on a book by psychologist Philip Tetlock, “Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?” It seems that the local pub bore has as much chance of being right as professional commentators, who might do better with a little accountability. (This is definitely one for opinion page editors, or does being accurate and getting things right no longer matter. In which case, why not fill the opinion page with a transcript recorded at the nearest watering hole?.) "The accuracy of an expert’s predictions actually has an inverse relationship to his or her self-confidence, renown, and, beyond a certain point, depth of knowledge. People who follow current events by reading the papers and newsmagazines regularly can guess what is likely to happen about as accurately as the specialists whom the papers quote. Our system of expertise is completely inside out: it rewards bad judgments over good ones."
LOUIS MENAND/NEW YORKER
2 Iraq and Bush's religious fervour
There is talk in the US that George Bush is about to make a major speech, outlining a "national strategy for victory in Iraq" (which begs the obvious retort - you mean they haven't had one until now?). In yet another striking piece, veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh updates on what is happening in Iraq, including secret missions into Syria (echoes of Cambodia circa 1970?), the option of using more US airpower as troops are withdrawn) and most disturbingly, reports on how Bush's religious convictions become involved. (There are no military strategists at TDB, but is religious fervour a good basis for military planning?) "Current and former military and intelligence officials have told me that the President remains convinced that it is his personal mission to bring democracy to Iraq, and that he is impervious to political pressure, even from fellow Republicans. They also say that he disparages any information that conflicts with his view of how the war is proceeding. Bush’s closest advisers have long been aware of the religious nature of his policy commitments. In recent interviews, one former senior official, who served in Bush’s first term, spoke extensively about the connection between the President’s religious faith and his view of the war in Iraq."
A nice companion piece to Hersh's article is Michael Ware's report from the front for Time. (Ware started out at The Courier-Mail.) "The military has barely made a dent in the insurgency. It's hard to imagine how American troops can leave in large numbers without further inflaming the threat to the U.S. Al-Qaeda is stronger now than it was before the invasion of Iraq and under al-Zarqawi has even extended its reach, as proved by the Nov. 9 hotel bombings in Jordan by three of his acolytes."
Supporters of the war have of late been arguing that things in Iraq are going better than is being reported (for example, TDB recently linked to Max Boot making just that point). The two reports referred to above suggest that is nonsense, and this one is even more disturbing. "Shiite Muslim militia members have infiltrated Iraq's police force and are carrying out sectarian killings under the color of law, according to documents and scores of interviews."
In updates of two other issues TDB has been following, NYTimes editorialises on the use of White Phosphorous in Fallujah and The Washington Post reports that the Bush administration has told European investigators that it needs more time to come up with answers about the allegation that the CIA is running secret prisons in eastern Europe. "Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini also warned that that any of the 25 bloc nations found to have operated secret CIA prisons could have their EU voting rights suspended."
SEYMOUR HERSH/THE NEW YORKER
3 Now that's what I call a mistake
Ahead of Bush's "strategy for victory" (umm, "mission accomplished" anyone?) speech tomorrow, if that is what it is to be, an update on where the Iraq debate is at in the US and UK - at least they are having one. In the column below Richard Cohen responds to the many Democrats and liberal supporters of the war who are now saying they made a mistake. "But we will learn nothing from this debacle if the word "mistake" can be used like a blackboard eraser just to wipe the slate clean. This is no different from what Bush is trying to do: The intelligence was bad, not his wretched judgment. To accept this explanation does not -- both for the president and his critics -- undo the mistake. On the contrary, it compounds it."
The following are some of the more compelling columns on the issue TDB has noticed in recent days. In The Times, former Conservative MP Matthew Parris says it's time to get out. (Parris opposed the war.) "Whenever we leave, Iraq will not be ready. The longer we stay the more of our people will die. Phoney peaces take real lives and they will cost more politically than lives lost in a battle still undecided. Stand not upon the order of your going, London and Washington, but go."
David Ignatius in The Washington Post worries about the damage done to the reputation and standing of the US. "We must stop behaving as if we are in a permanent state of war, in which any practice is justified by the exigencies of the moment. That's my biggest problem with Vice President Cheney's anything-goes jeremiads against terrorism. They suggest we will always be at war, and so it doesn't matter what the world thinks of our behavior. That's a dangerously mistaken view."
Also in the Post, Michael Kinsley says debate over the war must continue. "The last man or woman to die in any war almost surely dies in vain: The outcome has been determined, if not certified. And he or she might die happier thinking that death came in a noble cause that will not be abandoned. But if it is not a noble cause, he or she might prefer not to die at all. Stifling criticism that might shorten the war is no favor to American soldiers. They can live without that kind of "respect.""
RICHARD COHEN/THE WASHINGTON POST
4 Europe and anti-terror
European Union justice and security ministers are about to meet and will back stringent new anti-terror laws, according to Mats Engström, editorial writer at the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. Engström argues that debate about those plans have been curtailed because the basis of them has been kept secret. "The measures should have been the subject of a public debate at EU level, involving many parts of society – not least Muslim communities. It has not happened: instead, although member-states have discussed the strategy and the wider action plan for four months, the documents are still kept secret in the council secretariat."
5 West Papua and East Timor
West Papua is home to vast wealth and one of the world's least publicised struggles for independence. John Aglionby thinks that the publication of "Een Daad van Vrije Keuze" (An Act of Free Choice) by Dr Pieter Drooglever of the Institute of Netherlands History might change that (a big call, with a big might). "How close Dr Drooglever got to the truth can be guessed by the reaction in both the Hague and Jakarta. Dutch foreign minister Ben Bot refused to formally receive the report - it had been commissioned by his predecessor in 2000 - and reportedly described it as "superfluous". An Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman, Yuri Thamrin, viewed the study as "an academic work" but of no "significant substance"."
And The Times reports that "The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (CAVR), an independent organisation established by the East Timorese Government, is calling for reparations for victims of torture, rape and violence perpetrated by Indonesia from its invasion in 1975 to its bloody withdrawal in 1999." (This story is covered in most of the local papers this morning, The Australian here.)
JOHN AGLIONBY/THE GUARDIAN
6Darfur, the solution
Nicholas Kristof said a few days back that this would be his last column "from Darfur". Not sure if that means the last in his campaign to stop the genocide there, although this one reads like it might be, as Kristof outlines what he thinks can be done to end the misery and suffering. "Mr. Bush is paralyzed for the same reasons as his predecessors. There is no great public outcry, there are no neat solutions, we already have our hands full, and it all seems rather distant and hopeless. But Darfur is not hopeless. Here's what we should do."
7 Getting to know Arianna Huffington
TDB yesterday linked to an article by Emily Bell, the Guardian's online editor, who declared "the end of the Rupert era", a reference to the rapidly changing media and communications world. If that be true, one of those providing a taste of what is to come might be Arianna Huffington, who looks like making a success of The Huffington Post, as Suzanna Andrews explains for this Vanity Fair profile. "Even some of the HuffPost's contributors feared the worst early on: one was certain "the whole thing would implode"; another thought it was "too grandiose." But then things began to change. David Mamet's posting on the firing of New York magazine theater critic John Simon was picked up by the mainstream media, as was Nora Ephron's witty post on how, during the years she was married to Carl Bernstein, she always suspected that Mark Felt was "Deep Throat." In July, the HuffPost scored its first major newsbreak with an item by the journalist Laurence O'Donnell reporting that Karl Rove had been the source who leaked the identity of the C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame to Matt Cooper of Time."
SUZANNA ANDREWS/VANITY FAIR
8 Civil rights and environmentalism
This essay is an update on the "death of environmentalism" debate that TDB has been following, but it is worth a read in its own right. Michel Gelobter disagrees with the idea that modern environmentalism must look back to its ancestors - he says many were racist - and that instead it should look to the civil rights movement. "Modern environmentalism was, after all, the Elvis of ’60s activism. It was a radical and innovative departure from the conservation movement that preceded it. And in almost every way, the politics and innovations of the early environmental movement derived directly from the same era’s fight for black power and racial justice."
MICHEL GELOBTER/AMERICAN PROSPECT
9 Teach your children well
I blame the parents. Is the Western world being overrun by a horde of brattish, pampered, rude, noisy and self-centred ankle biters? That's the starting point for Judith Warner's report, and she also blames parents who are either indulging their children or demanding that they be competitive high achievers. "Whether children are actually any worse behaved now than they ever have been before is, of course, debatable. Children have always been considered, basically, savages. The question, from the late 17th century onwards, has been whether they come by it naturally or are shaped by the brutality of society. But what seems to have changed recently, according to childrearing experts, is parental behavior - particularly among the most status-conscious and ambitious - along with the kinds of behavior parents expect from their kids. The pressure to do well is up. The demand to do good is down, way down, particularly if it's the kind of do-gooding that doesn't show up on a college application."
10 Led Zepplin, Cash, the Strokes and .... Bruce
Keith Shadwick has a book out, "Led Zeppelin: The Story of a Band and Their Music 1968-80". You may not feel the need to buy it if you read the long extract linked to below, about how Jimmy Page formed the band after the demise of The Yardbirds.
In the NYTimes, Nicholas Kulish reflects on the life and music of Johnny Cash, inspired by the movie "Walk the Line".
Laura Barton in The Guardian reports on how The Strokes got over themselves in time for their new album "First Impressions of Earth".
In The Observer, Alice O'Keeffe says that hip hop's influence is being challenged by a reggae/salsa hybrid known as reggaeton.
With an eye to the season of giving, the New Yorker takes a brief look at 12 "lavish, elaborately designed, and often overpriced boxed sets that make monuments out of the popular music of years past - thinking inside the box.
In The Washington Post, Ben Brazil reports on the musical influence of three southern college towns - Charlottesville, Chapel Hill and Athens. "These college towns are laboratories, creative enclaves where music bubbles, swirls and mutates into more infectious strains. They are the primordial ooze in which some of the best American music evolves -- or, if you prefer, is created."
Back to The Independent, and Ben Perreau reports on how musicians are using the internet to creative and financial advantage.
Something new, something old. Rolling Stone is about to turn 1000, that is, it will publish its 1000th edition in May, and is planning an expensive 3-D cover to mark the occasion.
In the NYTimes, Janet Maslin reviews '"The Autobiography of Donovan". "Bumpy as it is, "The Autobiography of Donovan" is also touching, illuminating and frank. If the author wistfully idealizes his glory days, he can also bring a brass-tacks honesty to describing them. "Yes, I took myself too seriously at times," he writes. "As I say, this was when no one else would." He repeatedly rebuts the complaint that there was anything artificial about either his mien or his music. "I was not invented by a manager," he writes. "I created my own sound and image from the heart and from the start." As with Mr. Dylan's memoir, some of this book's most interesting insights explain the inspiration for extremely well-known music."
And last, but never least, Mr Springsteen, as the NYTimes likes to refer to him. Harlan Coben is unimpressed by the US Senate's decision not to even consider a resolution honouring Springsteen. "We are so shameless now, so openly hostile to one another, that we don't even pretend otherwise. Here is how the senate power structure works: the resolution sponsored by Senator Gordon Smith, Republican of Oregon, honoring that golfer from New Zealand passed unanimously - but commending one of the seminal albums and musicians of the past 30 years gets nixed right away? Come on."
11 Khazakhstan vs Borat, still
Lighten up guys. Doesn't anyone in Kazakhstan have a sense of humour, or a sense of proportion? Editor & Publisher reports (link below) that "as if in response" to Borat, of Da Ali G fame, the Kazakhstan government has published a four-page advertising section in The New York Times, with testimonials to its oil production, its democracy, education system, and purported "power and influence" of women. This comes after Kazakhstan threatened to sue Borat for his depiction of the country comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's character adopted as his homeland. As the avid reader of TDB knows, this feud has been simmering for some time, and first surfaced when the New Yorker published this (often linked to) essay. "Roman Vassilenko, the press secretary for the Embassy of Kazakhstan, wants to clear up a few misconceptions about his country. Women are not kept in cages. The national sport is not shooting a dog and then having a party. You cannot earn a living being a Gypsy catcher. Wine is not made from fermented horse urine. It is not customary for a man to grab another man’s khrum. “Khrum” is not the word for testicles."
EDITOR AND PUBLISHER
12 Play the air guitar, real loud
At last some science you can use! "The Virtual Air Guitar project, developed at the Helsinki University of Technology, adds genuine electric guitar sounds to the passionately played air guitar. Using a computer to monitor the hand movements of a "player", the system adds riffs and licks to match frantic mid-air finger work. By responding instantly to a wide variety of gestures it promises to turn even the least musically gifted air guitarist to a virtual fret board virtuoso." (Excuse me, while I kiss the sky. Or at least belt out that "Smoke on the Water" riff.)