When put on the spot, make something up

“If there was any consistency to his opinions, it was the consistent lack of consistency, and if he had a worldview, it was a view that proclaimed his lack of a worldview. But these very absences were what constituted his intellectual assets. Consistency and an established worldview were excess baggage in the intellectual mobile warfare that flared up the mass media’s tiny time segments, and it was his great advantage to be free of such things.” Haruki Murakami, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

Alas, today we follow the lead of the consistently inconsistent, never forming a clearly articulated thought, because it’s so much easier to provide a scandalous quote.

Scott McClellan’s ongoing intellectual challenge

I read What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception this evening. While I believe McClellan’s regrets about participating in the cover-up of the White House’s breach of national security and disclosing a CIA agent’s identity are authentic, his excuses are not sufficiently honest.

He repeatedly points at the “scandals of the Clinton years” as nearly as bad or worse than the Iraq War deception and Plame outing, blaming the “culture of deception” in Washington. Other than the former President’s wandering manhood, those “scandals” were largely the invention of the Republican party’s “perpetual campaign” to discredit liberals and, particularly, the Clintons. Whitewater, for example, yielded nothing of consequence and didn’t even involve the Clinton’s conduct in the White House. They were inventions of the right, carried out for political purposes.

The permanent campaign McClellan decries is the creation of his party. His kind assessment of President Bush, as a strong but misguided leader who fell prey to the culture of Washington, is a fantasy.

Bush, Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove and Scooter Libby showed up carrying the seeds of deception and a strategy of misguiding the people. They weren’t infected by Washington, even though Washington has its share of liars, cheats, and philanderers who always place political gain above the public interest. McClellan should be smart enough to see that he was fooled by Bush’s campaign rhetoric as well as the staff of the Bush White House.

McClellan wants to protect his former colleagues and his president and, even now, is failing to examine his thinking as completely as he would like to believe. The book is excellent grist for the political argument about Iraq, but its author hasn’t completely examined his experience with the intellectual honesty he invokes at the outset. The problem came to Washington from Texas.

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A new economic safety net

Lael Brainard for Democracy: A Journal of Ideas:

Instead of relying on a patchwork of policies that date back more than four decades, the federal government needs to make a fundamental change in the way it provides job-transition assistance. The nation needs a comprehensive Economic Security Program, built around three pillars: making sure workers and communities have the tools to re-skill and reposition themselves; providing health and income insurance for periods of unemployment; and offering insurance against big drops in income and loss of health care as they transition back into employment.

Given our nation’s willingness to bail out banks and industries, investment at the individual level makes far more sense because the resulting diversity in outcomes from social expenditure (lots of small bets vs. a very few big ones) increases the likelihood of successful economic transition from which we can learn and expand upon.

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How many times have the same examples been used?

Beginning a critical reading of Groundswell, Here Comes Everybody and The Future of the Internet, for some upcoming writing. What I am struck by browsing the indices, and thinking back on other books, is how many times the same examples, Wikipedia for example, are cited as examples of dramatic impacts in productivity and collaboration. The potential exists that these arguments are supporting one another rather than the actual examples, which have been magnified or diminished by the repeated coverage.

Take Wikipedia, again: Google Book Search reports that “Wikipedia” is discussed in 1,441 books. Amazon returns 7,264 hits on “Wikipedia.” Of course it is an important topic, but at some point along the way did we lose track of the real phenomenon and its relation to events in human society?

Something to think about as I start reading.

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Does unreliable mean “honest”?

Politico.com’s Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith pontificate that:

“The day, and the weeks before and since, capture what may be the most striking new feature of the 2008 media landscape. Matt Drudge has upended the conventional wisdom that he and his powerful online vehicle are stalwarts of the conservative message machine.”

The posting goes on for pages, with Ariana Huffington saying Drudge has a “great grasp of the zeitgeist” and attributing the shift from right-leaning coverage to “left-leaning” coverage to Drudge’s “libertarian streak.” Ultimately, someone does point out that Drudge is mostly interested in traffic.

But does any of this make his coverage more meaningful? Does it assist Drudge’s readers in understanding how much of the “truth” they can expect from this guy? No. He’s simply important because he has “continuing power to drive the stories and shape the narratives that define presidential politics.” It doesn’t matter that he is all over the map or that he arbitrarily chooses what to ignore and to promote—the primary criticism of the mainstream media, if memory serves. In the end, the story merely increases the power of Drudge by rehearsing all the stories he has done lately.

Drudge merely gives lazy writers something to write about in lieu of doing real journalism. I don’t read Drudge, because he doesn’t mean anything or add anything to the debate about issues affecting the country, because he is only interested in Drudge. His power is political, rather than a phenomenon of the media, which is what matters about it. He hasn’t upended wisdom, just kept people prepared to pander to his whims. That is the formula for something other than truthful reporting based on hard research.

Really a notebook

As I have been getting my life back—it’s been remarkable discovering how out of it I have been for the past year and more—I’ve been pondering the value of blogging. I’m going back to what the tagline for my blog has always been: Mitch’s Open Notebook. I’ll be taking notes publicly.

Albert Camus wrote in his recently published (in English, for the first time) later notebooks, Notebooks 1951-1959:

“From the moment private life is thrown on display, explained to so many people, it become public life, and it is vain to hope to maintain it.”

Too many bloggers write about themselves and only themselves and their thoughts. The artificiality of “celebrity” permeates public dialogue like the plague eating through a Medieval city, pulling the private and considered from life. I’m tired of the artificial spontaneity of blogging, the “this rocks” and “that sucks” absence of reflection that follows fads, fashions and style. We’re never inspired to think about why things happen, only to judge.

Blogging isn’t a sub-set of life or the practice of writing that excuses bloggers from the responsibilities of other writers.

It’s an insupportable culture. Vapid and dull. Writing should demand more of the keyboardist and the reader than most blogs do.

Some blogs, like my friend Susannah Breslin’s Reverse Cowgirl Blog, come from the very marrow and are worth reading in stark contrast to most blogs about sex and culture. Susannah writes about sex, not about her sex life, and, so, one gets to see her think, wrestle with experience and put it into words. That’s what blogging should aspire to, because we don’t need more fanboy press—the mainstream media has that brainless niche nailed.

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Ladies and gentlemen, here are the first-nighters!

Most bloggers are part of a mad crowd of Mr. First-Nighters, imagining they are breaking news when they are really spouting trivia, making significant their participation in events to satisfy the need for vicarious thrills. Their own vicarious thrill of imagining that they’ve “broken a big story.”

Sure, people will say I am knocking the medium. But I am using the medium right now to publish, so get over the sense of indignation. Blogging is a channel of communication, not a style. The blogging style that dominates is that of the man slipping into the center aisle and whispering to the audience, “The house lights have dimmed and the curtain is about to go up on tonight’s production.” Ooh, personal experience you can’t get anywhere else! Crap.

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We turn everything into mystical acheivement

“The words chance and genius do not designate anything that actually exists and therefore cannot be defined. These words designate only a certain degree of understanding of phenomenon. I do not know why such a phenomenon occurs; I think that I cannot know it; therefore I do not want to know it, and I say: chance. I see power that produces effects incommensurate with common human qualities; I do not know why it happens, and I say: genius.”—Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace.

We make a fetish of everything, even simple human effort and insight. We don’t really want to understand what makes greatness, so we give it a mystical explanation, such as “genius.” I’ve known genius in many different people about many different subjects and in many different actions. Consistency is all that is missing from one life to the next that makes a person into the noun, “genius.”

Žižek, again in In Defense of Lost Causes, writes:

“…this refusal-to-know… resides in the properly fetishistic dimension of populism. That is to say, although, at a purely formal level, the fetish involves a gesture of transference (onto the fetish object), it functions as an exact inversion of the standard formula of transference (with the subject supposed to know): what the fetish gives body to is precisely my disavowal of knowledge, my refusal to subjectively assume what I know.”

Fetishes let us live with ignorance. “Genius” is label that lets us separate ourselves from the reality of an other’s effort.

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