The One Percent Rule and the Power of One

There’s an interesting discussion percolating on the Internet about what is being called The One Percent Rule, which Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba of the Church of the Customer Blog, summarize as “roughly 1% of your site visitors will create content within a democratized community.”

Charles Arthur (The Guardian Unlimited) casts this rule in simple terms: “if you get a group of 100 people online then one will create content, 10 will “interact” with it (commenting or offering improvements) and the other 89 will just view it.” Arthur adds that The One Percent Rule appears to hold true for YouTube, the rapidly growing online video site and cites statistics showing YouTube’s “creator to consumer ratio” at 0.5%, “but it’s early days yet.”

This rough-and-ready rule seems to apply to the social network sites, like Wikipedia, which rely on “the community” to generate content; it’s clearer now that Wikipedia has a small core of dedicated editors/content generators.

What to make of this?

It’s helpful to consider The One Percent Rule in light of the recent study from Pew Internet & American Life Project on blogging; here’s Pew’s summary of the findings:

The ease and appeal of blogging is inspiring a new group of writers and creators to share their voices with the world.

A national phone survey of bloggers finds that most are focused on describing their personal experiences to a relatively small audience of readers and that only a small proportion focus their coverage on politics, media, government, or technology. Blogs, the survey finds, are as individual as the people who keep them. However, most bloggers are primarily interested in creative, personal expression – documenting individual experiences, sharing practical knowledge, or just keeping in touch with friends and family.

The Pew study found that some 12 million Americans (or 8% of Internet users) are writing blogs, with some 57 million Americans (or 39% of the Web) reading them. Personal expression trumped political opinion: only 11 percent of bloggers were commenting on politics.

If you do the math, Pew is estimating that 1.32 million Americans are blogging on political topics, which represents slightly under 1% of the 147 million Americans using the Web.

The Power of One

NYU’s Jay Rosen has called the blog “a little First Amendment machine.”

That only one percent of the population appears to make use of that machine for political expression may at first seem disappointing, but elites (meritocratically chosen or not) have always driven the discussion of governance and policy. I would argue that the Web has increased the size of that elite in a very positive way.

So all is not lost, even if the top searches on the Web often involve entertainment and pornography.

For starters, what is the reference point for citizen involvement? You could argue that The One Percent Rule reflects an incredible level of activity–after all, blogging and posting is (in most cases) voluntary and without compensation. Before the Web, the outlets for political expression or social (or personal) commentary were limited, and I would guess that it was considerably less than one percent of any community, (except perhaps in time of crisis.)

Education beat reporters will tell you school board meetings are always sparsely attended (certainly less than one percent of the community) unless there’s a controversy over sex education, teacher pay, or a sports program.

If the point of reference is the past, remember also that the much vaunted freedom of the press had limitations–how many of us had access to the press if we were not professional journalists or political operatives? Those barriers to entry have been eradicated by the Web. If you don’t like what you are reading, or hearing, you now have the means to broadcast (or narrow cast) your own take.

The Power of One–of an individual deciding to speak up–has even greater meaning in societies without any lasting tradition of freedom of expression.

The World Editors Forum blog reminded us recently that “Blogs promote free speech in repressive regimes,” and cited examples from Saudi Arabia and China where bloggers use the Web to challenge the cultural, social and political status quo.

Clearly this is a different form of expression than much of what is found on MySpace (where, for example, the Washington Post reports that the Facebook generation continues to post explicit items about their personal life) or other social community sites, but the line can not be drawn so simply. Depending on the circumstances, the personal can be political, after all.

Even if the Internet’s latest wrinkle, the social networks and blogs of Web 2.0, fails to usher in a Golden Age of democratic political expression, it still represents progress. The One Percent Rule is, after all, descriptive, not prescriptive; the Web still offers those willing to invest the time and energy a means to manifest the Power of One.

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (July 28th): Nobody asked me, but…

Once more, with a tip of the fedora to New York’s great newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

GEORGE ORWELL ONCE SAID: “Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.” So in the hopes of being counted among the intelligent, let me note that C-SPAN is broadcasting “American Perspectives: Symposium on Theories about 9/11” at 8PM Saturday night, airing the conspiracy theories of the “9/11 Cover-up Crew” — theories that 9/11 was an “inside U.S. government false flag operation”– and that these theories have been repeatedly discredited by objective-means journalism.

To restate the obvious: the evidence, the existing scientific analysis, and common sense disprove the 9/11 conspiracy theories, recently promulgated in a “documentary” called “Loose Change” and breathlessly covered in August’s Vanity Fair. These theories are, quite simply, false and a disturbing sign of the recent growth of the Paranoid Style in American Politics.

Rather than getting into a point-by-point rebuttal, suffice it to say there are three or four trenchant journalistic critiques that accomplish that task quite well. For those interested, I would recommend the following articles and reports which throughly debunk the conspiracy claims (and include the science behind the collapse of the World Trade Center Building 1, 2 and 7):

  • The Popular Mechanics investigation of the 16 most popular 9/11 conspiracy claims, “9/11: Debunking the Myths,” is a good starting point. PM talked to more than 300 scientists and experts and found the facts just didn’t support theories of rigged demolitions and phantom aircraft.
  • David Corn of the Nation magazine, no admirer of the Bush Administration (author of “The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception”), has also debunked many of the popular 9/11 theories floating around. You can find his take on the question here.
  • Salon‘s Farhad Manjoo throughly “fisks” the “documentary” film “Loose Change” in his “The 9/11 deniers.” (“To fisk” is, according to Wikipedia, “a blogosphere term describing ruthlessly detailed point-by-point criticism that highlights errors, disputes the analysis of presented facts, or highlights other problems in a statement, article, or essay.”)
  • For a more technical discussion, the National Institute of Standards and Technology produced two reports on the collapse of WTC 1 and WTC 2 and will release its final report on WTC 7 this fall. You can find the reports here.

I learned about the C-Span program in a helpful email from one Bill Douglas, a “false flag” proponent and the founder of; Douglas had sent an earlier email proclaiming that, contrary to a recent Cinemax documentary (“Protocols of Zion“), 9/11 conspiracy advocates are not anti-Semites. Douglas protests too much; some of the more pernicious 9/11 claims are deeply anti-Semitic–for example, that American Jews were alerted before 9/11 and avoided working in the World Trade Center and/or that the Mossad knew of the attack in advance.

MEDIA CRITIC HOWARD KURTZ of the Washington Post notes that liberal bloggers have been noticeably silent on the Mideast crisis; and further asks whether this reflects an underlying anti-Israel bias that will haunt the Democrats in the years ahead. Kurtz doesn’t think so, but he does quote Andrew Sullivan: “Are lefties unable to grapple with complex regional wars? Nah. They’re just wimping out.”

WHAT ARE THESE INTERNATIONAL CYCLISTS caught with performance-enhancing drugs in their systems thinking? How do they expect to beat the drug testing? If Tour de France winner Floyd Landis is disqualified for having artifically elevated testosterone levels, a condition he denies, that would be the first question I hope he’d answer.

ARTHUR MILLER, THE AMERICAN PLAYWRIGHT, WROTE a searing play, “All My Sons,” about wartime profiteering. I thought of his drama after seeing the Washington Post article “Homeland Security Contracts Abused” which exposes outright mismanagement, waste and outright fraud among government contractors. It’s criminality that the Bush Justice Department could pursue without overreaching, but don’t count on movement on that front from the “bidness-friendly” Administration.

THE OFTEN-BRILLIANT JOURNALIST DAVID WARSH mounts a spirited defense of Boston’s Big Dig at his web-based independent weekly, Economic Principles, in the wake of the latest crisis at the highway project. Warsh, often the contrarian, concludes: “Despite the expense, the Big Dig is a considerable success” and adds:

… the fact is that the Dig itself has delivered on its original promise to a remarkable extent, easing the east-west and north-south flow of traffic through the city, removing a steel scar bisecting its heart, extending its rail network, creating a major new business district, preserving vibrant old neighborhoods from destruction. The old elevated highway had to be replaced one way or another in any event; given the complexity of the challenge, Boston did about as well as it could.

That the Big Dig has benefited Boston can not be denied. But at what cost? At its inception, planners and politicians ignored a more modest mass transit-based solution to Boston’s commuting woes that would have avoided the complex and difficult engineering challenges posed by the overhaul of Boston’s highway system. An unholy trinity of Big Government, Big Business and Big Labor all pushed for the massive public works project as it meant jobs, construction contracts and lucrative consulting engagements. When cost overruns and shoddy work emerged in the $14.6 billion (and counting) project, local pols closed ranks to keep the money flowing in. A sorry business all around.

To look on the bright side, perhaps the experience of the Big Dig will provoke a consideration of “Small is Beautiful” solutions for future public works projects, including the reconstruction proposed for New Orleans. Hope springs eternal.

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Summer reading: Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

We have been drawn to stories from the time our ancestors huddled around the fire and listened and learned and were entertained and enthralled by the tales of others.

Those stories with mythic qualities have even more power, for they tap into our collective unconscious, those memories that seem hard-coded into us. The Hero’s Journey, what Joseph Campbell called the “monomyth,” borrowing from James Joyce, has always seemed right to me in its depiction of an underlying collective memory that storytellers tap into (Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers admirably decodes literary myth-making with its incisive analysis of both classic literature and more popular fiction). The power of storytelling and myth is real, whether or not Jung’s theory about archetypes is correct. We respond instinctively to certain symbolic tales, and find literary themes that address elemental human concerns to be compelling.

Continue reading “Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas””…

Track back: the Duke lacrosse scandal

When Ray Donovan, Secretary of Labor under President Reagan, was acquitted of highly publicized corruption charges in 1987 he asked, plaintively: “Where do I go to get my reputation back?”

It’s a question that several individuals and organizations involved in the Duke lacrosse scandal may be asking in the future.

The situation began in March, when an African-American stripper first alleged that three white Duke players had raped her at a team party; Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong brought indictments against players Collin Finnerty, Reade Seligmann and David Evans (who have all protested their innocence); Duke’s president Richard Brodhead cancelled the lacrosse season; Newsweek magazine put the story on its cover (with mug shots of the accused players), and cable news and the Web focused on the more prurient aspects of the scandal.

Some of the national interest in the story, as I noted in early June, came because the Duke lacrosse scandal “raises submerged questions of race, class disparity, campus cultural and sexual mores, and the workings of our criminal justice system.”

Since the rape charges were filed, Nifong’s case against the players has not fared well under scrutiny. Most observers believe he is losing the battle for public opinion. Whether Nifong has additional evidence that has not been revealed, or whether he miscalculated by relying so heavily on the testimony of alleged victim, is not yet clear.

As an example of the shift in opinion, columnist Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post, who began presuming guilt, changed her mind:

The paucity of physical evidence; the accuser’s prior unsubstantiated rape charge; her changing stories that night; sloppy and unreliable identification procedures — any of these alone, and certainly all of them together, make it hard to understand why the prosecution is going forward and impossible to imagine that it could win a conviction.

Nifong is not backing down; he recently won the right to “subpoena the home address of any uncharged player he plans to call as a witness.” There are several possible interpretations of that legal move: Nifong may have specific witnesses on the team he wants to question; or he may be on a fishing expedition to try to find that “one honest man” who will back up the accuser’s story. Nifong has said he is looking to try the case in the spring of 2007; the attorney for Reade Seligmann has filed a motion for an earlier date.

Rumors that the accuser might back down appear to be just that–rumors. A report in The Wilmington Journal quoted the cousin of the accuser who claims that Duke alumni had offered the accuser $2 million in “hush money” to drop the charges, but that she had refused. (The newspaper reports: “The alleged victim told her family the trial must proceed, and she wants justice done. Because she remains in seclusion, the alleged victim could not be reached for comment.”)

Restoring Reputations?

Duke University is already moving to restore its reputation as a school which strikes the proper balance between academics and athletics in its sports program. The scandal surfaced a disturbing pattern of behavior by lacrosse players, and when Brodhead decided to continue fielding a men’s lacrosse team, it was with the precondition of new, tough rules governing conduct by the players.

The appointment of John Danowski, a successful coach at Hofstra (and father of the Blue Devils’ rising senior attackman Matt Danowski), as the new Duke men’s lacrosse head coach represents another positive step. Danowski is an experienced coach and he told ESPN:

We’ve always operated in the past under the rules of common sense and human dignity. When you apply those to the rules they’ve [the players] put in place, it actually becomes more strict. But I really don’t foresee any problems. I don’t think anybody wants to be the guy to let everyone down.

The reality is, however, that the “healing process”–as Danowski called it–can commence only after the outcome of the legal process, a point that the former Hofstra coach concedes.

The strange case of Reade Seligmann

Some observers have questioned why Nifong brought charges against Reade Seligmann, a Blue Devils player with, apparently, a fairly strong alibi for the period of time when the rape allegedly occurred. Seligmann’s lawyers say Nifong would not look at the potentially exculpatory evidence before the rape charges were filed.

More than that, Seligmann is the most unlikely of suspects: he was known as the team “straight arrow,” and had apparently wavered on whether or not he would attend the team party at all.

Seligmann, his family, and other supporters have made a strong case for his innocence. An article published in the New York Times (in its N.Y./Region section) on July 16 by Peter Applebome (“As Accusation at Duke Festers, Disbelief Gnaws at Suspect’s Supporters”) highlighted the evidence supporting Seligmann.

On the surface, the most obvious disparity is that records, photographs and eyewitnesses’ accounts from his cellphone, a taxi driver, an A.T.M. and his electronic dorm entry card seem to show that he was either on the phone or far from the party virtually the entire time the attack is to have occurred. (Lawyers for both the other accused players say they have compelling alibis and have passed polygraph tests claiming their innocence.)

After Applebome discloses to his readers that he is a Duke graduate, and his son currently attends the school, he continues:

But you don’t need ties to Duke to look at details that have emerged about the case — the accuser’s history of past accusations and differing accounts of the crime, a lack of DNA evidence, a police lineup of only Duke lacrosse players, a second dancer’s original statement saying no rape could have occurred — and come away queasy.

Maybe he and the others are the monstrous incarnation of white, male privilege, or maybe this has become a cautionary tale of a rush to judgment before facts were known, of a toxic brew of politics and race in the middle of an election for district attorney.

There are a number of possible explanations for the situation. While it seems unlikely, Seligmann may be guilty as charged–“nice kids” can do horrific things under the influence of alcohol and group pressure (look no further than some of the frat hazing incidents that have led to deaths). My guess is that Nifong accepted the accuser’s photo identification of Seligman as solid proof. It is also possible that a rape did occur at the party, but that Seligman was not involved, and the alleged victim misidentified him. It is possible that the accuser has fabricated the entire incident.

What is the truth? That probably will not emerge until the trial, and Seligmann’s eagerness to have his day in court suggests he expects vindication.

The sad fact, however, is that even if Seligmann is cleared of the charges, his reputation will never be the same. As Ray Donovan’s quote suggests, once you have been publicly identified in a criminal case there are always lingering doubts and unanswered questions. Jack Kennedy had it right: sometimes life isn’t fair.

Track backs are updates on recent stories covered in Neither Red nor Blue.

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (July 21st): Nobody asked me, but…

Once more, with a tip of the cap to New York’s great newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

APPLE SHOULD RETHINK THE GENIUS BAR branding in their retail outlets. What is a Genius Bar, you ask? It is a computer repair service desk with a New Age name. The technicians carry the title of Mac Genius and wear trendy black tee shirts and serve customers (who can perch on stools) from behind a long, wooden desk (the Genius Bar). You can make an appointment on the web, in advance, to meet with a Mac Genius.

The downside of this? When your Mac Genius isn’t such a genius in handling your complaint, and there’s that temptation to make snide, wise-guy comments (“If you’re a Mac Genius, what are the Mac Dummies like?”) My assigned Mac Genius finally fixed the problem with my son’s iMac after two trips to the store. For what it’s worth, I observed many frustrated iPod owners grousing about batteries and screens on their sleek little music devices, apparently now a common challenge for the Mac Genii to confront.

And lurking in the shadows, the Evil Empire of Microsoft…where plans for an iPod-like device move inexorably ahead.

ONCE AGAIN, CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS offers a brilliantly contrarian read of events in his Slate piece, “The End of the Affair: Novak Exonerates the Bushies in the Plame Case.” Hitchens argues:

Robert Novak’s July 12 column and his appearance on Meet the Press Sunday night have dissolved any remaining doubt about the mad theory that the Bush administration “outed” Ms. Valerie Plame as revenge for her husband’s refusal to confirm the report by British intelligence that Iraqi officials had visited Niger in search of uranium.

Hitchens promises that he will publish “more material” to prove that “that the original British intelligence on the Niger connection was genuine, and that Wilson missed it.”

On this same topic, attorneys Bruce W. Sanford and Bruce D. Brown restated the obvious in the Washington Post: leak investigations are a waste of time. If only the editorial page editors of the Post and New York Times had agreed at the start of the Plame episode on this sensible position and had not called for a leak probe, reporters Matt Cooper and Judith Miller might have avoided jail time.

BLOGS PROMOTE FREE SPEECH in repressive regimes” reads the headline on The Editors Weblog (published by the World Editors Forum). The late June post notes how blogging offers an outlet for social and political criticism in countries like Saudi Arabia and China. It quotes the optimistic assessment of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (“With the Internet, China is developing for the first time in 4,000 years of history a powerful independent institution that offers checks and balances on the emperors.”) and while not characterizing the blogs as journalism suggests that they will eventually help to “bring down repressive regimes.”

I’m not as sanguine. One of Kristof’s points is that in the future China’s 30,000 Web censors/monitors won’t be able to control the millions of Chinese Internet users (currently estimated at 120 million), yet advances in supercomputing and intelligent software may make the monitoring of Web expression much simpler and suppression easier. I think prospects for a more benign form of governance in China rest more on pressure from Western trading partners for the rule of law and free expression, which is why American companies must make clear their support of those values when doing business in the People’s Republic.

The blogosphere’s freedom unsettles even democratic governments. India shut down access for some bloggers in the aftermath of the Mumbai bombings, much to the legitimate dismay of free speech advocates.

THE WEB IS QUITE DEMOCRATIC: where else could fans of former Del Amitri member Justin Currie get a chance to directly “friend” him other than Currie can be found at (where you can hear some great new Currie songs, including “What is Love For” and “Out of My Control”).

FORMER CIA VETERAN MICHAEL A. SCHEUER, chief of the agency’s Osama bin Laden unit at the Counterterrorist Center, authored a very tough op-ed in the Washington Times in advance of ABC’s mini-series based on former “terrorism czar” Richard Clarke’s memoir, “Against All Enemies.” Scheuer suggests the September 11 Commission whitewashed the failure of American intelligence agencies pre-9/11, reserving his harshest criticism for President Bill Clinton and colleagues.

Mr. Clarke’s book is also a crucial complement to the September 11 panel’s failure to condemn Mr. Clinton’s failure to capture or kill bin Laden on any of the eight to 10 chances afforded by CIA reporting. Mr. Clarke never mentions that President Bush had no chances to kill bin Laden before September 11 and leaves readers with the false impression that he, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, did their best to end the bin Laden threat. That trio, in my view, abetted al Qaeda, and if the September 11 families were smart they would focus on the dereliction of Dick, Bill and Sandy and not the antics of convicted September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.

Scheuer closes with even harsher words for Clarke, Clinton, and Berger; he says he fears that “the reality that Bill, Dick and Sandy helped to push Americans out of the windows of the World Trade Center on that September morning will be buried in miles of fantasy-filled celluloid.”

This is clearly transcends the bounds of decency: Scheuer may believe that Clinton Administration dithering played a part in 9/11, it is another thing to personalize the debate in such a nasty and sneering way (referring to his three targets dismissively by their first name). No matter how bitter Scheuer may be about 9/11, to suggest that Clinton or other officials are responsible for Americans jumping out of the WTC windows is quite simply wrong.

A “TRUMAN-KENNEDY-CLINTON DEMOCRAT” is the label Senator Joe Lieberman assigns himself, leads naturally to this question: can a self-described centrist survive in today’s Democratic Party? The New Republic headline “Cuppa Joe: Can Lieberman Survive?” sums it up. It is now looking like Lieberman may lose his August 8th Connecticut primary showndown with anti-war candidate Ned Lamont, as the latest Quinnipiac Poll shows the challenger inching ahead. If Joementum fails in the primary, Lieberman is prepared to run as an independent, and you can count on a bitterly contested three-way general election.

BRUCE ARENA, FORMER US NATIONAL SOCCER TEAM COACH, is taking over the New York Red Bulls (as predicted here last week); it would be great for Major League Soccer if Arena can make the Red Bulls instant winners and recapture some of the magic the fabled New York Cosmos once brought to New Jersey.

FORMER NEW YORK TIMES EDITOR HOWELL RAINES offered up a great quote in an appearance in Aspen, Colorado when asked about media leaks: “Almost all leakers are lawyers. That’s the bottom line.”

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Magical thinking and the Mideast

The recent reaction from American political commentators and opinion leaders—on both the Right and Left—to Israel’s aggressive response in Lebanon and Gaza to Hezbollah and Hamas terrorism has been striking in its reliance on magical thinking.

Whether it is neo-conservatives angry at President Bush for what they see as his less-than-muscular foreign policy, or those on the Left decrying what they regard as Bush’s retreat from multilateralism, shuttle diplomacy and the Mideast “peace process,” these commentators share an assumption that American power (diplomatic or military) can, and should, be rapidly exercised to bring about a “Mideast solution.”

This is magical thinking at its best (or worst). Children are often prone to magical thinking, believing that their own thoughts can influence events. Magical thinkers confuse correlation for causation: the notion that thinking something will happen can make it happen. This is on full display in the commentary on the turmoil in Israel, Lebanon and the Gaza. There is also a characteristically American spin to the debate: a muddled understanding of the historical and cultural context, an impatience for results, and an overreliance on rationality.

Many on the Right don’t, or won’t, recognize the limits of American power (or the costs of exercising it). Yes, we are the last superpower with the world’s most powerful military, but we are learning—in Iraq and Afghanistan—that an asymmetrical balance of power carries it own burdens. Some aren’t receptive to the lesson: the Washington Post reports that conservatives are in open rebellion over Bush’s foreign policy:

Conservative intellectuals and commentators who once lauded Bush for what they saw as a willingness to aggressively confront threats and advance U.S. interests said in interviews that they perceive timidity and confusion about long-standing problems including Iran and North Korea, as well as urgent new ones such as the latest crisis between Israel and Hezbollah.

There is a disconnect here between ideology and reality—a reflection of a form of magical thinking. What are the costs and benefits of unilateral military action? What about the Weinberger Doctrine and its tests for the introduction of American military force? Those neocons eager for confrontation with Iran and North Korea are dismissive of that calculus—but seeing the use of the military as a last resort, as Weinberger did, is more in keeping with American history and values than the Lone Rangerism they advocate.

In contrast, some on the Left refuse to acknowledge the repeated failure of multi-state diplomacy in the Mideast and the clear impotence of international bodies like the United Nations in peace-keeping or nation-bulding (vide: Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Israel/Palestine, etc.) They seem to believe that more “jaw jaw” is all that is needed for the lion to lie down with the lambs. They don’t seem to have considered the fact that “good-faith” negotiation might not work with Islamic extremists (after all, for secular Western liberals everything seems negotiable.) Thus we have Robert Scheer in the Nation assigning blame to President Bush for not following the diplomatic path of the Clinton years.

…Bush’s complete disinterest in the Mideast peace process—especially as an “honest broker” between Israel and the Palestinians—since the Supreme Court handed him the job in 2000 has paved the way for this moment.

But should we be surprised at Bush’s poor grasp of the world he supposedly leads? After all, the blundering of the Bush Administration has seriously undermined secular politics in the Mideast and boosted the religious zealots of groups like Hezbollah to positions of pre-eminence throughout the region, from savagely violent Iraq to the beleaguered West Bank and Gaza.

But what is truly “ironic” is that the Bush Administration, having overstretched our military and generated no foreign policy ideas beyond the willy-nilly “projection” of military force, has become a helpless bystander as the entire region threatens to burn.

Of course Scheer ignores the reality that the Mideast “peace process” has been more about “process” than peace. Indeed, it could be argued that the very sort of “honest brokering” Scheer advocates is what put a corrupt Yasser Arafat in power and led to the rise of Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, and in Lebanon, allowed the existence of Hezbollah rockets within striking distance of Haifa.

In fact, President Bush is guilty of magical thinking himself, as evidenced in his widely-reported remarks (“See, the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it’s over”); there is a dynamic to the situation in southern Lebanon that may very well be out of the control of Hezbollah’s patrons in Damascus and Baghdad.

For that matter, there is also the implicit assumption by commentators of all political stripes that Israel will immediately follow whatever policy line Washington decides upon. This is just not realistic. Israeli leaders can not be expected to endorse any “solution” that leaves Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem open to future missile salvos.

There is an antidote to American magical thinking. It is to step back and look at the historical context, to recognize that there has been progress in the Mideast (Egypt and Jordan are clearly sitting this crisis out, each satisfied with its separate peace with Israel), but that progress has come fitfully and often because of battlefield realities—the “facts on the ground”—and not because of any grand diplomatic process.

Solutions to the current crisis that sound reasonable in Washington may not make sense in Jerusalem or Beirut; we would be well served to remember the consequences of a hasty American intervention may be greater than we realize. But that does require some humility.

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Summer reading: Ernest Hemingway & Tim O’Brien

Ernest Hemingway
Soldier’s Home

Tim O’Brien
Speaking of Courage

As a small child I remember hearing my father call out sharply in his sleep; there was no pattern to these nightmares, they just seemed to surface now and then. In the morning, at the breakfast table, my father would apologize, explaining that it had only been a bad dream about the War. That was all he would ever say. He had served in General George Patton’s Third Army during the Battle of Bulge, and more than 15 years later was still struggling with his memories.

My father’s war is now widely considered “The Good War”; the veterans of Korea and Vietnam dealt with their ghosts without the same public sympathy or understanding. In the summer of 1993, in Florida, I listened as a small support group of Vietnam veterans talked about their feelings in advance of President Bill Clinton’s visit to the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington.

Most didn’t really care that Clinton had avoided the draft; a few were cynical or angry. Most in the group cherished the Wall as a much-delayed and much-needed validation of their sacrifices for the country. Speechmaking and presidential visits some nearly 20 years after the fall of Saigon did not move them.

My general impression at the time was that many of the men had not adjusted particularly well to civilian life; some still wore camouflage, others were being treated for mental and physical ailments (more than one blaming their health problems on exposure to Agent Orange). While veterans in a support group are more likely to be troubled (almost by definition), other Vietnam veterans I’ve known have told me that returning from an unpopular war to an indifferent or hostile reception proved very difficult.

Now today’s veterans find themselves rotated back to a country cushioned from the realities of war. Iraq has been a strange conflict, with no clear battlefields and with irregular combatants; military scholars would call it a “low-level intensity war,” but try telling that to American troops who face a dangerous and violent insurgency. Many of those Americans currently serving have been drawn from National Guard units; they are often weekend warriors, middle-aged men and women called into active duty, sent thousands of miles from home, pulled from civilian routines and domestic concerns, sent into harm’s way with little preparation.

Some Iraq veterans have told me of their readjustment troubles—many have a hard time driving in traffic, spooked by oncoming cars after months of anxiety on the roads of Iraq and a constant fear of suicide bombers, ambushes and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

No doubt the experiences of these men, and, increasingly, women (with their de facto introduction into combat) will be reflected in the fiction of the next several decades. Stories are a way of dealing with the past, and the pain; since Homer’s Odyssey authors have touched upon the conflicts a warrior feels in returning to the home he left behind, after what he has seen and done, and how he must take up the threads of an interrupted life. These stories can also have some carthartic effect for both the writer, and the reader, a way (as Aristotle first theorized about the experience of viewing a tragic play) to confront and purge the negativity of the past.

Stories of return

Ernest Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Return” focuses on a veteran of the Great War, Harold Krebs, who has made a somewhat delayed return to his hometown in Oklahoma (“the greetings of heros was over”); Tim O’Brien’s “Speaking of Courage” (which has a coda in the brief story “Notes”) follows a burnt-out Vietnam veteran, Norman Bowker, on a peaceful July 4th in a Midwestern town.

By the time Hemingway’s story appeared in print, many Americans had soured on the War to End All Wars. It was no longer seen in simple, heroic terms. (Indeed, much of the backing for America First and the isolationist movement before World War Two had its origins in American disenchantment with its first war on European soil.)

At first Harold Krebs “did not want to talk about the war,” but later, when he does, he finds few takers for the truth about Belleau Wood and the Argonne; to be listened to, Hemingway tells us, he must lie. Although he doesn’t do a particularly good job of it, Krebs finds that his exaggerations carry an internal cost.

Krebs acquired the nausea in regard to experience that is the result of untruth or exaggeration, and when he occasionally met another man who had really been a soldier and they talked a few minutes in the dressing room at a dance he fell into the easy pose of the old soldier among other soldiers: that he had been badly, sickeningly frightened all the time…

Krebs has been transformed, hollowed out, by what he has experienced. He is detached, unwilling to engage with anything requiring emotional engagement. He desires the pretty girls he sees on his town’s streets, but will not pursue them because he did not “want to have to do any courting.” Krebs shies from any commitment: “He did not want any consequences. He did not want any consequences ever again.”

Krebs finds comfort only in the adoration of young sister, Helen; he can not deal with his very conventional parents who worry about his lack of interest and ambition. Krebs can not even bring himself to tell his mother that he loves her.

“I don’t love anybody,” Krebs said.
It wasn’t any good. He couldn’t tell her, he couldn’t make her see it. He had only hurt her. ..

Krebs makes a clumsy apology, goes through the motion of praying with him mother, and resolves to move to Kansas City and get a job to silence his parents. It is only, we can see, so that he will not have to engage. “He wanted his life to go smoothly.”

The first time I read O’Brien’s “Speaking of Courage,” I thought immediately of “Soldier’s Return” and how Krebs and Norman Bowker both find that small town America prefers to remain ignorant about the wars fought in their name.

The town could not talk, and would not listen. “How’d you like to hear about the war?” he might have asked, but the place could only blink and shrug. It had no memory, therefore no guilt. The taxes got paid and the voters got counted and the agencies of government did their work briskly and politely. It was a brisk, polite town. It did not know shit about shit, and did not care to know.

Bowker does know, and as he drives his father’s Chevy aimlessly around the town’s lake on Independence Day, he muses about how he “could have won the Silver Star for valor” the rainy night he was pinned down in a flooded “shit field” near the Song Tra Bong river. There is nothing heroic in the horrific scene he remembers—the “terrible stink” and the gruesome death of his buddy, Kiowa—and he is left feeling unclean and not “as brave as he wanted to be.”

We are left with a resolution, of sorts. After Bowker’s “twelfth revolution” around the lake, the fireworks begin (“the sky went crazy with color”) and he stops, parks the Chevy, and wades into the water, “without undressing.” It is a moment of cleansing, of “washing off the shit,” a rebaptism:

The water felt warm against his skin. He put his head under. He opened his lips, very slightly, for the taste, then he stood up and folded his arms and watched the fireworks. For a small town, he decided, it was a pretty good show.

O’Brien will not leave us with this relatively happy closure; for in the very next story in his collection of stories,The Things They Carried, entitled “Notes,” he tells us that “Speaking of Courage” had been revised from its initial version, one inspired by Norman Bowker (we wonder: a real person? A friend of O’Brien’s?) And O’Brien tells us that Bowker had “hanged himself in the locker room of a YMCA in his hometown in central Iowa;” as he ends this brief epilog, O’Brien (the narrator) confesses that the story of the Song Tra Bong shit field wasn’t drawn from the memories of Bowker, but from his own.

We feel somehow cheated. What is the truth? Is it “Tim O’Brien” (a fictional character) who is relating this to us, or Tim O’Brien (the narrator and author). What are we to believe? We are a long way from the flat, spare tonality of Hemingway’s Harold Krebs. Yet O’Brien has given us a story that, to paraphrase John Updike, has caught the ambiguity and opaqueness of memory, of life itself.

It becomes a story hard to forget.

This is the third in a series of Summer Reading: Short Fictions essays for Summer 2006. I’ve chosen to write about a number of my favorite short stories and their authors:

Short Fictions: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Short Fictions: Doris Lessing

Short Fictions: Ernest Hemingway & Tim O’Brien

(You can find some of my own short fiction here).

The links for the reviewed stories:

Ernest Hemingway: “Complete Short Stories”

Tim O’Brien: “They Things They Carried”

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

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