Toward Government by Grown-Ups

My daughter is having a problem with her math class right now. What precise problem she’s having is difficult to say, at least for her. As her parent, though, I’m pretty sure I know what the problem is: She’s refusing to take responsibility for her own actions.

I’ve become pretty familiar with the symptoms. The first sign is her coming to me for help with her homework. Which is fine. But as I’m going over the assignment with her, it quickly becomes clear that she’s not really focusing on it. She’s mopey and whiny, and quickly shifts from talking about the actual assignment to complaining that she doesn’t know how to do any of this and the teacher isn’t making sense when he talks about it in class and the other kids in the class are all smarter than she is and she’s never going to be able to understand any of it.

None of which are true.

These symptoms are my clue that she doesn’t really need help with her math. (Well, she probably does, but it won’t do any good to try to help her with it until the larger problem has been addressed.) The larger problem is that she’s not really trying to deal with her assignment. She’s looking for an excuse that lets her avoid responsibility for it.

Once I figure that out, it’s usually a pretty quick process to help her get back on track. She probably needs a break, or a snack, or just to go to bed and come back to sit down with me and look at the assignment in the morning, when she’s rested and able to focus.

I’m not trying to belittle her here. I think what she’s doing is perfectly normal behavior for a 13-year-old. (It certainly was for me at that age. And, truth be told, well beyond. Up to and including, erm, well, mumble mumble mumble…)

But the point of my bringing this up isn’t to embarrass my daughter. It’s to point out the remarkable similarity between her adolescent avoidance-of-responsibility behavior and that of the Bush people in reacting to the story of the missing 380 tons of explosives at the al Qaqaa munitions dump.

Josh Marshall has been all over this story from the outset, so go read some of his recent items if you want details (the most recent item as of now is this one: Okay, now we seem to have the White House’s third rendition of what happened…). Since the story broke last weekend, the Bush folks have asserted all of the following:

  • We didn’t know anything about this until 10 days ago. If munitions are missing from the dump, it’s the fault of the interim Iraqi government, since they control that facillity now, not us. Talk to them about it. Oh, and we haven’t made the information public because it’s standard policy to avoid letting the insurgents know that this stuff might be missing.
  • Okay; the Iraqis say that the munitions weren’t there when they took over the facility, and that they brought the issue up with us months ago. But this is really just a politically motivated attack by the liberal New York Times and the Kerry campaign. The munitions aren’t a big deal; it’s just a few insignificant explosives that may or may not actually have disappeared, when the truth is that we successfully destroyed more than 243,000 munitions, and have secured another 163,000 (or maybe another 363,000). Why aren’t our political opponents talking about that?
  • Okay; the missing munitions actually are significant in terms of their dangerousness and the quantities involved, but they were already gone when our troops first got there in early April of 2003. They must have been moved out by Saddam’s troops, or taken by someone else, in the final few days before the war, or during the early phase of the war itself.

The more evidence that comes to light, though, the more clear it becomes that the munitions actually were there when the US troops first arrived, but that those troops didn’t bother securing them, because that wasn’t the mission they’d been given. And the arrival and swift departure of those US forces was what opened the door to widespread looting that continued unchecked for days, or possibly even weeks.

See this item from the New York Times today, in which they interview some of those who carried out the looting: 4 Iraqis tell of looting at munitions site in ’03. Also, see this story, about a local TV news crew from Minneapolis/St. Paul that was embedded with US forces, and videotaped large quantities of munitions at the facility on April 18, 2003 (more than a week after the explosives were already gone, in the Bush people’s latest version): 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS video may be linked to missing explosives in Iraq.

Meanwhile, after two days of silence on the issue earlier in the week, Bush himself has started hitting back on the campaign trail. According to Bush, the whole story just illustrates how John Kerry is willing to make wild charges unsupported by the facts. It’s an example of a craven political attack that denigrates the competence and patriotism of our troops in the field. “A political candidate who jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts is not a person you want as your commander in chief,” the irony-challenged Bush actually said at one rally.

This is all so familiar to me. It’s exactly how my daughter acts when she’s trying to avoid responsibility for her math homework. Instead of actually addressing the real problem (she wasn’t paying attention when this material was covered in class, so now she doesn’t know how to do the problems), she spins off into a big confusing mass of self-contradictory excuses, which all have as their unifying theme the notion that whatever the problem is, it’s somebody else’s fault.

When my daughter does it, I just assume it’s normal adolescent blame-avoidance. She’s not pursuing this as a conscious strategy (at least I don’t think she is); it’s just the most emotionally appealing of the various coping strategies she sees available to her. In the case of the Bush team, I give them credit for doing at least a little more actual analysis of the political implications of various responses they might make. But the end result is the same.

The facts pretty clearly indicate that this was a direct result of the lame planning for the war’s aftermath that Kerry has been hammering them about for months now. Since the facts don’t help them, they obscure the facts. They amp up the rhetoric, make a bunch of wild charges about Kerry, and try to minimize the impact on the electorate by getting as much of the media as possible to cover it as a your-word-against-mine political argument.

Notice how this is exactly the same approach Bush’s handlers took when Richard Clarke’s book came out, and he testified before the 9/11 commission about how the Bush national security team had been asleep at the switch in the months leading up to 9/11. They couldn’t challenge his argument on the facts, so they raised a fog by ratcheting up the personal attacks on Clarke himself, and (at least somewhat successfully) getting the media to cover it as a garden-variety political dispute.

This really gets to the heart of the Jon Stewart case against the news media, by the way. It’s their susceptibility to covering stories in this way, and the ease with which either side can game them into doing so, even when the facts clearly show that one side is bullshitting, that leads me to think our democracy could very well be doomed.

Anyway, it’s just incrediby obvious to me when my daughter’s trying to avoid responsibility in this way. And I think it’s equally obvious when the Bush people do it. We seriously need to hold these people accountable, and get the grown-ups back in charge of our government. And the news media need to stop being their monkey.

7 Responses to “Toward Government by Grown-Ups”

  1. thomas Says:

    Very nice, well done!

  2. Eric Lee Says:

    I’ve been following this as closely as you from reading the Joshua Marshall analysis and you’ve hit it on the head: they are an immature bunch who doesn’t want to take responsibility for anything and the Media is miserably failing at their job, which lets them get away with it. The Media has already done such an excellent job that millions of people still believe in the Bush lies about WMD, phantom Iraq-alQaeda connections, and the list goes on.

    “Why do the facts hate America?”

  3. Craig Says:

    In following news sources from both sides of the political spectrum, the only thing that seems clear is this, the same sifting of facts from the fiction and inaccuracies that occur from the “fog of war” are also needed to be done in dealing with the “fog of spin”. Anyone who wants to claim final judgement on this whole issue hasn’t learned any lessons from similar events in this political season.

    It is still uncertain not only about how much explosive material was at the site (ABC News indicates as little as 3 tons), but also whether it was there before or after US troops arrived, and how much either Iraqi troops (or Russian??? – admittedly a stretch) may have removed for safekeeping versus looters/insurgents. Even the sources cited by John state that they cannot give smoking gun certainty to these questions.

    One of the back stories that I find interesting is this whole saga about CBS pleading with the NYT to hold off on this story until this coming Sunday, thus delivering an October surprise right before the election that would give maximum negative impact to Bush, due to a minimal amount of time to present counterpoints. And now ABC appears guilty of wanting initially to hold back this latest terrorist video threat until after the election, to possibly avoid giving a boost to the Bush campaign. The brazen attempts by such major media players, in recent months, to inject themselves into the political process and become part of the event, rather than reporting the event, is shocking to me, even in this day and age.

    And lets not forget another player with motive in this political story. The UN agency, the IAEA, who’s Director happened to rehash this news at such a convienient time, is someone who is seeking a new term as Director, and whose main detractor is none other than the Bush Administration! No political axe to grind in the repackaging of this whole news nugget, I suppose??

    And yet, my own gut feeling is that this thing is yet another issue that just doesn’t resonate with the voting public in a way that would cause people to waver on their decision. Almost everyone has made up their minds on this election, and have done so for quite a while.

    I would also venture to say that its not a failing by the Big Media to present all the facts to the American public, it’s simply that many people don’t really want to bother themselves with details. They know what they want to know. That thought alone is sobering, no matter what side of the political equation you are on.

    As usual, time will tell where the responsibility falls on this story. Most likely, any final blame will fall on more than one group in varying degrees. So far, the most active October surprise organizers are the Democrats and their operatives. Will Rove just skip October and have November’s version simply be the re-election of Bush?

  4. John Callender Says:

    Yes, but in following “news sources from both sides of the political spectrum” you’re including a great many folks (a few on the left, possibly, if you’re really doing what you say you’re doing, and a very, very large number on the right) who aren’t actually providing news, but are just putting out propaganda favorable to their own side.

    The balancing you are doing is the equivalent of taking my daughter’s version of how she’s doing in math class (she’s failing) and her teacher’s version of how she’s doing (she’s getting an A), and deciding that, on balance, the evidence shows she’s getting a C.

    Not all sources of information are equal. And based on a critical analysis that takes into account the history and the institutional biases of the various principals and media sources talking about the al Qaqaa story, I think it’s well-demonstrated (not certain, but reasonably well-demonstrated) that the Bush administration’s failure to plan for the aftermath of the war led to the explosives at that facility being looted by our enemies. I think it’s also pretty clear that many of the media sources on the right that you’re paying attention to are willing to say pretty much anything in support of Bush (just as there are a few fringe sources on the left willing to say anything to attack him).

    Yes, the fact that large numbers of people don’t pay attention to _any_ media sources (or just to right-wing ones) is a huge problem. But there’s a little bit of a chicken-and-the-egg issue there; some, at least, of those people have tuned out from the mainstream media because they perceive that that media isn’t doing an adequate job. Which they’re not (even the ones doing actual journalism). Or they would be much more willing to offer critical judgements of the information they’re passing on, rather than being manipulated by one side or the other into giving even-handed treatment to competing claims that aren’t equally supported by the facts.

    Yes, the timing of the IAEA putting this story into play right now looks like a calculated attack on Bush. To the extent the media is being successfully used as a weapon by one side against the other, that’s bad, and I wish the media was doing its job so well that it could resist being used that way, or would at least report that aspect of the story, too. But if it was that scrupulous about resisting transparent efforts to manipulate stories, I think the net result would be much worse for Bush than the current system, because I think the facts on Iraq actually tend to support the Kerry position much more strongly than they support the Bush position. I mean, Kerry, for all his faults (and yes, I’m aware that he has them) is making an argument rooted in verifiable fact. Bush is arguing almost entirely with smoke and mirrors.

    There’s certainly a lot of truth in your comment that I’m leaving unacknowledged/unaddressed. And sure, reality is always murky, and truth is nuanced, and I’m casting this in pretty black-and-white terms. But I do think you’re letting your own biases factor into your attempt to analyze this information even-handedly.

  5. Thom Says:

    Unlike yourself?

  6. John Callender Says:

    That’s a false dichotomy. Just because I’m subject to the same failing (and yeah, sure, everyone is, including me) doesn’t invalidate my pointing it out in his case.

    On the narrower question of who’s letting his biases push him in the direction of misinterpreting the available evidence as to what happened at al Qaqaa, I think the ongoing unfolding of the story (see today’s headlines at a non-right-wing-propaganda news outlet) supports my interpretation over that of Bush’s defenders. Craig isn’t really taking a position on the question, as much as a “well, we’ll just have to wait and see,” but again, I think I’ve seen enough to be comfortable drawing the conclusion that I am.

    For me, this has reached the stage I eventually reached with respect to the absence of WMD in Iraq in the aftermath of the war. Then, as now, Bush’s more-ardent supporters were hopping from one rhetorical defense to another, while seizing on one Fox-News-trumpeted preliminary report of “yes, _this_ time we’ve found ’em” (that subsequently turned into a page-20 followup of “oops, sorry; turns out to be fertilizer”) after another. Meanwhile, folks like Craig were sagely pointing out that we really didn’t _know_, and would have to wait for the fullness of time to reach a conclusive verdict. But for me, it had reached the point where it was obvious what the truth was. And subsequent events vindicated my position. I was right. The other side was wrong. And that result needs to be factored into the mix the next time a similar dispute crops up.

    We’re at that point now with al Qaqaa. Again, a respect for open-mindedness and balance doesn’t mean you have to treat both sides’ stories as equivalent, if one side’s position is supported by the facts and the other’s isn’t. Your brain comes equipped with a bullshit detector for a reason. You should use it.

    I’m actually not worried so much about either you or Craig; having been on the receiving end of you bullshit detectors, I can verify that they are, in fact, working. I just think they could use a little recalibration in this case. :-)

  7. chimpy Says:

    We were supposed to be saving the world from WMD (none found) and we were told we’d be welcomed as saviors from Saddam (didn’t happen). What, then, has NOT been a lie from the Bush government?

    Why is the resistance growing in popular support among both Shiite and Sunni Muslims everywhere? Because of the stupid policies of George W. Bush, that’s why. Can anyone think of a way to make more enemies? Short of attacking additional innocent countries, we can’t.

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