On Manufactured Outrage

You know what annoys, when one is reading a book that is otherwise enjoyable? Say you’re reading a book about some subject you have a fair degree of knowledge about, but as with anything you can and want still to learn more. The book you’re reading really seems to throw different light on things you already know a good deal about, and of course also has a great deal of material you haven’t yet known. And then there it is: A statement of fact that you know to be wildly incorrect. About something that even a modest familiarity with the subject matter would indicate to be off the reservation. Something like getting the date of a battle in the wrong month and year, or putting the wrong general in command, or getting major historical events in reverse order.

Ick! It’s like finding half a worm in something you’re eating. Never pleasant, but the more you were enjoying your meal the more alarming is the discovery. And just like that half-worm destroys your ability to take another bite of your lunch, even that part that you have no reason to suspect of housing further vermin, that botched fact ruins your ability to enjoy any part of the rest of your book. If the author and his editor(s) couldn’t be troubled to get right something so basic as when the Battle of Chancellorsville was fought relative to Gettysburg, something that you know if only from not having slumbered your way through 8th grade American history, how in the world can you trust them to get right the statements about the complicated things, the fresh analysis, you bought the book in order to read in the first place? How can you accept anything written in it as true? 

The same dynamic operates with the commentariat. You always, if you’re the least sentient, take everything you read with a grain of salt. People make mistakes, after all; they weigh evidence poorly; they guess the wrong door, the wrong shell as hiding the pea. But — at least as to the ones you choose to pay close attention to — you still have to extend a certain degree of trust to them, to identify themes and stories that are significant, to explain correctly why they’re significant, to report accurately the factual material on which they base their statements, not to quote people or sources inaccurately or out of context or so incompletely as to give a false sense of their statements, to give the other side a fair shake, conceding its meritorious points or just the points on which people of good faith may disagree. When the commentariat and the news reporter meld, when the same author or publication undertakes both functions, the importance of being able to extend that trust becomes of critical importance. 

The ability to trust becomes make-or-break when the author or publication is ostensibly non-partisan, in the sense of not unabashedly representing the interests or the positions of an organized political force. Just by way of example, no one in his right mind thinks of The New York Times or Time magazine, or Salon or the Puffington Host or MSNBC as being anything other than Democrat Party operatives with bylines (confession: that last expression is not my own, and if I weren’t so lazy I’d track it down to its origin and footnote it . . . but Gentle Reader will have to forgive me). And let’s not forget that JournoList, an organization that was formed for the explicit purpose of surreptitiously assisting the candidacy of one party’s man for the presidency by discussing, vetting, coordinating, and managing in advance not only how things were to be reported but also the most basic decision of what to report in the first place, was run from a computer in the offices of The Washington Post. By like token no one reads Alternet to get a reasonably good-faith analysis of any particular issue. If you want to find out what the current White House-approved talking points are, they’re your huckleberry. 

There are, or have been from time to time, news and commentary sources that genuinely have been more or less even-handed in whom and what they excoriate. PorkBusters was one of them. They called bullshit as and when they saw it, and to them it made no difference if the pork came from a Republican, a Democrat, or more commonly, from both. If it came from the Bush White House, they called it out. If it came from the Republican Senate (pre-2007, of course), they called it. Ditto if it oozed out of Nancy Pelosi’s racketeering House. There are others, of course, some of them focused on the national scene and others on state or local scenes. 

Which gets me to the origins of this post. A number of weeks ago, I ran across a link to a story run by some self-proclaimed watchdog site. In fact if I recall it even has that word in its name. You’ve seen them and their kind before: They report the stupid stuff government – especially the hidden bureaucracies – does, the wasteful stuff, the undoing-with-one-hand-what-the-other’s-just-paid-for programs and initiatives. The monumentally dumb.  The outright crooked and venal. And in so doing they perform a vital function. We need people like that to watch for us, because the lamestream media sure as billy hell has no interest in it any more. 

Remember the name Eason Jordan? He was the CNN guy who got caught sliming the American forces in the Middle East (his specific lie was that American troops were intentionally shooting at reporters; he lost his job over that one) during the second Gulf War and afterwards. He was also the fellow who publicly spilled the beans that his employer, CNN, knew, all the way from 1990 up to the 2003 invasion, of Saddam Hussein’s grisly human rights violations but that its people had gone soft on reporting what he was up to, in order to protect their “access.” In other words, CNN intentionally down-played the depredations of a blood-thirsty tyrant so that he would keep returning their phone calls. Way to take a stand, guys. 

If that’s how CNN handles events of world-wide significance, what in the world makes you think your local newspaper doesn’t play the same shuck-n-jive game when it comes to deciding which bureaucrats to out? Bust the state director of X and there went your last off-the-record conversation with anyone in that department. Point out how internally incoherent Program Y is and no one involved in it will ever return another phone call of yours. Point out that the wife of a prominent local politician is being paid the equivalent of a nearly full-time salary to read kiddie books to the little dears two afternoons a week at the library, and see who lines up against you. So we need the mavericks, the self-proclaimed watchdogs, the ones who’ll report whatever comes to light and damn the torpedoes. 

But you’ve got to be able to trust them. 

If they set themselves up as sniffing out what’s important for Us Proles to know and explaining to us why it’s objectionable, then what if they’re lying to us? What if they’re twisting facts and mangling people’s statements? What if they’re parading a bunch of stuff that’s really all much ado about nothing while sitting on the volcanically explosive revelations?

It matters, in other words, how they conduct themselves.

Several weeks ago, as I mentioned, I ran across this post on this particular website. It reported, in a breathless-but-snarky tone, an e-mail that was sent by a senior state bureaucrat to staff. The department had just moved into a new building the physical characteristics of which were quite different from their old digs. This particular missive dealt with the new building’s plumbing system, and the theme was please be careful what you flush down the toilets (short version: it matters a great deal, and not just to the plumbing inside your building). I might mention that this particular organization is in charge of supervising and regulating every public wastewater system in the state. So the concern was not coming out of left field. Among the specific injunctions was not to believe the packages of allegedly “flushable” wipes; apparently they in fact do trash wastewater treatment plants because they can’t be treated. But the e-mail’s writer slipped up and used a little humor to make the point. Among the laundry list of things not to flush were “old shoes.” Well. From this website’s reporting you’d have thought that the state’s senior executive branch was earnestly advising its staff to wear wolfsbane about the neck, carry nosegays to ward off evil vapors, and always to propitiate the gods by sacrificing the correct number of puppies on their backyard altars. Jesus Christ and General Jackson!! I hate it when people pretend not to understand. When they pretend to be outraged by something that any drooling imbecile can see was done or said in jest. When people treat as serious what is obviously light-hearted. I hate it because it is fundamentally dishonest.

The e-mail of course was “leaked” (if that’s even the right term; the Pentagon papers were “leaked,” as have been Snowden’s documents; this kind of pippy-poo tattle-taling scarcely deserves the verb) by a discontented underling, of whom there appear to be several in that organization. Since I happen to know the writer of the e-mail, I dropped a brief note to offer my encouragement, and remind of General Stilwell’s motto: Don’t let the bastards grind you down. I also suggested that, when in the future departing from mind-numbing bureau-speak, the following statement be included using Outlook’s signature block feature: 

[Warning:  Contains humor.  Also may contain metaphor, analogy, poetic license, assonance, consonance, alliteration, and/or dramatic comparison-and-contrast.  Prepared in a facility that also processes irony and skepticism.  If you experience literalism or other Inability to Get the Point Without Someone Drawing You a Picture that lasts for more than thirty minutes, contact your fourth-grade English teacher or any literate person of your choosing at once.]

So in the future, if whichever school-playground Deep Throat wants to provide this outfit with any more juicy examples of bureaucratic silliness for them to swell up and take seriously for the safety of the common weal, they’ll have to do it over a point-blank call-out of their nonsense.

In all, a trivial sequence of event. What is important, however, and what annoys me, is that now and forevermore, when I see something reported by this “watchdog” site, I will have to wonder what the story really is. Whether they just happen to be leaving something out. Something necessary to understand the substance of the story. Something that, if I knew it, would reveal the whole thing to be a great big So What with a side of fries. I will have to wonder whether they’re trying to inflate a penny-ante non-event for the purpose of distracting me from something genuinely of lasting importance. I will never be able to take their reporting or their commentary at face value.

Dealing with a liar is tiring. It consumes so much energy to have to filter everything one hears through a meta-algorithm that really has nothing to do with the specifics of what’s being said: Why might this person want to lie to me, and how might he be doing it? Dare I rely on what he is saying and if I do what are my risks? Why is this person telling me this? Why now? Who else has been told, what have they been told, and in what order? Why that group of people?  What information is being kept back and when will that be disclosed to me? All this is true whether or not the person I know to be dishonest is or is not in fact lying in this particular instance. Instead of navigating my way through a world of confusing facts I have to navigate my way first through a welter of deception before I can even confront the confusing facts.

At least when I find half a worm in my food, I can order another plate of a different item. But a watchdog that tries to bullshit me is good for nothing but shooting.

[Update 30 Dec 13:]  They’ve done it again.  For Christmas I got The War That Ended Peace, which The Economist, among others, included in its Best Books of 2013 list.  The author has her Ph.D. from Oxford, grew up in Canada, and both her grandfathers fought in the mess.  I’m just wading into it, but it’s really a history of the pre-war era and expressly asks the question not of why did the war start but why did the peace stop.  The actual war is broad-brushed in the epilogue.  In reading that part first (it’s not cheating; I know how the war ended), sure enough there it was:  She’s been and went and gone and done it:  According to the author, the British lost 57,000 men on July 2, 1916, the “first day” of the Somme.  For nearly a century July 1 has been a quasi-national day of mourning in Britain, because it was on that day that Kitchener’s armies went over the top to their slaughter.  Not the next day.  It’s like delving into a book that promises to look at Gettysburg from a novel angle, and finding a casual mention of the symbolism of the Iron Brigade being decimated on Easter Sunday.  The head explodes.