Saturday, February 14, 2009


Another set of quotes from Facebook

I've run out of space again. Here's the latest selection!

"And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world, our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear the world down: we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security: we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright: tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals -- democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope." - Barack Obama

"People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power." - Bill Clinton

"Russia has found little support for its actions. A pat on the back from Daniel Ortega and Hamas is not a diplomatic triumph." - Condoleezza Rice

"Just remember: the best thing about this town is me." - Helen on her hometown
"I prefer the ones with jam in them. You know, so that it squirts out all over your face when you bite into it." - Helen on doughnuts
"...and I'll have two shots of sambuca as well, please." - Helen, making the most of a civilised lunch in a country pub

"On only two scores can The Economist hope to outdo its rivals consistently. One is the quality of its analysis; the other is the quality of its writing." - The Economist Style Guide, modestly

"We humans are now playing lead electric guitar in Mother Nature's symphony orchestra." - Heidi Cullen, quoted in Thomas Friedman's latest (Hot, Flat & Crowded)

"They are badly dressed, badly equipped, and many of them are drunk. There are just a lot of them." - Mikheil Saakashvili on the Russians invading his country

Nat: "Where *is* all the culture in America?
"Una: "It must be in New York."

"There's a French version of bullfighting, but instead of fighting the bull, they just run away." - Chris

"I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention." - Jane Austen on History

"I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass." - Sir John Falstaff

"We sent our DS off to Nintendo to get the screen fixed, and we left the Nintendogs cartridge in it by accident. When it came back, all of our puppies had been washed and fed."

"I really love being here in the gym, where you can just work out without anyone talking to you, you know? I FUCKING LOVE IT" - Fat man on the exercise bike next to mine, to me, apparently without irony

"First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you." - F. Scott Fitzgerald

"The stone age didn't end because they ran out of stones"

"Karma's going to get the guy who did this, but our attorney's going to get him first."

"Big Cheese"

"Teflon Shoulders"

"Do the needful"

Sunday, February 01, 2009


The Guardian Guide to making Dubya look good

So, his time in office is up; we've all been watching the new president wander around for over a week now, and it certainly has been fun. Articulate speeches! Sensible policy decisions! Politicians being courteous with each other! Yes, it certainly is wonderful. But we've also seen one last swansong for the old guy, in the form of the inevitable crowing over the long-awaited departure of George "Dubya" Bush.

"The gaffes, the gibberish, the gurning. Admit it: there's a part of him you're going to miss." So says Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian's G2 supplement on January 8th. (I know, I'm a little behind.) Miss him? Really? As it happens, I can tell you one group of people who sure as heck are going to miss him: everyone who works on the Guardian's G2 supplement. Why, you may ask? It's right there in the title: "the gaffes, the gibberish, the gurning". Everything that you need for a successful piece of political analysis in the British media, right there in that sentence. How on earth will Britain's political journalists get by with someone intelligent in the White House?

The answer: it doesn't make the slightest bit of difference who's in the White House. Our political hacks have brought this travesty of reporting upon themselves. The schtick is so tired that they don't even feel like they have to try any more. "You can, of course, call him a warmonger, or a liar, or a stooge of the super-rich, or someone with reckless disregard for his compatriots faced with natural disaster. But these are labels, not descriptions of his internal life. Despite countless bioraphies and speculative newspaper and magazine articles, we're barely any closer to answering the question that seemed pertinent back before Florida, before 9/11, before Iraq or Katrina: what, exactly is going on in there?" Very well said, Mr Journalist. And whose fault is that? Yours. Eight years on, and you - along with EVERY SINGLE OTHER PERSON in the British media - still haven't figured out how the guy thinks? How he makes his decisions? What his priorities are? What his value system is? It's not as if there hasn't been plenty of information around about it. Books have been written. Lengthy profiles have been penned in quality American journals. The man has made speech after speech in which he has articulated his policy goals and their rationales perfectly clearly. And members of his administration have circled the world explaining themselves. Hell, there are tens of millions of Americans who are - or at any rate, were - on his wavelength. And you're telling me that you still can't comprehend how he thinks? There's only one reason for that, buster, that it's that you haven't been trying. Not that you haven't been trying hard enough; just that you haven't been trying. That's incompetence, and relative to the size of the responsibilities that you shoulder, Mr Journalist, that makes you more incompetent than dear ol' Dubya by a pretty damn long margin.

And that's before we even get into the Guardian's own sneaky meta-Bushisms, which can be defined as careless journalists mangling perfectly good misstatements. I'm not just talking about the complete failure to distinguish between genuine manglings and the amusing moments in which he sends up his own tendency to mangle. For crying out loud - how can you possibly manage to get wrong the title of My Pet Goat? That was immortal. And you mangled it. But the real scandal doesn't have to do with the fact that he keeps saying things wrong. It has to do with the fact that journalists in this country seem to be unable to comprehend the difference between the way in which the statement is articulated and the content of the statement itself. "You forgot Poland!", apparently, is funny: it was blurted out in a 2004 debate with John Kerry to refute Kerry's false accusation that America's only coalition partners in Iraq were Britain and Australia. "'He forgot Poland!', the incumbent president crows, as if that made all the difference." Well, as it happened, America had dozens of allies going into Iraq: not just the four countries mentioned, but also Spain, Italy, Japan, South Korea, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states, Georgia, and several dozen more. Bush is dead-on, and Kerry is wrong; but who cares, right? The stupid man made a funny! The truth is, the fact that he was right DOES make a difference.

The Guardian is like a monkey sitting in a tree, pointing and jumping up and down because it's seen something amusing below that it doesn't really understand. Rather than get down there and try to figure it out, it prefers to just chatter away with the other monkeys and smugly rest on its haunches. Meanwhile, Bush has spent the last eight years getting on with the task of being the most powerful man in the world. Now, I would be the first to argue the case for the prosecution in an honest debate about the Bush Administration's failings: the incompetence, the espousal of the most divisive sort of religiosity, the 50%+1 politics, the ideological dismissal of science, the cronyism. The list goes on. But to assume from all this that Bush is stupid is lazy. To assume that he got nothing right is wrong. To refuse to engage seriously with him on his own terms, and to attempt to explain how he reached the conclusions that he did, is exceptionally poor journalism. And to waste column inches pointing your fingers and laughing at a man who suffers from being inarticulate is, frankly, not just insensitive but incredibly foolish: if you conflate being articulate with being intelligent, then you damn well are "misunderestimating" the man.

Worst of all, if you do all those things, you're as bad as he is. One of the reasons Obama is so beloved is that he promises to reach across the aisle and restore civility to American politics; it's easy to forget that before Sarah Palin came along, Obama and McCain were (mostly) having a very grown-up and respectful dialogue. One of the reasons why so many people dislike Bush is that he came to office promising to do the same thing after the hyper-partisanship of the Clinton years, and then reneged. But standing on the other side of the aisle shouting at him and refusing to show any interest in how he thinks is EXACTLY the same strategy that he took. All these jibes at Bush, then, are a part of the problem. It seemed to me that it was with considerable relief that Bush welcomed Barack Obama into his White House to help coordinate what is possibly the smoothest transition in history (coming hot on the heels of possibly the most efficiently-run White House that America has ever seen): the sight of the two of them graciously discussing the nation's future was gratifying and pleasant. This is the promise, and this is hopefully the future; the undisciplined carping at Bush is part of the past, and good riddance.

As it happens, the journalistic sneers at Bush's frequent misstatements are just the tip of the iceberg, and you could forgive them if they were humourous asides in the context of a rather more nuanced analysis elsewhere. Some hope. The Guardian on the 17th of January carried a retrospective on "The Bush Years" that managed the rare feat of making the Bush Administration look smooth, sophisticated and sympathetic in the face of the sheer brutish ignorance being hurled in their direction. Professionalism is thrown out the window. "So, we're left here at the bitter, congested end of the long Bush calamity", begins one profile of Bush. "Eight years in the White House have the ability to turn any man into a narcissistic monster", starts another one. "Were she not complicit in so much destruction..." starts the piece on Condoleezza Rice. Another: "The question of which member of the Bush administration will be held in lowest repute by history will not be easily settled, so vigorous is the competition. Permit me, though, to make the case for Donald Henry Rumsfeld". Sure, Douglas Hurd does his valiant best to redeem Colin Powell, but the telling quote that is pulled out and blown up is, naturally, the most critical one in the entire piece. Cheney, Ashcroft, Rove: I don't need to tell you how they go. That a supposedly quality newspaper can produce such vile hatchet jobs ought to be scandalous, but in reality we're so inured to this lowering of standards that it doesn't even make the reader lift an eyebrow.

Where is the objectivity? Where is the acknowledgement that a man who got degrees from Yale and Harvard Business School, who ran a series of businesses spectacularly well, who was a hugely successful governor of Texas and who crafted a new political order might just not be a dunce? Where is the realisation that the same ideological impulses that led to the Iraq War and the abortion gag rule also led to an immense foreign aid programmes and the establishment of vast swathes of new natural parks? Where is the scepticism of the all-too-easy blame game that falsely attributes all of America's economic woes to the Bush Administration? Where is the discussion of the controversies swirling around No Child Left Behind (part good, part bad) and the reflection on a second term legislative agenda that included a brave attempt at Social Security reform (partly good and very necessary) and immigration reform (very good indeed), both of which were foiled not just by Bush Administration failings but by the venality and populism of Congress? How do we reconcile the gap between the perception of Bush as a blundering oaf on the world stage and the fact that he drew up a foreign policy doctrine of penetrating insight which grasped the strategic imperatives of the "war on terror" and melded them with firm and attractive ideological underpinnings to produce America's first genuine joined up foreign policy doctrine since Reagan?

And it's not just Bush. How can we let journalists get away with slapping up Rumsfeld over the occupation in Iraq without mentioning his successes in modernising and reorganising the US armed forces, or the huge achievements of the initial military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq which he masterminded? How can we dismiss Condoleezza Rice out of hand when her foreign policy speeches and vision are actually a fairly close match for Obama's in plenty of important ways? Why do we call Karl Rove by his frat-boy epithet "boy genius" and not by the adjective that he actually deserves, however much we dislike him: plain old genius? Dick Cheney is a two-term Vice President of the United States of America, and you write for the New Yorker. Much as it pains me to say this - I am rather partial to the New Yorker - this makes you smarter than him why?

The thing that nags, the thing that bugs, isn't that these writers are wrong. This has been one of the most incompetent administrations in history, and for every success there have been a great many failures, some of them so large as to overshadow anything else. The thing that gets me is that these writers don't even try to explain. If all they do is condemn, then no-one learns anything: readers who already agree with their assessment will nod smugly, feeling vindicated; readers who disagree with their assessment will shake their heads sagely, their belief in the irredeemable bias of the Guardian confirmed. The best journalism seeks to explain what's going on, and explanation is in short supply in Britain. All the condemnation in the world will be of limited benefit if we fail to enquire into how it is that honourable men with the best intentions of their country at heart made the poor decisions that they did; all of the derision poured at Dubya misses its mark if its aim is off. You can't beat something that you don't understand. There is plenty to understand about George W. Bush. His value system and his way of working should not be dismissed out of hand; his policymaking process should not be ridiculed unless it is genuinely understood. Like everything else in this world, the 43rd president is not a caricature in black and white, and the journalists at the Guardian do a disservice to themselves, to their employer, and to their profession when such puerile, shallow trash is allowed to roam free.

But the best is yet to come. For just there on the same page as Alan Greenspan - apparently responsible for ruining the world economy - we find not one, but two profiles of Osama Bin Laden: soft, respectful, contemplative, exculpatory, understanding, and restrained. It is at this point, dear readers, that I sign off, before I have the opportunity to descend into a torrent of obscenities whose level of discourse might just be at an appropriate level to have a shot at appearing in the Guardian itself.

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