Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Woodward as Rorschach

In every object there is inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing. Thomas Carlyle

In these days when institutional education is more and more devoted to getting the "right" answer on multiple choice tests, some people are, perhaps unintentionally, taught that regurgitating a common answer is thinking. As the philosophically minded might put it, the art of discerning your own truth has been replaced by the acceptance of a common metaphysics, an oft recurring phenomena of human consciousness through time.
The idea of soul as something to be fed and nurtured gets replaced by a more materialist notion of brain, in the current variation, a brain that naturally evolves and thus needs little maintenance. Afflictions of the soul from a century ago are now thought of as mental illnesses.

Thomas Szasz argues that mental illness, absent some organic dysfunction, is a myth. Insanity, in his way of thinking, with which I agree, is just a term man uses for, at best, non-normative thoughts or radically unique perspectives. Sanity then, in popular usage, would be evidenced by "normal" thoughts. In the US this might include some sense of the date, season, President, and perhaps sports teams. As late night comedians are wont to point out, these "normal" thoughts would probably not include, say, the names of the two sides who fought in the Civil War.

I sometimes wonder if the idea of "mental illness" springs from the view that "truth" is this thing which naturally just finds its way into your head, perhaps with a little help from public education, or the great god TV, rather than Truth, into which the totality of human experience fits easily- a totality comprised of each individual perspective through time, obviously far too much data for any human to even remotely grasp. When "truth" with a small "t" is missing from someone's head, in the "parlance of our times", they must be mentally ill. The risk, as I see things, in this view of truth is that it will, over time, prove confusing. For in this simple ideal version of truth, governments and other institutions are virtuous, natural disasters can be avoided and the good guys always win in the short run. This view of the truth can be found in the most curious of places.

Contra this small notion of truth, Ralph Waldo Emerson argues, man is explicable by nothing less than all his history...epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of this manifold spirit to the manifold world. The notion of one soul's "portion" or slice of that totality of human experience seems clear in Emerson's world view.

The world views of Emerson, Carlyle and Szasz share a sense of humble perspective. Life, in that frame of mind is a kind of rorschach or ink blot test for everyone. What you "see" is at least as much evidence of your mind than the objects to which you refer. As it takes practice to hit a golf ball, hockey puck or soccer ball with any proficiency, I contend it takes practice to develop a sense of a durable truth of the times relevant to one's own self rather than acceptance of a popular mythology which fails. To cast the notion in current economic lingo, thinking is not something one should ever "outsource."

These thoughts were inspired in contemplation of Bob Woodward's admission that, in the course of interviews for a book on the Iraq War, he was one of the first journalists to whom Valerie Plame's identity as CIA agent was revealed. During my recent trip out to the mid-west I read Sy Hersh's, Chain of Command. Upon my return I read most of Woodward's Plan of Attack and the notion of life as Rorschach test popped into my head. I wondered, if Sy Hersch had the same access to those in power, what kind of book would he write? If Bob Woodward didn't have that access, what kind of book would he write? These are, in some sense, silly questions as the access or lack thereof is at least a function of a lifetime of choices. Woodward seems to me to be as unlikely to endanger his access as Hersh would be to court it.

As an aside, I'm not arguing that one perspective is better than the other. Read them both. I found the synthesis of Woodward's view of the inner sanctum and Hersh's view of the practical effects thereof fascinating. Better yet, let Woodward go through the ringer and read the next book he writes, I'll bet it will be a doozy.

I was also intrigued to see that the "few bad apples" defense seems just about as useful now with respect to Abu Ghraib as it was 9 centuries ago when Henry II's wondering aloud, will no one rid me of this troublesome priest led to Thomas Becket's murder. In the 12th Century English version, Henry avoids the excommunication imposed on the 4 Knights who acted on his words. Who could have suspected (asked with tongue firmly placed in cheek) that some might zealously carry out the expressed wishes of those in power.

These thoughts also led me to revisit my argument with Ms. Baum's (et. al.) notion that if there was some collusion between public and private sector financial institutions to enforce price levels, that there would be evidence and it would be revealed. Well, not if the financial equivalents of Bob Woodward are the only people with access, there wouldn't. And, I think that is the case. Those with access to "smoking guns" rarely spill the beans because they don't think there are any beans to spill. Those who think there are beans to spill are usually on the outside peering at the effects of inscrutable policy.

Judging by Woodward's public comments on the Plame matter, he certainly didn't think there were any beans to spill. "No crime here," just a bit of "chatter," according to this half of the Watergate gadfly duo. Perhaps underneath these public comments is the sense acquired from years of observation that similar things happen all the time in Washington and it isn't a big deal. While this may be true, it is immaterial. As many people are about to learn, "crime" is whatever a prosecutor can prove to a jury. When the mandate of heaven vanishes as it is wont to do from time to time, the action thought to have been committed with the best of intentions becomes a malicious deed. This is the peril of using ends to justify means, if the ends aren't seen to materialize you're already in trouble over the means.

There are many means by which "economic stability is ensured", "the homeland is protected", and "the common good promoted" among other lofty ends. Usually, at least as I understand history, it isn't until it is blindingly obvious that economic stability has been lost, the homeland is under attack and the common good is not even a concern for the ruling class that the means by which these goals were meant to be achieved come under scrutiny. As George Washington put it, according to Ellis' His Excellency, the people must feel before they can see. Falling back on the lost language of the soul, revelation is that change of spirit when one feels sufficiently to begin to see things in a new light.

That the American Revolution is generally seen as a virtuous exercise in the US, according to the Pragmatist frame of mind, is a function of its effects-good fruit coming from good trees. Had Gulf War II produced the effects of Gulf War I, Woodward's sense of "no crime here" might prove accurate. The same behind the scenes debates that filled The Commanders fills Plan of Attack. It is only that with the virtue of hindsight, those who forced their view into action are seen in light of the effects of those actions. Washington lost quite a few battles and, according to Ellis made some poor military decisions. Had Britain won, his fate would have been far different, such are the ways of men. Returning to the present, I would not be surprised to find that equally nasty affairs attended the implementation of Gulf War I, but with the ends so fruitful, the means were not questioned. That is the risk you run when you play in the big sand box, whether that sand box is the Vatican, the court of Charlemagne, the board room of the Dutch East India Company or the court of Kublai Khan.

All of which brings me back to hidden nasties I believe lurk in the global derivatives markets. As a general proposition, in our truth with a small "t", the past 2 decades have been very good for financial institutions, their share of global corporate profits has gained substantially under the Greenspan Fed. They are the protected industry. Yet as even Greenspan noted, that success breeds it own risks. Just as it takes a War gone bad, and likely needing to get worse still before real political reform occurs, it will take a big default to lead the elite to look under the hood of the derivative machine. Refco and the copper default out of China might just be warning signs of an impending big default, perhaps one of the London or NY commodity markets or more dire still, perhaps the new oil industry contracts being signed under the aegis of the newly imposed Iraqi constitution will prove, in the end, to be in default. In a sense it all ties together. An out of control financial industry leading to out of control dreams of world dominance. Each myth needs the other to survive.