Monthly Archives: April 2017

Out of Context

Charles MurrayIn the Grey Matter section of the Sunday Review in the New York Times, Cornell Professors Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci published an article entitled “Charles Murray’s ‘Provocative’ Talk.” In it, they described a small ad hoc study that they conducted to test whether the words of Charles Murray are objectively offensive and thus deserving of the level of resistance to his lecture at Middlebury College (see here).

In their study, the authors took a transcript of Murray’s actual talk and sent it without attribution to 70 college professors with a request to rate the words on a 9 point scale from very conservative to very liberal. They found that although “American college professors are overwhelmingly liberal,” those surveyed found Murray’s words to be “middle of the road” with an average score of about 5. Williams and Ceci interpret this finding as indicating that the protest over Murray’s invitation to speak was objectively ill-informed and unjustified.

This argument is deeply and fundamentally flawed. We often see similar tricks played when someone reads an excerpt from the Constitution or Mein Kampf and asks for an opinion about it – before the gotcha reveal when they identify the authorship.

One major study flaw is the premise that words stand alone. Context matters and the meaning and intent of words can only be fully assessed with due consideration of the person making the statement. Authorship is an essential part of that greater context. If PT Barnum claimed he had a Yeti in his house, I would have received it with tremendous skepticism. If Carl Sagan made the exact same claim, I would have been very excited about the potential of an important new anthropological discovery.

The reality is that Charles Murray has a long history of promoting what many consider to be highly destructive public policy research and analysis that has undermined valuable social programs and has attacked and divided us along gender and racial differences. For example, his statement that “We believe that human happiness requires freedom and that freedom requires limited government,” may sound perfectly reasonable to 70 of our professional contacts if unattributed. Coming from a known liberal speaker, this could be meant to affirm that we should not be forced to live in an overly-policed state. However, coming from Charles Murray it is clear that his intent is to promote the dismantling of social assistance programs. The same statement might mean something even more extreme if David Duke had said it.

Based on the work of Williams and Ceci one might argue that we should remove all bias in approving speakers by using a blinded, unidentified process in which presenters are approved or rejected based solely on the text of their planned presentation. That would be extremely foolish. The reality is that the larger views and history of any speaker plays an essential role in how we should interpret their statements. Reasonable but isolated statements can conceal a larger and very different agenda that is only apparent if we know the source.

I have no doubt that the authors would respond by saying that intellectually unbiased people should be willing to hear any reasonable speaker and make this assessment for themselves, without forced censorship. However, surely they would also agree that there is some limit beyond which a speaker would not be acceptable even to them. But reasonable people can reasonably disagree about where this fuzzy boundary should lie – and that boundary must consider not only the message but the messenger as well.

Clearly a determinative number of alumni, faculty, and students at Middlebury judged that the lifetime body of work by Charles Murray, as well as his very clear lifelong mission, crossed that fuzzy line for them. Williams and Ceci may disagree on their placement of this line and that is legitimate and fair debate. But it is not legitimate and fair to conduct what amounts to a gotcha stunt under the guise of objective science to prove that these people’s determination in this instance is illegitimate and irrational.

All that Williams and Ceci may have actually shown is that, without attribution, college professors don’t assume the worst or the best. They may merely fill the void with their own middle-of-the-road interpretation of unattributed quotations.

Advertisements

Taking Stock-Well

john-stockwellSome of us are lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to stumble into a pivotal event in our lives that reshapes us, blows our minds, opens our eyes, changes our perspective, forever and irrevocably. I stumbled into mine back in college in the 1980’s when I blundered into a lecture by former CIA bureau chief Major John Stockwell (see here). I walked into the event as a relatively naïve and oblivious college kid, and walked out a stunned and shell-shocked cynic with regard to official motivations and storylines. Never again could I accept any official news story without some degree of skepticism and doubt, or for that matter dismiss any “conspiracy theory” out of hand simply because it questioned the official narrative.

Stockwell walked the audience through his recruitment as a young CIA officer in Vietnam and his rapid rise through the ranks, eventually attaining one of the highest positions in the bureau. He told how, during his career, he was repeatedly asked to perform actions that seemed not only immoral but counterproductive. Each time that he asked for some rationale to justify the actions requested of him, his superiors would tell him “if you only knew what we know you’d understand why this is necessary.” He believed that line, over and over, because he had to. Working under that assurance, he was personally aware of or responsible for operations to bomb infrastructure in other nations, disrupt business transactions to destabilize economies,  plant rumors to spread discord in legitimate governments, assassinate key leaders, and foment war. He detailed one of his most shameful accomplishments, how he personally orchestrated his totally contrived build up to the otherwise improbable war in Angola.

His own moment of realization finally came when reached one of the highest levels in the bureau, the level of a world chief. When he got close to the pinnacle of his career ladder, it became obvious that there was no actual reason, no secret justification, for the terrible things he did. It was painful to watch him in the lecture, almost vomiting out his pained confession like an act of penance. In a period of despair, he met for drinks with the few other world chiefs at his peer level in the CIA. They asked each other for just one example of anything they had ever done that was good for the world. None of them could justify even one thing.

That was when he “came out” and wrote his exposé “In Search of Enemies” which the CIA litigated and suppressed for many years. For most of my life it was essentially impossible to find, but I see that it is now finally available on Amazon (see here). In it, Stockwell answers the question “if they CIA accomplishes nothing, why do they do what they do?” His analysis is that the CIA is a bureaucracy that was formed to gather intelligence and take covert action during a time of war. Post-war, they have had to justify their continued existence and their obscene undisclosed budget. How do they prove their worth? They can only do this by finding enemies of the State. They are constantly “In Search of Enemies.” And since they cannot find enough enemies, they create them. They manufacture enemies so that they can then expand operations to combat them. In this way, their self-justification and self-preservation synergizes with an industrial-military complex in which the rich profit from every new or expanded conflict and war.

Stockwell spoke about the “tricks” the CIA uses to destabilize governments, ruin economies, and foment war. One of the most reliable excuses was the old “Russian Arms!” ploy. They would plant and then brilliantly discover Russian arms in a country. They would go back and report this to Kissinger of this who would then order a modest increase in their activities in that nation to counter “Russian Aggression.” It was always an increase. The Russians would see these increased activities (the CIA in fact ensured that they would) and counter, which the CIA would then report back to Kissinger to obtain the go-ahead for even further escalation… And so it goes, the game is repeated over and over and replicated all across the globe.

Unsurprisingly, his obviously heartfelt and first-hand account was NOT well-received by that college audience. They asked very tough and skeptical and even hostile questions. This is natural. No one wants to admit even to themselves that they live in a nation that does terrible things. No one wants to admit that they, by virtue of citizenship, are partially responsible and culpable for those terrible things. So we reject everything. To admit anything is to open the door on all of it. So we simply don’t want to hear it, we dismiss it all as conspiracy theory, we call it hating America and unpatriotic, we excuse it as unfortunate but necessary, we claim “they do it too.” Worst perhaps are those that tell themselves that by being avid readers of the New York Times, they would have been informed if there was anything to this stuff.

But for my part, after Stockwell’s lecture I never again accepted news reports of government accounts with the same level of trust I had earlier. When Ronald Reagan inexplicably invaded Granada, he got on television and fended off questions from the press by assuring them “If only you knew what I know.” That didn’t quite satisfy the press because they continued to ask tough questions. The next night he came out and announced that “Russian arms have been found in Granada,” and suddenly most of the press corps said, oh ok then.

When the first Iraq war came along I was similarly skeptical, but had no alternate theory of the action. I had maintained some personal contact with John Stockwell since that lecture and spoke to him occasionally. So I gave him a phone call and asked for his take on the war. He shared that Bush Senior had used back channels to assure Saddam that the US would not interfere if Iraq took action against Kuwait for their slant drilling into their oil fields. This was just a set-up by Bush who needed a war partially to boost his historically low ratings. This was later confirmed to be largely if not completely true by many corroborating reports.

When Bush Junior initiated the second Iraq war, my Stockman-esque skepticism resurged. Bush put forth – by one accounting – over 40 discrete falsehoods to lie us into that war (see here). When Bush first announced that Iraq was seeking “aluminum tubes” to refine uranium for a nuclear bomb I did an immediate Internet search and found a large number of credible experts already shouting that these tubes were not the type that would be needed for that purpose. Yet the Bush Administration kept citing this false “evidence” and the media kept reporting it, the whole while scoffing at “conspiracy theories” that called this evidence into question. It was almost a year later, after the war was inextricably committed, and after the truth about these tubes was everywhere to be seen except in the mainstream press, that they finally “broke” this revelation with their crack and bold investigative reporting.

And now today we are still hearing stories about why we must – regrettably – launch attacks against a large number of countries. We just launched missiles into Syria. One has to at least wonder if “Chemical Attack!” is the new “Russian Arms!” ploy. It works every time. And overt attacks such as this are only a very small part of our effort to ensure that there are plenty of permanent wars to feed the insatiable machine.

Look, I’m not asking you to believe every seemingly crazy story out there – you shouldn’t. But a healthy skeptic questions both sides – including what their government tells them. If you are only skeptical of the alternative view, then you are NOT a healthy skeptic, you are a Kool-Aid drinker. In fact, I argue that it is better to err on the side of skepticism of our self-perpetuating war-making machine, and force them to provide extreme evidence for their operations, rather than continuing to drink the official Kool-Aid and placing rigorous burdens of proof only on the whistle-blowers while the government merely has to appeal to their own authority as proof of their claims.

This alternate perspective used to be terribly hard to research, but today it is easy. Stockwell was hardly a lone voice but he was one of the bravest and most credentialed voices. Heck, in his 1989 lecture, Stockwell referenced over 120 books out of the thousands available at that time. Today there are innumerably more. So there is no longer any excuse for ignorance and the only ignorance possible is willful. You can start with this YouTube video of John Stockwell speaking at American University, broadcast on C-SPAN in 1989 (see here). It is still relevant today. The lecture part takes up the first hour and the remainder is questions. That hour only scratches the surface exposing the filthy and disgusting rats nest that is American Intelligence.

I urge you to give this video a fair look and consider it in the light of today’s current events. Hey, it’s only an hour and I know you find way more time than that to browse adorable cat videos. Be brave and crack the door open and peek inside. The truth will not destroy you, it will set you free. Becoming aware of and acknowledging the extent of our intelligence operations will not fix anything in and of itself, but we certainly can’t begin to fix anything until we are all willing to take that first crucial step.

 

 

 

Feud Delivery

I don’t often do articles on television shows because only a truly superb series can inspire me to promote it. My very first figmentum was a review of Penny Dreadful on Showtime (see here and here). In a subsequent figmentum, I raved about the Netflix series Daredevil (see here). Given what those two series say about my taste in entertainment, you may find it surprising that I would now feel inspired to rave about Feud: Bette and Joan (see here) which is currently playing on FX (preview here).

FeudTo sum it up in typical Hollywood fashion: Feud delivers a spicy pair of dishes!

The 8 episode series recreates the bitterly tempestuous rivalry between the legendary actresses Bette Davis (see here) and Joan Crawford (see here). Screen icon Bette Davis is portrayed with masterfully understated brilliance by Susan Sarandon (see here). Sarandon exquisitely captures the quirky but many-layered personality of Davis without succumbing to portraying her as the caricature of the actress that has been depicted through innumerable movie and cartoon parodies. Jessica Lange (see here) delivers an equally brilliant performance, fearlessly inhabiting a bitter and ever-acting Joan Crawford, desperately clinging to old grudges and her fading superstar status.

zetajonesThe series doesn’t rely only upon these great lead performances. The 1960’s sets are recreated with impeccable attention to detail and the supporting cast is just wonderful. Catherine Zeta Jones is radiant as always in her portrayal of Davis’ friend Olivia de Havilland. Kathy Bates is believably engaging as actress Joan Blondell and Alfred Molina resonates as the beleaguered film director Robert Aldrich. Judy Davis is shamelessly scheming as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and Jackie Hoffman delivers a comically low key performance as Crawford’s Lady Friday, Manacita. Many other classic stars make “cameo” appearances.

Here’s the other thing about Feud that I really appreciate. Whenever I see a movie or television show that is “based on actual events,” I immediately do some research to fact-check the accuracy of the dramatization. In the vast majority of these recreations, the film proves to be about as realistic as an animated George Washington confessing to his father that he cut down the cherry tree. Feud, however, appears to be meticulously researched and faithfully recreated. Despite some relatively minor historical nits (see here), the series seems to be spot-on in style, substance, and sequence.

In fact, I find that one of the biggest flaws in historical films is that they under-dramatize the reality of the actual events. For the most part, reality is just too raw, too disturbing to depict on film. If real events were shown as they actually happened, most viewers would turn away in disbelief and/or revulsion. Truth is indeed more difficult to believe than fiction. While Feud is presumably somewhat sanitized, it doesn’t shirk away from raw emotions and ugly behaviors.

Feud is both a comedy and a tragedy. You want to laugh at the over-the-top behaviors of these people but you can’t because their feelings and motivations hit way too close to the heart.

Check out Feud. I hope you enjoy it as much as I am. This is the kind of great filmmaking that we should all support.