Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Suskind's Underappreciated Scoop re: "the Reality-Based Community"

Great article at Pressthink from Jay Rosen, "Retreat from Empiricism: On Ron Suskind's Scoop":

In Without a Doubt (subtitled “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush”) Suskind was not talking about an age old conflict between realists and idealists, the sort of story line that can be re-cycled for every administration. It wasn’t the ideologues against the pragmatists, either. He was telling us that reality-based policy-making—and the mechanisms for it—had gotten dumped. A different pattern had appeared under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. The normal checks and balances had been overcome, so that executive power could flow more freely. Reduced deliberation, oversight, fact-finding, and field reporting were different elements of an emerging political style. Suskind, I felt, got to the essence of it with his phrase, the “retreat from empiricism.”

Which is a perfect example of what Bill Keller and others at the New York Times call an intellectual scoop. (“When you can look at all the dots everyone can look at, and be the first to connect them in a meaningful and convincing way…”) Over the last three years, and ever since the adventure in Iraq began, Americans have seen spectacular failures of intelligence, spectacular collapses in the press, spectacular breakdowns in the reality-checks built into government, including the evaporation of oversight in Congress, and the by-passing of the National Security Council, which was created to prevent exactly these events.

This is itself a puzzling development which as far as I know has not been apprehended by our professional students of politics, whether they write columns, run campaigns, work in think tanks, or teach about government in universities. None, so far as I know, has tried to explain why we saw a retreat from empiricism under Bush and how we could actually go to war that way

. . .

Mine would begin this way: The alternative to facts on the ground is to act, regardless of the facts on the ground. When you act you make new facts. You clear new ground. And when you roll over or roll back the people who have a duty to report the situation as it is—people in the press, the military, the bureaucracy, your own cabinet, or right down the hall—then right there you have demonstrated your might. (See my essay called Rollback.)

The contrast I would draw is between the actions of Bush, a political innovator, and the behavior of previous presidents, Republican and Democrat. (The distinction between action and behavior is originally Hannah Arendt’s.) In everything bearing on national security, the Bush Government has been committed to action first, to making the world (including the map of the Middle East) anew, to a kind of audacity in the use of American power. It simply does not behave as previous governments have behaved when presented with the tools of the presidency, which includes the media, and the greatest public address system in the world: the White House podium and backdrop.

This is what the press—which is generally full of behaviorists—has been reluctant to apprehend about the Bush government. But Suskind was onto it.

Read the rest here.

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