Wednesday, December 12, 2001

PFAFF ALERT! Slate's Jacob Weisberg -- and a few weeks earlier, William Saletan -- both picked up on the same phenonemon that so irritated me over this past weekend (see two items down): How certain members of the pundit class employ shrewd, weasely language to express a defeatist viewpoint while simultaneously attributing it only to unspecified third parties or some vague sense of conventional wisdom.

Weisberg conveniently coins a term for this intellectually dishonest practice: Pfaff! (Say it! Use it! Wear it out!) Weisberg particularly notes foreign policy writer William Pfaff's article "Afghanistan: The Moving Target" in the November 29 New York Review of Books, summarizing it thusly:

The war in Afghanistan was going badly, Pfaff wrote, because you can't win a war with airpower against an enemy that digs in, as in Vietnam in a country without high-value targets. In the author's view, the Pentagon was doing everything wrong, causing massive civilian casualties and a humanitarian catastrophe because of its unwillingness to put American ground forces at risk. President Bush was unwilling to admit his mistakes. The Northern Alliance wouldn't move against the Taliban; there was no Pashtun opposition in the south; Ramadan was coming; Osama Bin Laden would never be found; and it wouldn't matter if he were found, because terrorism is a hydra-headed monster. Pfaff missed only a few doomy chestnuts: the "Arab Street" rising against us; the anti-terrorism coalition splintering; Afghanistan as the graveyard of great powers.

Likewise, R.W. Apple's front-page news analysis in the New York Times of Oct. 31 was another "sorry analysis" of the war, in which signs of progress were "sparse" and the war was going "less smoothly than many had hoped." [emphasis mine.] Two weeks later, when the signs of progress were plentiful and the war was going more smoothly than many had predicted, Apple wrote another analysis deriding ... "the pessimistic prophets" who once thought the war was going badly. (The headline might as well have been "R.W. Apple: The Moving Target.")

Weisberg thinks that the professional punditocracy's embrace of pfaffery is due to "... a built-in media bias toward pessimism ... Cassandra has always gotten better ratings than Pollyanna," while Saletan rattles off a litany of journalists' morale-undermining professional biases that skew their coverage against their own political biases.

But how does the professional punditocracy continually make such a mess of things, while the amateur blogocracy manages to remain virtually pfaff-free? Certainly, none of us bloggers -- well it's a certainty in my case, although there may be a couple of rare exceptions -- are doing this for the generous salaries and perks! It costs me nothing -- in earnings, assignments, reputation or marketability -- to be both highly opinionated and occasionally so wrong that I have to shamefully admit it. The whole point of this exercise is not self-aggrandizement or self-enrichment, but rather, personal growth and wisdom.

(None of which is to say that success would spoil Mind Over What Matters. If anyone cared to show their appreciation and make a tiny donation to the tip jar, I'll still take the trouble to return my Diet Doctor Pepper bottles for the nickel deposit, regardless.)

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