Friday, December 14, 2001


"An ounce of clear thinking is worth a pound of research into the mysteries of the obvious."

-- Thomas Szasz, M.D.

Damian Penny is agnostic about Missile Defense. Says Damian:
After 9/11, one has to question whether the cost is worth it, considering the methods that were used to bring about the most devastating terrorist attack ever committed on US soil. On the other hand, I have no doubt the US could make the plan work if it put enough effort into it (in 1960, many said it was scientifically impossible to put a man on the moon). And anything that has so many radical left-wingers so upset must have some merit.

Personally, I can't get terribly worked up over the mere act of withdrawing from the ABM Treaty -- about which one can make fair arguments that it was outdated and irrelevant in a dozen different ways. But the Bushies' stated reason for withdrawing -- so that we may test and build a Missile Defense system -- constitutes an abrogation of clear thinking and common sense, and throws back into question whether Bush is really as thoughtful and introspective (i.e., smart) as Ari Fleischer keeps trying to convince us.

I don't even have to read their latest online pronouncements to know that Michael Moore and Ted Rall are in lockstep on the issue -- but neither do I accept your generalization that it is the "radical left-wingers" per se who are the main detractors of Missile Defense. Even so, look at who is in favor of Missile Defense: Incumbent politicians first and foremost; defense contractors, second; then, right-wing media pundits whose carefully-honed public personas are pure showbiz; and finally, ordinary folks who look to incumbent politicians and right-wing media pundits for easy, single-stroke, feel-good solutions to difficult multi-tiered problems.

On the other hand, who comes out against Missile Defense? Not just radical lefties who object to defense spending as a central tenet of their principled beliefs; more significantly, its detractors also include the very programmers, scientists and engineers who would be called upon to build the damn thing! Anyone who has had to really, seriously think about how the system would be implemented must come to the conclusion that it is a wasteful, pointless exercise in futility at best, and a dangerously destabilizing influence at worst.

Your comparison to the daunting technological challenge of the moon landing is too simplistic. Flat-Earthers and the Amish community aside -- surely just about every credentialed member of the scientific community circa 1960 believed a moon landing was realistic and possible. If there was any serious resistance, it was to JFK's ambitious timetable. The proper comparison here would be the Manhattan Project -- but here, again, controlled nuclear fission was theorized and hotly debated as early as 1933. It wasn't just wild speculation of a handful of mad scientists; rather, as Young Doctor Frankenstein said: "IT .. COULD ... WORK!!!"

Whereas, the whole concept of Missile Defense fundamentally fails the "It Could Work!" test on so many levels and meta-levels that it's nigh impossible to defend it intellectually. Robert Wright has written passionately, for Slate, on this topic several times, here, here and here -- but here's his main argument, in a nutshell: Were we actually to spend $150 billion on a "Star Wars" shield that was, by some miracle, 100% reliable, it would simply guarantee that a determined terrorist or rogue nation would deliver their warhead, undetected and undeterred, on a barge from the East River.

Which means one of two things: Either (1) Bush is as smart as Ari Fleischer says he is -- in which case Bush cannot himself seriously believe that Missile Defense will ever serve to protect us from nuclear or biochemical attack -- in which case, he also knows damn well that it's just corporate welfare for the defense industry, and he's lying to the entire world when he says otherwise. Or, (2) Bush genuinely believes that Missile Defense could work if we just throw enough money at it -- in which case, he's actually every bit as shallow and intellectually devoid as the majority of voters in the last election believed he was. I don't know which is worse.

Either way, I simply don't see how anyone can hold it up to the light and still seriously defend Missile Defense from any perspective -- except to the extent that it would make a few people feel more secure in the belief that it might work.

UPDATE: QuasiPundit votes nay on Missile Defense, for this reason: [A]n anti-missile defense isn't a shield, it's a sieve... All it takes to defeat an anti-missile defense system is enough missile that the odds end up in your favor. The danger is that a false sense of security may result in a loss of emphasis on non-proliferation ..."

MY CHECKERED PAST: Google up a search for Zilber and you'll find -- this.

I barely even remember conducting this interview -- or the circumstances under which I got this plum assignment -- but yes, that was me putting the dull-as-dishwater questions to these Titans of Industry in 1981, twenty years ago this month. Thankfully, Len Wein and Marv Wolfman were, then as always, chatty and interesting enough to carry their end of the conversation.

Thursday, December 13, 2001

MY FIRST GROUPIE! Over at Samizdata, Natalija Radic asks: "Over on the wonderful blog Mind over what Matters, there is a picture of Jay Zilber in bed. It is soooooo cute! But what I want to know is who is that funny looking guy that he is lying on?"

To which I can only reply: Never mind him. Click on the picture and I'll meoooooww for you!!!!

ADVANTAGE: ME! Instapundit boldly predicts that the Israel-Arafat-Hamas endgame will be a stage-managed Jordanian re-annexing of the West Bank and Gaza ... which is essentially what Mind Over What Matters also boldly predicted here, one full week earlier!

Of course, we could both yet end up looking like idiots -- but the way events are playing out so far, I think it's far more likely that we'll both seem eerily prescient compared to the professional punditocracy, which seems to have been caught napping on this one. Here's what I said, again -- and it's worth repeating, because the new alignments (if they do come about) are going to take a lot of getting used to:
...the latest trial balloon floating around is that West Bank security should become Jordan's problem. If true, one could reasonably postulate that Israel is edging toward the idea of cutting the Palestinians out of the deal altogether, eventually allowing Jordan to re-annex significant parts of the West Bank. This notion -- that Jordan is and always should have been recognized as the historical and logical Palestinian homeland -- may well be a non-starter, and it may never be taken seriously. But if Israel is seen to be edging in that direction with America's blessing, and non-Arab world opinion is agnostic on the question, history could be about to take a sharp turn into uncharted territory.

(In hindsight, I'm beginning to wish I'd named this blog Eerily Prescient ... but if any of my readers are thinking of jumping into the fray with a blog of their own, the first taker is welcome to it.)

APROPOS OF PFAFF: Matt Welch thinks the punditocracy is oblivious to the sea-change taking place right under their noses:

It’s not just a question of underappreciated genius anymore. Something has been going on these past three months (not to mention the five years before that), yet 95% of large media companies – especially monopolist newspapers – seem utterly ignorant of it, or at best powerless to react to it.

What do warbloggers have in common, that most pundits do not? I’d say a yen for critical thinking, a sense of humor that actually translates into people laughing out loud, a willingness to engage (and encourage) readers, a hostility to the Culture War and other artifacts of the professionalized left-right split of the 1990s, unchecked joy at discovering clever people, a readiness to admit error, tendency to write with passion and emotion, a radar attuned to personal responsibility, a sense of collegial yet brutal peer review … I think the list is long, and most of the qualities stand apart from what you expect on the local op-ed page, or on the cable teevee show.

The unanswered question: Is the newspaper-reading, cable-watching, radio-listening public actually starting to savor all of these terrific weapons-grade warblogs in significant numbers? Or are they still feeding, indiscriminately and in the same numbers as always, at the Dowd/O'Reilly/Limbaugh trough?

Wednesday, December 12, 2001

Streisand is no psychic, but she long sensed a coming catastrophe, and that apprehension may have cultivated the album's spiritual tone and quest for harmony ... ''I can't explain it, but I had a feeling something was coming,'' Streisand, 59, says by phone from her home in Malibu, Calif. "And then, oh, my God, it's here, this nightmare, this horror. I was overwhelmed..."

Yes, Barbra. What do you expect? You're 59! You sense death approaching! Just like everyone else. Get over yourself.

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.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2001

THE SELF-RIGHTING PRINCIPLE: John Milton's contribution to free speech theory -- more than 300 years ago -- was that information and ideas need to be freely exchanged in order for man to gain knowledge and understanding and to discover truth. For Milton, the liberty of conscience was the fundamental freedom, necessary for all other freedoms to exist. Through the free exchange of ideas, he believed wise men would discover truth.

Wrote Milton: "Truth is strong next to the Almighty." ... "Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple, whoever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?"

This became known as the "self-righting principle" -- the notion that, in the end, truth will win out.

Remember that as you read Andrew Hofer's More Than Zero, which reports today that National Public Radio's Geoff Nunberg considers Blogs to be "bumbling, self-important and dutiful." (Did I really once send money to that organization? Yipe!)

UPDATE: Since when did "dutiful" become a term of derision? [Since Nunberg lumped it in together with "bumbling" and "self-important," that's when.]

Sorry for the absence of new content in the last few days. My DSL connection was down, and I was too despondent to fall back on dial-up. We're back now. Bear with me while I find a new topic upon which to unleash my acerbic wit...