Tuesday, February 05, 2008

this article from Greg Mitchell at Editor and Publisher is extraordinarily important to read. it discusses press and mainstream opinion maker reaction to colin powell's presentation before the UN 5 years ago today. this presentation, more than any other moment, led us into gulf war II.

there has been much discussion of "what he knew and when he knew it". was powell mendacious or just unprincipled (there isn't any better option i'm afraid, given what we now know from powell and lawrence wilkinson) when he gave the speech?

but it's not the important question. governments lie--it's what they do best. gulf of tonkin incidents are the rule, not the exception. there is one extremely important question that does need answering, however: how does an elite opinion maker consensus develop on an issue, and how can it be that so many "insiders" with special knowledge, allegedly, can be so horribly shockingly wrong.

to whit: there were no WMD's in Iraq and there was a strong body of evidence at the time that this was the case. though many try to ass cover with "clinton thought so too, and germany, and even france" it's all bullshit: scott ritter existed. mohamed el-baradei existed. hans blix was not a figment of my imagination. three people with the most direct knowledge of the situation were quite clear that something was very wrong with US intel, and yet this fact did not penetrate the op-ed pages, nor the salons of washington, nor the idea factories there either. and many of my ostensibly liberal friends bought into it too (or my dad's friends, people like michael walzer, who essentially threw away a lifetime of good work with his argument for the war from the left).

the thing about consensus when it comes to ideas, to memes, is that it seems that any meme that gets all of them: AEI and the WaPo op-ed page and richard cohen and george will and NBC and Fox and on and on and on--should of course be part of a fact-based narrative. but it's not necessarily the case. i often say that truth is the enemy of drama when i'm developing a script based on "actual events"--if the lead character in real life just decided to back away quietly from the situation but we can write him in as having come in guns blazing, guess which one hollywood will choose. every time. and here we see this writ large: war is more interesting than UN inspections. anything can happen! cool visuals!!! embedded reporters!!! realtime hot death action, now with 30% more blood!!!! so fuck the truth, what we wanted was a narrative that would deliver a satisfying kick, and we got one from powell, a man who should be permanently banned from polite society. he was doing the bidding of some evil people, but then he knew that (and he did the same thing in my lai, putting his career on its upward trajectory).

anyway, don't trust the consensus. it's often just a shared hallucination. and never trust anyone who says they know something because "insiders" told them so--the closer you get to power the more necessary it is to share that hallucination (or create it) in the first place, and the less chance you will know what you've done.

an excellent refutation of powell's presentation, showing that we knew then it was all a crock.

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