Monday, June 28, 2010

False Positives and "Good Wars"

A war that is supported by U.N. resolutions gets support by different slices of people. A lot of "liberal internationalists" supported Kosovo who may have gone on to oppose the Iraq War, for example. The problem that this suggests to me is a taking your eye off the ball with regards to false positives, when they happen in a niche/nook that goes against the main narrative. For example, the most unassailable war is World War II. Most people in western democracies would say, it was necessary and just, if it hadn't been undertaken, Hitler would have kept on attacking various countries, and it had to be undertaken to stop what was being done to the Jews. Now, I do not have any anecdotes at hand (it would be a good idea to get some if I am trying to have a blog with some actual evidence for things..) but I'm deliberately going to the hardest and most sacred case first, just to suggest that false positives are a concern in *every* situation. The official narrative of World War II does not have too much chaos, human error, mistaken identity, friendly fire by the Allies, not to mention deliberate, malicious miscategorization to set up a pretext for a certain type of treatment. It seems banal and blunts the main point, so documentaries, books don't focus on it. I don't know of anecdotes about its being done by the Axis either - I'm not picking on the Allies. But I'm willing to bet there was some, because human beings make mistakes. It doesn't fit the "heroic voice" so it is left out.

Okay, the point is, it's still important even after you are resigned/resolved to the idea that there is a war on. The use of language to shine a light over here and have no-particular-focus over there, should be called out as a mechanism. The piece of dialogue that comes to mind is "well, there's a war on, and in a war, these things happen... war is a dirty business.." Once again it is about the magnification level, how far that wheel is turned on the microscope and/or telescope. And once you have chosen your magnification, are you then off the hook from considering the priority system that is affiliated with a bigger or smaller lens?

It's similar to a U.N. devotee saying "oh, come on muckraker, I think surely the ends justify the means... if you'll just dial back your microscope to 100x instead of 10x, the datapoints tend to fade out in favor of a longer-term trendline."

I wonder if a conservative viewpoint tends to take a longer view, and then use that as a rationale for why it is misguided or wrong to be a bleeding heart day to day - you give a nice donation to the food bank at the end of the year, and then when someone asks you for some change, you're "allowed" not to pay attention to particular details of how that person looks or seems, as you decide to say no.

I'm fascinated by Amy Goodman and her use of specificity. She has such a specific voice and such a skill with using particular people's experience. She was on the ground in Haiti, there was some problem with a truck full of relief food or supplies not reaching the people, maybe for some political reason. And there is a guard, and Amy Goodman is interviewing the guard. It's an interesting thing to do - she has a belief about the big picture manifested in the footsoldiers. Come to think of it, I guess this is ironic in a convoluted way because people are messy, and Amy Goodman may bleach, disregard the snarly, contrary, compromised or banal because of the kinds of stories she believes in. And I have basically been saying that the left looks at specific humanitarian impacts on peoples' lives based on a situation that has been going on for three weeks, and the right looks at broader sociopolitical impacts that carve out rivers that will last for fifty years and influence the types of three-week stories that tend to happen -- but, the bleaching/disregarding cuts both ways/in all directions. The general problem that these are instances of is a counter-scientific fudging of data, "how to lie with statistics," and a willingness to minimize the importance of events that do not support one's bias.

I have some other example on the tip of my tongue of the use of language to bleach out the possibility of importance of details. I might need to write about it later instead when the example comes back to me but:
"it's just the city being the city,"
"it's a lion! what do you expect! If you don't want to be torn and eaten, don't go near the lion!,"
"it's a war.. war is a messy business.. expect it going in and don't bother with these incident reports - you can just aggregate them and show me a grid, I don't need to hear about individual people getting killed."
"What's that you say, the baby is crying? That's what babies do."
"Well of course the guerrilla fighter was killed, that's what we do with guerillas. That is the whole point of why we are here."
"Can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs - don't bug me, all I am trying to do is have the breathing room I need to make an omelette effectively."

Different ways of saying "you're using the wrong lens."

No comments:

Post a Comment