Thursday, July 21, 2005

Post-Modern Projection

The Right has long sought to make political hay out of the supposed embrace of post-modernist thinking on the Left - one aspect of the poor man's definition of this catchall meant to summarize a variety of philosophical and artistic trends is that there are no objective truths, and that all truth is subjective to the individual. Thus, the Left has adopted ultimate relativism, the lack of morality and judgment because what we perceive, and what we recount are both influenced by our own biases to the point of having no independent meaning. This, supposedly, is contrasted with the black and white, good/evil clarity of the Right. They don't do nuance. For them, there are objective truths that don't have to pass through lenses. Relativism is for girlie men.

Right? Wrong. The direct opposite in fact. The overarching strategy of the Right wing media empire/noise machine has been to confuse the issues that don't favor them - muddy the waters and shroud the truth in ambiguity and doubt. One of the ways to achieve this is to attack the messenger, rather than confront the information presented by the spokesperson - you can't believe anything in the "liberal" media for example. See also, the treatment doled out to Richard Clarke, Paul O'Neill, John DiIulio, Joe Wilson and whoever else attempts to contradict the party line. Instead of addressing the allegations or issues raised by a critic, better to tar the critic with all sort of slander and innuendo - even if the critic has no ostensible hostile political bias (the ultimate veracity of the smears matter little as long as there is doubt created in the mind of the viewer). This shifts the focus to irrelevant tangential issues, or puts the focus on the personal leanings of the speaker, which the press dutifully covers in attentive detail while the original point of the whole story is lost. Just review the GOP talking points on the issue of the illegal outing of a CIA operative: challenge Joe Wilson's credibility and the details of his Op-Ed, despite the fact that this has exactly zero relevance to the allegations of the crime and/or misconduct. Last time I checked, it wasn't OK to out a CIA operative just because her husband bungled certain facts and accounts. That is not a defense. This modus operandi represents the ultimate in post-modernist political strategizing: there is no truth in any story, criticism or issue, only the subjective bias or flaw of the speaker/actor or vehicle.

But often times, the truth exists independent of the messenger or vehicle used to carry it. It's not that you shouldn't consider biases and credibility when processing news and events, but it must also be so that not everything said can be explained away by pointing to bias. The sky is blue, even if a liar or a person who is biased in favor of the color blue says so. With this in mind, I turn to this story in
the Times linked to without comment from my sometimes sparring partner March Schulman:

Splashed on the front page of The Independent yesterday, was the figure 24,865. "Revealed: Iraq's Civilian Death Toll", read the headline.

It was not alone. The BBC's bulletins ran with the same figure, as did the Daily Mirror and The Guardian - derived, said the latter, from "a detailed study of the human cost of the conflict".

There is only one problem with the figure - not that you would know it from the credulous reporting. It is an entirely arbitrary figure published by political agitators.

The figure was released yesterday by two organisations, Iraq Body Count and the Oxford Research Group. According to the BBC, the former "is one of the most widely-quoted sources of information on the civilian death toll in Iraq". Indeed it is because the BBC itself reports its propaganda as fact.
[emphasis added]

Ah, those crafty political agitators issuing their propaganda yet again. Even TIA fell victim to the spell of the spinmasters. The numbers couldn't be true right? No says the author, and here is his scant evidence of their use of scant evidence (one paragraph describing methodology, and the other eight dedicated to building the case for bias - and even this paragraph gets in a last dig at the bias of the authors):

The reason his figures...are almost certainly wrong now, is that the IBC's methodology is designed to come to as large a total as possible. The organisation simply adds up all reports of casualties, no matter what the source or how scant the evidence. Hardly surprising, since the IBC's associates are a veritable who's who of anti-war activism.[emph added]

Hmmm, "as large a total as possible"? What about the Johns Hopkins Study that was published in Lancet which arrived at the total of 100,000 civilian deaths (which was subsequently attacked by the Right, but defended quite admirably by Tim Lambert here and elsewhere on his site)? What methodology were the Johns Hopkins people using? Super-secret-double infinity-counter-plus one?

It should be noted, by the way, that one of the reasons we have these "political agitators" conducting independent studies in the first place is that the Bush administration ordered the CPA and other interim Iraqi government bodies to stop counting civilian deaths early on. Better to keep pesky facts shrouded in doubt, vulnerable to charges of bias by any who put forth their existence. From the
New York Times:

The issue of civilian deaths in Iraqi has been a delicate one, with some contending that the Bush administration and the Pentagon have deliberately avoided body counts to deprive their critics of a potent argument against the war. Estimates have ranged from the 12,000 offered by Mr. Jabr to as many as 100,000 in a widely reported study last year. The new figures are likely to add to that debate.

Obtaining tallies of Iraqi dead has always been difficult, in part because they have not always been compiled systematically. For some time after the 2003 invasion, the Health Ministry released daily counts that were cobbled together mostly from figures provided by hospitals. But last year, when the numbers began to rise, the ministry stopped releasing even those tallies publicly, and provided classified copies to the government.
But those meddling kids Iraqis just won't cooperate with their own liberation.

Last summer, the Interior Ministry took over responsibility for tracking the deaths, according to a ministry official who oversees statistics. The official, Waleed Khalil, said that before August 2004, the figures came in haphazardly on scraps of paper, and that a large portion had been what he called "dark numbers," approximate counts of all the deaths.
And what did they find?

Iraqi civilians and police officers died at a rate of more than 800 a month between August and May, according to figures released in June by the Interior Ministry.

In response to questions from The New York Times, the ministry said that 8,175 Iraqis were killed by insurgents in the 10 months that ended May 31. The ministry did not give detailed figures for the months before August 2004, nor did it provide a breakdown of the figures, which do not include either Iraqi soldiers or civilians killed during American military operations. [emph added]
Interesting. An average of 800 a month. And the conflict has been going on for roughly 28 months. Assuming that average held true for the preceding months, which included the initial invasion which would be the bloodiest period for civilians, by my count that's roughly 22,400 dead civilians. Pretty close to the Iraq Body Count numbers. But remember, the 800 a month excludes "Iraqi soldiers or civilians killed during American military operations." As a matter of fact, these totals also exclude Iraqi civilian deaths resulting from Iraqi military operations. If you added those numbers in, I think you would be quite near the Iraq Body Count figures, which did not exclude the same groups of Iraqi civilians - and rightfully so in my opinion. They deserve to be counted as well. So, what about the subjectivity of the Iraqi Interior Ministry?

I can't say for certain that the Iraq Body Count numbers are correct. But looking at the evidence, as reported by the various groups involved, I'd say they are a lot closer to the truth than some on the Right would let on - especially the author of the Times piece cited by Schulman. Better to attack the messengers than parse such grisly numbers because, to paraphrase Jon Stewart, these facts are biased.

[All apologies for the philosophical hacketry on display in this post. I would love to discuss the finer points of post-modernist thinking, but please allow me the use of the shorthand for brevity's sake.]

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