Thursday, March 16, 2006

Thomas Sowell: an Orwellian Classic

Thomas Sowell is an economist, a writer, and one of the most high profile conservative commentators in America today. He's also a master of the rhetorical formula that's been honed to a fine edge over the past decade or so by the extreme right: a formula that includes classic propaganda techniques like bandwagoning, fear and hate mongering, transfer, glittering generalities, demonizing, narrowcasting, omission, strawman, scapegoating, scholarly appearance, limited choices, and misinformation.

I ran across a commentary of Sowell's from last December titled "The Media's War" that epitomizes his techniques. The title of the article itself sends the subliminal message that the media, not the administration or the military, were responsible for launching the invasion of Iraq and its subsequent mishandling. The first two paragraphs expand on this this theme.
The media seem to have come up with a formula that would make any war in history unwinnable and unbearable: They simply emphasize the enemy's victories and our losses.

Losses suffered by the enemy are not news, no matter how large, how persistent, or how clearly they indicate the enemy's declining strength.

As we mentioned at the top, Sowell knows a thing or two about "formulas," and accusing his opposition of having a formula is a key component of his. He states that enemy losses are not "news" when in fact they are reported regularly, and as the events of the last two years in Iraq plainly illustrate, the enemy's strength has done anything but "decline."

Sowell moves on to the reporting of casualties.
Has anyone ever believed that any war could be fought without deaths on both sides? Every death is a tragedy to the individual killed and to his loved ones. But is there anything about American casualty rates in Iraq that makes them more severe than casualty rates in any other war we have fought?

… The Marines lost more than 5,000 men taking one island in the Pacific during a three-month period in World War II. In the Civil War, the Confederates lost 5,000 men in one battle in one day…

…The two-thousandth death [in Iraq] was similarly anticipated almost impatiently in the media and then made another big splash. But does media hype make 2,000 wartime fatalities in more than two years unusual?

No, Tom, no one ever believed any war could be fought without deaths on both sides. That's why we shouldn't engage in war without sufficient reason and necessity. Without reason and necessity for a war, the deaths it causes are neither necessary nor reasonable. And high casualty numbers in previous wars don't make lower casualty numbers in a later war "okay." Especially when that war was initiated on fuzzy pretexts.

But to hear Sowell tell it, real men who fight real wars take real casualties. URRAH! What's with all this sissified hand wringing over 2,000 measly war deaths?

On the objectives of the Iraq War, Sowell writes:
Neither our troops nor the terrorists are in Iraq just to be killed. Both have objectives. But any objectives we achieve get short shrift in the mainstream media, if they are mentioned at all.

Maybe the mainstream media doesn't mention our objectives in Iraq because the political and military leaders running it have never plainly stated what they actually are. What are the media supposed to do? Make up war aims? If the media tells the truth, that we invaded Iraq in order to protect "our friends and allies like Israel and the moderate Arab states, and a significant portion of the world’s supply of oil," and that, as the Project for the New America Century stated in September of 2000, "the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the regime of Saddam Hussein," Sowell would simply turn around and do what he's doing now. Blame the media for making the war "unwinnable and unbearable."

Sowell has an interesting take on attrition in warfare.
Our troops can kill ten times as many of the enemy as they kill and it just isn't news worth featuring, if it is mentioned at all, in much of the media. No matter how many towns are wrested from the control of the terrorists by American or Iraqi troops, it just isn't front-page news like the casualty reports or even the doom-saying of some politicians.

This news is featured in the media. What Sowell doesn't mention is that it is marginally relevant. Killing ten of the enemy for every one of your losses is a counterproductive measure of effectiveness when the very act of killing terrorists aids the enemy in recruiting more of them. Wresting a town from the terrorists doesn't do a rat's whisker worth of good when we leave and turn it back over to them. But according to Sowell, recognizing these things isn't facing reality, it's "doom-saying."

And here's Sowell's take on the false Iraq/World War II analogy:
Utter ignorance of history enables any war with any casualties to be depicted in the media as an unmitigated disaster.
Even after Nazi Germany surrendered at the end of World War II, die-hard Nazi guerrilla units terrorized and assassinated both German officials and German civilians who cooperated with Allied occupation authorities.

But nobody suggested that we abandon the country. Nobody was foolish enough to think that you could say in advance when you would pull out or that you should encourage your enemies by announcing a timetable.

It takes an utter ignorance of history not to know that Sowell is utterly rewriting it. In World War II, unlike Iraq, the U.S. and its allies actually had a comprehensive post-hostilities plan. Post war Nazi resistance was nowhere near the magnitude of the insurgency and civil strife we have seen in Iraq, and the reason nobody suggested we abandon Germany was the Soviet Union.

Sowell has a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago, and is a senior fellow of the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University. You'd think someone of his academic credentials would have outgrown name calling by now, but no. He likes some derisive labels so much that he uses them more than once.

Doom-saying politicians. Doom sayers. Doom-saying politicians. Foolish. Irresponsible politicians and the media.

The irresponsible politicians Sowell refers to are the ones who want a timetable for pulling out of Iraq, not the irresponsible politicians who got us there in the first place. And the irresponsible media, well, they're the media who don't support the irresponsible war with cheap propaganda tricks the way the media Sowell works for do.

You know what I say to that, Tom? Same to you, only more of it!

19 comments:

  1. Anonymous1:24 PM

    It's the complete disregard for human life that is the scariest factor in this mess. Today we get news of new airstrikes against Iraq. Welcome to Operation Swarmer. Civilian casualties? So what. It's war. You hear this all the time now, the drumbeat to disregard any and all moral codes held by previous generations as inviolable. Torture, so what. They deserve it.

    I had a young reader who exclaimed right after the last election that "Only 1,000 of our soldiers have died."

    I imagine today she's thinking "Only 2,000."

    After all, we must conserve any real thought or true feelings for the next life.

    Kerstin

    ReplyDelete
  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Jeff:

    No reasonable person would think that the title or anything else in Sowell's piece states or implies that the media is responsible for launching the war. It doesn't even come close to saying that, in fact.

    As for the rest of the analysis, I more or less agree with you.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Kerstin wrote:

    "Civilian casualties? So what. It's war. You hear this all the time now, the drumbeat to disregard any and all moral codes held by previous generations as inviolable."

    So...the idea of not having civilian casualties in a war was held by past generations as an inviolable moral code?

    Whew! It's a good thing they didn't bomb Dresden back in WWII.

    Oh, wait...

    ReplyDelete
  5. I think you overlooked Sowell's sneakiest and most underhanded techniques - Facts, Logic, and a coherent view of the world.
    It's just not fair resorting to such tactics against poor defenseless Progressives like you.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Scott,

    YGTBFSM. right? Any sane person knows that's exactly what he's up to.

    And your Dresden analogy is as dreadful as any Sowell makes.

    Van,

    His facts are all made up. Is that the sort of thing you think makes for a logical, coherent view of the world?

    Never mind. Of course you think that.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Jeff:

    I think you're misconstruing what I said, somehow, but let's find out. Why don't you tell me what analogy you think I was making? Because I wasn't aware of having made one. I was merely stating a fact. The idea that past wars were fought with some sort of 'inviolable' principle against civilian casualties is assinine.

    ReplyDelete
  8. You say that Sowell's "facts are all made up". From what I can see, they aren't, you just don't approve of his analysis. In return you offer no analysis of your own other than name calling, snide comments, and some strange interpretations of subliminal hocus pocus.

    For Sowell using the Nazi diehards to illustrate that war & its aftermath has always been messy, you state that the "U.S. and its allies actually had a comprehensive post-hostilities plan" for WWII. Note the date on the Marshal Plan article you link to: June 5, 1947. That was 2 years after the war ended. Prior to that, the New York Times was running a series of articles in late 1945, such as 11/18/1945's "Grave concern was expressed today by informed officials that the United States might soon lose the fruits of victory in Germany through the failure to prepare adequately for carrying out its long-term commitments…" Apparently they weren't as convinced then of our prescience and planning then, as you are now. You might want to take a look into the aftermath of our own Civil War for some other signs of not so smooth sailing after that mission was accomplished.

    You say that killing more of the enemy than they kill of yours (one of the fairly standard benchmarks referred to by Generals and the like for judging a wars progress for a few thousand years) has no worth in this war, since "Wresting a town from the terrorists doesn't do a rat's whisker worth of good when we leave and turn it back over to them". Hmm, and your solution is... leave them alone, and maybe they'll play nice from now on?

    In response to Sowell pointing out that casualties happen in war, you say "Tom, no one ever believed any war could be fought without deaths on both sides. That's why we shouldn't engage in war without sufficient reason and necessity." Apparently violating treaties, mandates, sheltering terrorists, encouraging and rewarding terrorist acts against our allies and threatening America in a post 911 world, doesn't manage to meet your threshold for sufficient reason and necessity. Ok, what does?

    ReplyDelete
  9. If you read "Present at the Creation" by Dean Acheson, you will see a darn sight more planning and foresight before the war ended than has been shown in Iraq. As for the Marshall plan, part of the reason that it took until 1947 to implement was that the Congress, particularly the Republican element led by Vandenberg did not want to spend money on it. Truman conceived of the idea but presented it as Marshall's plan not only because he did the dog's work on it, but because he knew they'd never approve of it if they thought it was coming from Truman.

    As for the argument about "Wresting a town from the terrorists...", Falujah was a tactical win and a total strategic loss. Even the Sunni's didn't like Falujah. But after the marines (who you may recall thought it was a bad idea) leveled the place, the insurgency grew quickly and took on a new lethality because of all the incidental civilian casualties. It became a recruiting tool for the Sunni insurgents. This highlights everything that's wrong with our war in Iraq: a tactical success and a strategic failure. "The operation was a success but the patient died."

    ReplyDelete
  10. Kerstin,

    From what I've seen so far, Swarmer is an airborne assault, not a series of air strikes. I'm not sure what motivated it. I'm hoping they'll be able to actually score a major hurt on the insurgents this time, without trashing the whole town.

    Scott:

    Subliminal message... Subliminal message... Subliminal message...

    Everything... media... fault...

    Forget... Bush... Cheney... Rumsfeld...

    Van,

    I see you've swallowed the big lie. Hussein certainly wasn't harboring al Qaeda, and how anyone can claim he was "threatening" America is beyond me. What was he going to do to us? Strike us with the WMD he didn't have? Send his army over to invade us on the ambhibous fleet he didn't have?

    We were sold the war based on 9-11 and WMD. Both assertions have proven false. The real reason we went to Iraq, as shown in PNAC documents going back to 1998, was to protect Israel and establish a permanent central base of operations from which to control the Gulf oil. Hussein was a convenient excuse. Look around this site and you'll find links to all the documents.

    Publius,

    I've read and heard the same thing regarding Truman and the Marshall plan.

    "Tactical success and strategic failure" hits the nail on the head.

    Thanks to everyone for stopping by and commenting.

    ReplyDelete
  11. The fact that the PNAC were able to see the danger of Iraq prior to 911 doesn't invalidate the wisdom of overthrowing Hussien after 911. I suspect that it'll fall on deaf ears, but here's what I wrote in a letter to the Editor (Post-Dispatch) prior to the invasion of Iraq:
    The only legitimate function of Govt. is to protect the individual rights of it's citizens. The degree to which a Govt. fails in that function, or even violates the rights of it's citizens, is the degree to which that Govt. is illegitimate.

    Any Govt. that as a matter of policy violates the rights of it's citizens, physically abuses them, employs false imprisonment, torture, terror and execution, against it's own citizens, is entirely illegitimate, and has no claim to sovereignty. Any legitimate Govt. has the right to overthrow that Govt., since if they don't support the rights of their own citizens, they are not going to care a whit for the rights of other Govt.'s and their citizens. However, any legitimate Govt. considering whether or not to overthrow such an illegitimate Govt., must first consider whether that Govt.'s existence is enough of a threat to it and it's citizens, as to justify the expense to them, of overthrowing it.

    Iraq has repeatedly attacked neighboring Govt.'s, some of which, American Citizens have real interests in (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia). It has declared its hatred for, and the desire to destroy, both America, and it's friends, one of which is Israel - the only Govt. in the region with any semblance of support for the individual rights of it's citizens, and so the interests of American citizens as well.

    Iraq publicly, as a matter of policy, supports terrorism, especially terrorism towards Israel, bestowing rewards on the families of suicide bombers, and exhorting others to follow in kind.

    That in itself, would be enough justification for our overthrowing the Iraqi regime, though perhaps if this were the only information in our possession, it could be legitimately argued whether the cost would justify the expense of doing so. However, there is additional information abundantly available to further weight the argument for war.

    Islamic Terrorists have struck at American interests, and American citizens overseas deliberately, since the 70's. They have gotten bolder as time has past and we have done nothing substantial to stop them, other than pinprick retaliatory attacks.

    They have kidnapped and murdered our citizens, they have bombed our troops housing, our embassies, our airplanes, our warships.

    If there was any legitimate argument over whether the cost outweighed the expense, it should have been put to rest when the USS Cole was bombed. It should have been blindingly clear that Islamic Terrorists had declared war on people of the United States of America, it was then high time that we recognized it and returned the war to them. At that point, the only legitimate function of the Govt. of the USA, had been struck at, and that we did nothing in return was unforgivable, an act of irresponsibility and cowardice which has already cost the lives of thousands.

    But wait, there's more.

    Islamic Terrorists seek Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). WMD are horrifyingly portable, their possession by Islamic Terrorists, would swiftly bring the assault on American's from overseas, to our own shores faster than the INS could say "Visa Approved".

    Any illegitimate Govt. which supports Islamic Terrorists, and which also has or seeks to create WMD, are clearly an obvious threat to the safety of Americans and our Govt. - they are a clear and present danger.

    After 9/11, any argument, that any nation which openly supports Islamic Terrorists should not be destroyed, borders on treason - certainly moral treason, if not actual treason against the people and Govt. of the USA.

    The only argument I have with the Axis of Evil, is that it has too few members.

    Iran, Iraq, N. Korea, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, PLO( or whatever sham acronym they are currently operating under), should be charter members, one and all. A serious investigation should be begun to determine whether China should be included as well.

    I hope that their names have been left off the list only as a matter of logistical implementation, and that as one is knocked off, another will immediately take its place.

    For anyone in possession of these facts, to argue that we mustn't war upon any of these nations, and even worse, that we mustn't because it might anger the Islamic Terrorists and cause them to step up their attacks on us (implying that they recognize that they are, in fact, already attacking us), is such a craven act of willful stupidity, such a blatant case of turning away from the facts of reality, as to make replying against it almost too disgusting an act to engage in, since it makes it appear as if it is a point worthy of argument.

    The pre-war activities have already been commenced in Afghanistan. It is now time to begin the real war, Starting with Iraq, and ending only when every terrorist and terrorist sponsoring illegitimate Govt. has been wiped from the face of the earth.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Jeff:

    I thikn you're starting to lose your objectivity when you have to resort to "subliminal messages" as evidence for your point. That's extremely weak. I certainly wasn't implying anything or making a "subliminal" message in my post, but you ignored the substance of what I said and that's all you can respond with. It's almost as weak as your comment about the "subliminal" message in Sowell's article (nothing he says in the title or elsewhere would lead any reasonable person to think he's suggesting the media is responsible for launching the war).

    But more often, lately, what I get from you if I disagree is childishness. Either outright namecalling or your "subliminal message" post, above. Why don't you step up and tell me what analogy I made?

    Is this what the blogosphere is reducing you to? Granted the medium is a self-congratulatory, incestuous form where like-minded people reinforce one another without regard to facts, but you've managed to stay pretty far away from that aspect of it, at least until now. Now, in your zeal, apparently, to personally bash not only every conservative you run across but any of your own posters who disagree, you're moving to a place where you don't even bother to think about the point someone is making anymore. It's unfortunate. And if your only response to this is going to be to call me names, then savde it. Perhaps when reading this blog one should only reply if one agrees with you, eh? That's too bad. If you ever get the urge to make a substantive reply to what I've said above or elsewhere, I'd be happy to have a discussion.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Well, this will probably fall on deaf ears too, but:

    "The only legitimate function of Govt. is to protect the individual rights of it's citizens...Any Govt. that as a matter of policy violates the rights of it's citizens, physically abuses them, employs false imprisonment, torture, terror and execution, against it's own citizens"

    Like protecing the 4th amendment against things like the NSA wiretapping? Like holding US citizens in Guantanamo Bay or a Navy brig without bringing charges? Like quibbling over whether waterboarding and physical abuse is over the line and is torture or "just" coercion? Like tainting witnesses in pursuit of a death penalty?

    "After 9/11, any argument, that any nation which openly supports Islamic Terrorists should not be destroyed, borders on treason..."

    I'm old enough to have heard this sort of argument before, as a reason for why we should nuke the Soviet Union. Extremism, whether it's extreme idealism or extreme militarism, usually makes the problems worse not better.

    This is the sort of response terrorist acts are designed to provoke - it not only breeds more terrorists, but it also make real enemies of most of the rest of the world. In the real world sometimes we don't get to have simple solutions. :-(

    "The only argument I have with the Axis of Evil, is that it has too few members..."

    You know one of the worst things about the NeoConmen is that they either are ignorant of history or willfully chose to ignore it because they "know better." This has been tried by other US Presidents, such as Woodrow Wilson ( a Demoncrat) and T.R. Roosevelt (a Republican) and it's failed. Bringing enlightenment at the edge of a sword is paradoxically what many Westerners use as a criticism of Islam.

    BTW, I mention the party affiliations of Roosevelt and Wilson only to prove that neither party has a lock on stupidity, though this administration is breathtaking in its ignorance and its desire to try and spin away the truth. The fact that things in Iraq are not going to get better is a hard nut of truth that is going to bring their whole house of cards down. The bitterness is how many good things and good people are going to die before it happens. History is cold comfort but you ignore it at your peril.

    BTW, lest you think I'm "soft of terrorism" - a charge we're likely to hear after the "betrayal of Iraq" leads to its dissolution into civil war, I believe we should vigorously be pursuing the war on terror...but this is mostly not a war that will be won invading countries.

    "The degree to which a Govt. fails in that function, or even violates the rights of it's citizens, is the degree to which that Govt. is illegitimate."

    Yes. Which would tend to make this administration illegitimate by your definition.

    ReplyDelete
  14. "Any Govt. that as a matter of policy violates the rights of it's citizens, physically abuses them, employs false imprisonment, torture, terror and execution, against it's own citizens, is entirely illegitimate, and has no claim to sovereignty."

    On what do you base this conclusion, Van? Based on this logic, more than half the nations in the world have no claim to sovereignty, including, arguably, the United States.

    And tell me again what threat Hussein posed to the United States. Calling us bad names?

    Scott,

    Subliminal messages are key propaganda tools. 9-11… 9-11… 9-11…

    As to me being "childish," well, sticks and stones…

    ReplyDelete
  15. Jeff,
    You ask "On what do you base this conclusion, Van? ...”

    Going into the full basis for my conclusion isn't appropriate for this space, but a convenient summation, and first real historical recognition of it, comes from the 1776 declaration that people have a Right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness(in the Philosophical sense of Happiness, not happy-happy-joy-joy), and a Gov't violating that is just cause for rebellion, or overthrowing it, if it's behavior sufficiently affects our interests.

    And “...Based on this logic, more than half the nations in the world have no claim to sovereignty", I agree, most of the countries of the world, and the members of the UN, have an indefensible claim to sovereignty, which is a big reason why we shouldn't be involved in the UN. Our behaving as if Nigeria is a legitimate Gov't is not only wrong, but gives them a valuable mask of legitimacy they don't deserve, and a standing from which to work against us, which they wouldn't have if we didn't give it to them. But that is probably best left for another discussion.

    For you to say " including, arguably, the United States" is premature at least, silly and a cheap shot at best. Although we have slipped away from a strong recognition of Individual Rights, yes, but not that far.

    Again, as you did with the "His facts are all made up" comment earlier, you completely ignored the content of my post, as you did again with the comment "And tell me again what threat Hussein posed to the United States. Calling us bad names?". You also avoid dealing with the issue and instead belittle my position with the comment "I see you've swallowed the big lie.", and then toss out what is, given the content of my post, nothing more than a red herring of "Hussein certainly wasn't harboring al Qaeda" - I made no claim that he harbored Al Qaeda, and I think that it is irrelevant which branch of Islamic Terrorists he chose to patronize. The patronizing of any one of them by an illegitimate Gov't such as his own was, which has displayed a penchant for aggressive action against neighbors we have an interest in, and displaying an obvious greed for gaining and using power to further those illegitimate goals, is all the justification needed for us to wipe Hussein, Iran, Syria, et al, out.

    Publius,
    "This has been tried by other US Presidents, such as Woodrow Wilson ( a Demoncrat) and T.R. Roosevelt (a Republican) and it's failed" are poor examples if they're meant to compare to our present war. You'd do better to define what you think a proper foreign policy and criteria for defense should be. BTW, I am not a neocon, and am only slightly less disgusted by the behavior & "ideas" of Republicans than I am with Democrats.

    You say that war is "... the sort of response terrorist acts are designed to provoke..." I disagree, the type of result terrorism is designed to provoke is the endless and squishy "lets negotiate" and grant concessions, response typical of the EU (and apparently yourself as well), or the Real Politique actions of Russia & China trying to position themselves for some mutual strategic political benefit of their own.

    Using a comment such as "Like protecting the 4th amendment against things like the NSA wiretapping? Like holding US citizens in Guantanamo Bay or a Navy brig without bringing charges? Like quibbling over whether waterboarding and physical abuse is over the line and is torture or "just" coercion?" as if you were talking about the actions of private citizens in peacetime, not only shows in ignorance of History in general, but the present as well. We are at War (troublingly it isn't officially declared, but nevertheless we are effectively at War). Take a look at how FDR (Wilson, Lincoln, etc) treated free speach, POW's, sympathy for the enemy, free market activities, and more, when at war. And "... Like tainting witnesses in pursuit of a death penalty?" is another reason why these trials should be conducted by military tribunals only.

    To All,
    I enjoy zinging opposing posters as much as the next guy - that's part of the fun of Blogging, but if you use it as a way of dodging a frank discussion of the issues, then it lessens your stature, and is rather sad. I think that the Blogosphere is a welcome replacement for the lost town square soapboxes of an earlier era. As was true then, the majority of most opinions expressed are probably of little value, but the thinking they prompt is invaluable, and we shouldn't try to impede that consideration by cutting it off with zingers alone.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Van,

    Frankly, you're using Sowell techniques. Please don't flick "ignorance of history" around here again.

    Don't change subjects and charge others with dodging issues.

    Don't talk about waterboarding without mention people being hung from the ceiling and being beaten to death in Afghanistan.

    And if you really want to discuss the original post further, go back to it's main points. Sowell, like many others, uses subliminal messaging, echo chambering, repitition, name calling, made up facts and the rest of the propaganda bag of tricks to support his positions.

    On Zingers--if you don't like being told you've "swallowed the big lie," don't come back and throw premature at least, silly and a cheap shot at best" back at me. My comment "including, arguably, the United States" was a fair statement.

    Come up with some good reasons why you think my observations are incorrect and tell me about them.

    And since you brought up avoiding the question, can you give me an answer as to how Hussein threatened the United States?

    ReplyDelete
  17. Jeff,
    BTW the "Ignorance of history" and "Waterboarding" were from Publius' posts, not mine.
    And after my last post, to write "And since you brought up avoiding the question, can you give me an answer as to how Hussein threatened the United States?" OMG!?!

    Thanks for the compliment of "you're using Sowell techniques". I originally came upon your page by accident, one I'm not likely to make again, goodbye and good luck.

    ReplyDelete
  18. If you take "you're using Sowell techniques" as a compliment, I won't miss you around here.

    I just lament that you'll continue to spread them around the infosphere.

    If you ever decide to discuss issues on a rational basis, please feel free to come back and post.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Anonymous10:06 PM

    Mr Huber - you sound like you have a personal animus against Dr. Sowell. As such your vitriol can be excused on that immature basis alone. To analyze all the errors in logic you make would take too much time...I suggest that you take one of Dr. Sowell's courses to clue you in to an objective analysis of world events. Short that, wallow in your own ignorance.

    ReplyDelete