Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Obfuscation Case Study: William Safire in the NY Times

Now, having done the obfusc lesson, we can proceed to a practical exercise. William Safire, the New York Times' pet neocon, has been expressing himself on the subject of the sarin shell. (Link) We shall see some examples in the text.
"a small, crude weapon of mass destruction may have been used by Saddam's terrorists in Iraq this week.
The apparent weapon was sarin gas, a highly toxic nerve agent that causes victims to choke to death. Developed by the Nazis, it has been used in the past by terrorists in Japan to kill a dozen subway riders and panic thousands, and by Saddam Hussein, who produced tons of it to kill Iraqi Kurds.
Rigged as an "improvised explosive device," or roadside bomb, the 155-millimeter howitzer shell was accidentally detonated by a U.S. ordnance team. Two men were treated for what an Army spokesman called "minor exposure" to the nerve gas.
You never saw such a rush to dismiss this as not news. U.N. weapons inspectors whose reputations rest on denial of Saddam's W.M.D. pooh-poohed the report. "It doesn't strike me as a big deal," said David Kay."
Note that Strategy 2 is in operation from the first paragraph. Safire goes to town on scary details about sarin, without mentioning too much about the facts of the case. Apparently it was a weapon of mass destruction used by Saddam's terrorists. No mention that the US Army thought it was a botched attempt to rig a high-explosive bomb. The amalgamation is in the house. Although the details that debunk the story are there, there is no comment - the idea is given that it was meant as a roadside chemical bomb (impossible - the shell needed to be fired from a gun to work). False consistency. Also note Concern 3: the "rush", the "inspectors whose reputation rest on denial". It's that hazy power structure again, even though the only one he manages to quote is the CIA's man David Kay.
"In this rush to misjudgment, we can see an example of the "Four Noes" that have become the defeatists' platform. (Would that be concern 1?)

The first "no" is no stockpiles of W.M.D., used to justify the war, were found. With the qualifier "so far" left out, the absence of evidence is taken to be evidence of absence. In weeks or years to come — when the pendulum has swung, and it becomes newsworthy to show how cut-and-runners in 2004 were mistaken — logic suggests we will see a rash of articles and blockbuster books to that end."

And here is strategy 1! Yes, you've guessed it, more time will solve everything. Partly because of the "absence of evidence" bit, a good example of using Strat 1 to argue that because no weapons were found they will be. Note some more concern 3 near the end. Now, in the next four paragraphs, Strategy 1 becomes a whole philosophy of history. In a string of sweeping assertions based entirely on the idea of future vindication, we are promised that those blockbusters "may well reveal the successful concealment of W.M.D., as well as prewar shipments thereof to Syria and plans for production and missile delivery, by Saddam's Special Republican Guard and fedayeen, as part of his planned guerrilla war — the grandmother of all battles." Note that the only reason Safire can give for this is Strategy 1 - a spectacular demonstration of the power of obfusc!

It goes on. Strategy 2 is called in to use an unsupported assertion about terrorist links to back up the unrelated Strat 1 about weapons. (Recall my point that the logic doesn't matter.) The last few lines are a perfect example of 1 and 2 in harmony:
"The fourth "no" is no Arab nation is culturally ready for political freedom and our attempt to impose democracy in Iraq is arrogant Wilsonian idealism.
In coming years, this will be blasted by revisionist reportage as an ignoble ethnic-racist slur. Iraqis will gain the power, with our help, to put down the terrorists and find their own brand of political equilibrium.
Will today's defeatists then admit they were wrong? That's a fifth "no.""
First we have Strategy 2. The invented charge about racism is called in to prove that WMD exist. Then Strat 1 is in with the bit about "revisionist reportage". He's actually invented a future intellectual movement to justify his current prejudices retroactively. This article, in short, is a mixture of high-grade obfuscation and dishonest shite.

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