Belmont Club

Flower in a Crannied Wall

Even familiar objects present so much information it is hard to understand them completely. Alfred Lord Tennyson famously observed that we could not fully know even a “flower in a crannied wall” in its “all in all” any more than we could comprehend the totality of the universe. This overload is exploited by steganography, an art in which a message is deliberately mixed with many other messages; where one pattern is engulfed in a a number of larger patterns. Messages concealed in this way are hard to detect. The give-away is often the vague sense that something is not quite right about it.

So when George Will says there is something inexplicably entertaining in current American politics he is making the wordsmith’s equivalent of the steganalytical observation that something about today is fishy and maybe we had better search it through for a payload. Something is going on inside the funniness, and it would be nice to know what it is.

Everywhere that Will looks, nothing looks normal. There are Democrats trying to sound like Republicans; Attorney Generals impersonating Vietnam Veterans; there is Tony Rezko reaching out from graybar to ruin the candidacy of Barack Obama’s Senate successor; and Republicans who were against Iraq and were for Afghanistan before they were against it.  Now the first instinct of a steganlyst is to suspect things that look funny; they look close at things that vary from the statistical norm because of the possibility that somewhere in that not-quite-right mass of messages lurks the one you are looking for. Similarly the first task of a political analyst should be to ask himself: why does politics look so odd these days?

The easiest thing to do — perhaps the only thing — is to look for the obvious message. EJ Dionne looks at Tuesday’s poll through the prism of whether or not the grassroots revolt has run its course and business as usual is reasserting itself. That is his pattern recognition filter.  Matt Bai at the NY Times thinks the power of “the old party clubhouse” is eroding in favor of “new rules” that were exemplified by Barack Obama. “The intraparty rebellions now will be increasingly local, sufficiently financed and built around credible candidates — the kind of campaigns that made Barack Obama president and that may yet give us Senator Paul or Senator Sestak. My gosh, these people in Washington are in for it now.”

John Podhoretz takes the metaphor one step further and declares “the key rule in American politics is that there are no rules anymore. Any politician running for re-election, or seeking election as his party’s anointed one, who faces any kind of a credible challenger, finds himself in history’s crosshairs.”

“No rules anymore?” None of the players want to be told that all the rules have been abolished; because they want to know the rules, even if they’ve changed. They want to know the key to victory so they can turn it. They are eager to pick out the payload in the midst of all these confusing signals. Cut to the chase: what is the takeaway? How do I win?

But win what? To what extent is winning a government position really ‘winning’? Do you really want that job? That depends on how far the rules have changed. Take the Euro. Jim Kramer, commenting on the woes afflicting the Old Continent makes the entertaining argument (hat tip George Will) that if Euro doesn’t collapse in 48 hours then its possible that Europe won’t end, it’ll just get progressively worse, and worse and worse. And by that time everyone will be used to the idea that Europe ain’t what it used to be. Can that also be true of Washington?

Kramer’s takeaway is that there isn’t a single big message lurking in the dramatic financial events of the last few weeks but just a succession of negative small ones. Nobody’s sure what they payload is, but Kramer’s sure that within 48 he’ll know if there is a big one in it or not. Which only proves that some analysts believe that God will eventually tell them what’s up if they wait long enough. One of the boasts of StegFS – A Steganographic File System for Linux is “not only does it encrypt data, it also hides it such that it cannot be proved to be there.” Humanity’s belief that truth will out; that the message will be revealed; that we’ll know how Europe and politics turns out if we wait long enough — and that everything will be clear in retrospect is a testament to the human conviction that there is indeed a payload hidden inside the soup of data. Gotta be. The story will be told, even if “it cannot be proved to be there”.

But even if it is there it is unlikely to be discovered in time to make a difference. The next few years are likely to be an extraordinarily nonlinear time, when outcomes cannot be predicted accurately by reference to historical norms and success cannot be extrapolated too far into the future.  We are truly at the edge of shadowy plain and it’s a case of no guts, no glory. In that circumstance those with a faster OODA loop and greater reserves will be a natural advantage. But only in the sense of a group of nomads, crossing into the next valley and wondering whether they will be up to it. What is out there, one might ask? That’s part of the uncertainty. George Will was right. It is an entertaining time.


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