Work and Days

From Foley to Footnotes

Holy Foley

North Korea may well have let off a 20-kiloton nuke. Last week Iran’s Ahmadinejad ridiculed efforts to corral his own nuclear ambitions. The stock market was nearing an all-time high. The deficit is suddenly falling in near record fashion. Falling gas prices might hit $2 a gallon. In Iraq, the U.S. military was taking on the Shiite militias.

And what was Washington in response talking about?

A pederastic flirtatious Congressman who wrote soft porn emails to his targeted virtual sex victims. Yes, “Mark Foley” now warrants about 23,000,000 Google matches—or about four million more Google hits than for the founder of Western philosophy, the Platonically pederastic “Socrates.” Perhaps when one of Foley’s former pages–one now claims at 21 to have had relations with his mentor– pens a Republic or Laws we will duly appreciate this better known genius who earned more attention from our contemporary electronic world in a week’s worth of IM messages than poor Socrates had after some 2400 years. And after the Dick Cheney shotgun hysteria, the flushed Koran, and all the other nonstories, it is legitimate to ask whether the New York and Washington media are simply unhinged.

Or is the problem the nature of the 24-hour news itself, when lurid sex or violence is needed to pad the hours away. Imagine the following: ‘North Korea’s bomb deliberately phallic-shaped”; or, “Ahmadinejad still in love 26 years later with one of the American hostages”; or “Americans shoot it out with a gay platoon of Mahdists.’

Could both Republicans and Democrats then forget the gross Congressman Foley? Or could he only have been forgotten, had he introduced landmark legislation on health, security, or education? Perhaps that was the better way out than resignation—simply draft an important bill on the future of America and thereby put the nation to sleep.

Or is the nuttiness because most Americans below 30 are now so poorly educated that they don’t know, or care to know, the difference between Pyongyang and poontang? Or, given that these periodic fits of insanity about Dick Cheney’s shotgun or George Bush’s flight suit usually serve to denigrate some conservative, are these present pathetic efforts to hype a pervert to the level of a national crisis, just the frustrations of a liberal news media, angry that bright sassy minds like theirs have not been able to translate that self-proclaimed intellectual and moral superiority into political power?

This entire non-story could come right out of one of Dr. Zawahri’s nutty sermons about American perversity and our puerile attention span. In fact, I’m sure we will be reading about Foley in the next al Qaeda infomercial, just as bin Laden paraphrased Michael Moore’s invectives about President Bush reading a goat story to a little girl on the morning of September 11.

The Sierra

I spent the weekend at Huntington Lake, some 7200 feet above the San Joaquin Valley floor. It was around 70 degrees, clear—and not a soul in sight or a boat on the lake. The Sierra empties out at Labor Day, more as a habit or convention than anything else. The weather is still fine up here in September and most of October. When hiking around the lake today, it struck me that it is little more than an hour away from much of Fresno County. That is, for about $25 in gas, almost any of the 1 million plus of the greater Fresno area could be here in clean air, natural beauty, and grand vistas within minutes.

But none were. For all the worry of the Sierra Club over an endangered wildness, even the areas contiguous to the lake were deserted—never mind the great emptiness in the thousands of square miles above Huntington in the higher Sierra. The problem, it seems to me, is not that there are too many hoi polloi despoiling the wilderness, but far too few enjoying it. Somehow tens of thousands have not been educated about or encouraged to visit the Sierra, whose serenity would give them a much needed few hours break on a Sunday afternoon from the madhouse below.

Mega Pseudo-footnotes

I’ve been reading State of Denial. And while last time I noted that in both Cobra II and Fiasco the authors used the pseudo-footnote, that referred the reader to anonymous and unidentified sources, neither of those books has the audacity of Woodward’s.

Turn to the endnotes. At each chapter section here at the rear of the book you read, “The information in his chapter comes primarily from background interviews with 10 [sometimes Woodward says “7” or “12, etc.] knowledgeable sources…” But what does that mean other than it is Woodward’s own opinion that they are “knowledgeable” and that because they are anonymous they are usually hostile, and because they are hostile they are most useful to Woodward?

Perhaps some Ivy-League historians can write an open letter apprising us of the dangers when journalists decide to include footnotes to achieve the veneer of scholarship, but then offer therein no means to verify their sources of information. Are there tapes left to posterity of the “knowledgeable” sources that one day can attest that what they said was accurately reported, or offer some chance to ascertain the motive and accuracy of their disclosures? And wasn’t this sort of thing in the Nixon White House—having exclusive tapes of what others said, without disclosing such sources to the public—precisely in part what made Woodward’s initial revelations of unseemliness so convincing? But at least Nixon did not publish the tapes and then claim the transcripts came from “background sources.” Indeed, one of the many Watergate scandals involved the White House’s exclusive editing of sources, without the public’s right to ascertain whether they accurately represented the real conversation–and these at least were named people.

We know the rules of this new in medio bello genre about Iraq: (1) give your version to the journalist in hopes it becomes the privileged narrative, while attacking enemies who have no chance to get back at you. And if you don’t talk, the likelihood is that someone else will anyway—without attribution and against you; (2) the anonymous source is almost always hostile to the war, but sympathetic to the views of the author. But we are never told whether the disgruntled general’s or former official’s views are typical or unusual among his peers; (3) write a military history in the middle of a war, not merely to offer lessons about the past, but to affect the ongoing course of events themselves—without much worry that usually the entire story of what really went on only emerges with time; (4) don’t use the word “anonymous” or “unidentified” but rather try out “on background,” as in antithesis to “on the record”—as if not naming someone who has terrible things to say about something else in the middle of a war is a normal journalistic practice without ethical implications.

A history does not always require footnotes, only—unlike autobiography, the memoir, or the journalistic report—the agreed-on presumption that others can check key sources to determine whether they are real or used properly. In the case of the Iraqi muckrakers, that is apparently impossible.

Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?