Gossip as Gospel

This should probably be filed under new examples of age-old conflicts – a discussion which gets us nowhere:

The lack of response to the “torture manual” by so many who decry the very existence of Guantanamo is discouraging, but the comment string on Surber’s post raises a different (more theoretical if perhaps no larger) question. An early comment by Talboito argues:

Yes, the United States must be above even “false stories” of torture.

We are the United States.

Most of us (probably all) would agree that the United States needs to hold itself to a higher standard than such barbarism. A telling if minor reason is that while beheadings may be seen as a recruiting tool in some cultures, they are not likely to be in ours. Recruiting people drawn to swear allegiance to the party of the torture manuals is not likely to lead to a very disciplined or very intelligent army. Then of course, as my student said of Hester’s “adultery thing”, there’s always that “moral thing.” And, of course, we become what we do. A country that values both self-consciousness and action needs to intertwine the two.

This comment, however, raises another question. How well does the open marketplace work when rumors are treated as truths – and how can Cesar’s wife appear pure when beset by those who would spin her very virtues as vices? We see Iago at work and recognize that while he may play upon Othello’s frailties, those frailties are ones we understand. Besides, we know this happens, apparently innocently and apparently quietly, as in this office watercooler talk to which Instapundit links. I understand gossip because I do it and my motives are not always pure and my facts not always straight. I am more likely to credit virtues to my friends and vices to my enemies. Writing, I try to modify my points, acknowledging my tendencies & the vagaries of my memory – still, those are my tendencies.

Few of us believe these women should have been fired because we know how often and often innocently we speak of others; we know how little we expect verification for those passing comments. We believe this even as we know that such rumors can, if repeated often enough and strongly enough, be toxic in the workplace. I suspect we know that to gossip is human nature & efforts that try to corral it are unlikely to succeed and quite likely to have extremely negative consequences.

Because we know this and we know the preconceptions lead us to accept some spin and not other, then, finally, how can we hold America to a standard by which even our sworn enemies can not possibly murmur against us? (Even if we assumed they valued a truth overriding their loyalties). The writer’s comment, prompted I’m sure by motives that respect rather than denigrate America’s approach and America’s heritage, is vacuous.

An example is the AP’s reflexive reference to Bush and Kyoto. Of course, Bush’s impatience with the “look” that we are taking this treaty seriously, his oil patch background, his Republicanism softened his audience’s reaction, leaving it vulnerable to a belief that the defeat of Kyoto was the result of Bush’s position in 2001 rather than Hagel and Byrd’s (and 95 senators) in 1997. So, some could argue, it is Bush’s fault, just as it may have been the sins of America in setting up Guantanamo that led to the false rumors of Korans being flushed into its sewers. But however these rumors began and even if we acknowledge that little in this (or any) administration is as spotless as Desdemona, they are still untruths. Exactly how do we gauge the generalized truth when we assemble such “truths” to define it?

And so we conclude with one of our old whipping boys – the argument that all that the truth lies in the perception rather than the action – and yet another example of how such a belief wreaks havoc in the great marketplace of ideas. Of course, attempts to regulate the “truth” of these arguments is likely to ban the inconvenient or uncomfortable but quite true truths as well. It is up to us to use more reason and ask for more proofs – that helps, of course. It doesn’t end with this, however.

23 thoughts on “Gossip as Gospel”

  1. “Most of us (probably all) would agree that the United States needs to hold itself to a higher standard than such barbarism.”

    I certainly wouldn’t agree with this. “All is fair in love and war” is certainly true with respect to war and unquestionably true when the society threatened is faced with an implacable foe working toward its extinction. Results justify the means in war. Adopting any other outlook is an outright loser.

    Delay in adopting the harsh attitude wastes lives, time, and money rather than the reverse.

  2. If “all is fair” in war, there can be no relevant moral distinction between killing 3,000 civilians by flying passenger planes into skyscrapers and killing many more by “strategic” bombing runs using the highest technology weapons known to man.

    We should all be very thankful that all isn’t fair in war. The distinction between deliberately killing civilians and killing them in self-defense lies at the core of civilization.

  3. Absent any kind of immediate personal cost or objective test, people will believe or purport to believe anything that serves their immediate (usually) social or political goals. We use faux information as a tool to manipulate other people. When we no longer need it we drop it and pretend we never said it. You can see such actions very clearly in history when you study the political debates of any era in fine detail. Wild accusations fly everywhere yet most prove so facile that history barely records them. Five or ten years later they are completely forgotten.

    The pre-WWII isolationist debate or the [sic] peace-movement during the Vietnam war clearly show this pattern. During the Vietnam war, those arguing for abandonment made vast numbers of hideous accusations about the American conduct of the war, accusations that if true would have place the American military on par with the Nazis. Yet, once those very same people acquired near total power in the late-70’s they did not attempt to investigate the allegations they made nor make any attempt to bring the supposed perpetrators to justice.

    We can safely predict that the similar wild accusations about the Iraq war will suddenly disappear when the Democrats come to power again. No one will investigate Haliburton. No one will investigate the supposed corruption of the intelligence services. No one will investigate the supposed war crimes.

    In truth, much of history is made on the basis of information that equates to small town gossip writ large.

  4. Dear Shannon–those of us who opposed the Viet Nam war did not do so because of “bad behavior” used…the American public finally came to detest the war as useless and meaningless. And this was clear since the commies took over, turned capitalists, and now do business with us.

    As for Lefties oppising the Cuba enterprise: we do not torture. What we do is secretly send captives out to countries that do torture, and thus we can say we uphold American values. Do you not know about this?

    As for bombing civilians: we had done this in WWII (example: Dresden), and Germany also did this: buzz bombs on London. Things become even messier in the sort of wars that now take p[lace since terrorists (militants) hide weapons and fighters in civilian clothes among civilian places, as does Hezbolla in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

  5. Dear Joe Hill,
    Who got the American in Vietnam the first place? J.F. Kennedy and the Demo. At the time, Pres. Diem had objected the intervention of American’s so called military advisers meddling our affair and he had asked the UN Secretary Uthan to set up meeting with the VC with all intention turning South Vietnam into a neutral region. He got killed by the corrupted Vietnamese generals indirectly aided by Henry Cabot Lodge. After f***ing South Vietnam many years, American turned tail and run straight home with “you name it” excuses. And who is that the curious mind wants to know? The Demo again.

    With hindsight, if American did not meddle with South Vietnam’s affair, the worst part is we still at what we are today controlled by the commies with much less dead bodies in the battle fields, in concentration camps and specially no tragedies in the ocean by the boat people. The best part is we might become like Singapore. So thank you very much America that you have finally come to sense that the war is useless and meaningless. And you have nerve to think that you’re right.

  6. Lany Nugen: Tell it to the families of the Americans who died defending Vietnam against the communists. You have a lot of nerve, whining about US intervention while ignoring the aggression by Vietnamese and other communists that prompted US involvement.

  7. Jonathan,

    Do you understand the part that we didn’t want America to turn us into a battle zone so President Diem had asked UN Sec Gen Uthan? to set up a go between both parties to turning South Vietnam into a neutral region? And that was before “many Americans who died defending Vietnam against the communists”. It is a well known fact that Pres Diem did not welcome American military on to SVN soil and had limited military advisers to 1000 personnel. Once American removed Pres. Diem (#1), effectively removing the last obstacle in SE Asia obstructing their Marshall doctrine, “many Americans later did died defending Vietnam against the communists” (#2) with total ravage of VN (#3), and later turn tail running when your kitchen at home is so hot, dumping your ally behind (#4). If (#1) did not happen, there would be no (#2). And you have a nerve to ask us to be thankful for all of your lost that you created at the first place while forget that our lost (#4) causing by you is at least 100 times more than yours?

  8. You have a lot of nerve, whining about US intervention while ignoring the aggression by Vietnamese and other communists that prompted US involvement.

    Is all of your knowledge about Vietnam war comes from reading the NYT or watching CBS? Have you ever heard Helen Hammer before? At least there is one American wrote the pre-war Indochina the way it was without any BS. Just curious.

  9. Uthant! That’s a good one. Remember the UN-occupied buffer zone between Israel and Egypt, that was supposed to prevent war? Nasser told Uthant to leave. Uthant left. There was a war. You are dreaming if you think the UN would have prevented war and stopped the communists from invading the South.

    The USA didn’t start the war: the communists did. After the French left and the USA left and the RVN failed the communists took over, because the communists wanted to win and had the power to. If the USA hadn’t been there the communists would have taken over sooner. Diem is a red herring. You are judging American mistakes with the benefit of 40 years of hindsight, but you are giving the communists complete benefit of the doubt. The USA was trying to stop communist aggression while the communists were trying to enslave the South. Blame the communists for a change.

  10. I want to make something else clear. I and many other Americans strongly opposed the US abandonment of South Vietnam. For you to come to this blog, which I suspect you have not read before, and make blanket statements disparaging Americans for abandoning Vietnam, I find offensive in the extreme. If you want to criticize someone, criticize the Vietnamese communists, and the members of the US Congress who voted to cut off funding for military aid to the RVN in 1975.

  11. “If “all is fair” in war, there can be no relevant moral distinction ….”

    Oliver, “fair” and “moral” are not synonomous.

  12. Interesting responses to “Gossip as Gospel” particularly Jonathan and Lany’s. I am not sure of the connection with the topic but lively to say the least.

    Shannon, I think that faux information and its uses are not as easily dispatched as misinformation once was. The web allows what was once spoken and believed and casually or hurriedly discarded to be readily resurrected and thrown into the light of re-examination. Spin has become a cottage industry for business, politicians and even religion in order to combat the return of what Bob Dylan called, Idiot Wind

  13. If “all is fair’’ in war, there can be no relevant moral distinction ….”

    Oliver, “fair” is not synonymous with “moral”. War is barbaric, there are no rules. Certinly we can say acts of war are more or less moral.

  14. Jonathan,

    1) It’s not U Than, my mistake. It’s the Burma Prime Minister U Nu who invited both North & South Vietnam delegates over to discuss the possibility that both becomes neutral regions in 1960. At that time Diem was backed by American so persuasive that he didn’t want to pursue the issue.

    He got another chance in early 1963 when he starts seeing American meddling the SVN affair by withdraw economic aids if Diem’s government did not toe the line. Both parties had been in contact with each other this time without the “formal” knowledge of American but De Gaulle government and the Polish government acting as a go between and the chance to succeed is high because China & Russia were wrangling with each other so NVN were concerned to be hanged dry. The wind got out and the hurrying to depose Diem to have a government would bent to American’s will. This is way before American Marines landing full scale in Vietnam. It took NVN 10 years plus to overthrown SVN but American did overthrow a SVN’s government before that (not directly though but without its nod, a coup could not happen -read what happen to Nguyen Van Hinh attempt to throw a coup previously and being forced out the country through the French). Now who’s aggression we are talking here? By the way, American was involved in Vietnam right after the French left so your statement is not correct.

    2) I don’t blame American to not support SVN at all from the beginning and let the country and its people falling into the communist’s hand sooner. It’s noble for American to come in aiding their allies in WW2 and in Korea war, and I wouldn’t blame if they couldn’t stand the loss and withdraw. Perhaps that’s a different kind of American then. I do blame American to overthrow a government who attempt to seek a way out of American’s influence, then installed their American’s puppets, promised the sky then later cutting aid, tugging tail and run and let their partner hanging dry and dies. If the first case happened, we definitely can’t be worse than today, right? saved 60,000 plus dead American and millions of dead Vietnamese. If and a big if, everything works out SVN could be another Singapore and making the NVN thinks communist economy is not a way to go like what they start doing today (after a lot of starvation in the 80s

  15. Jonathan,

    I read this blog for more than 2 years and my best is always Shanon Love’s articles. Remember the one with family having a lot of kids end up carrying the burden of those having less or none. I got a kick out of that one and chuckled when it drew a lot of responses. I rarely response because I always agree with him (but whether he agrees with me remained to be seen).

  16. I didn’t know the post being cut … anyway

    (after a lot of starvation in the 80s but actually the VC did that out of fear of China who continues building dam to restrict the downstream flow of Mekong river but I digress).

  17. If for a time we can put aside the sily labels–The NY Times is his or that; the Left or Right is this or that, and deal instead with secifics, this batch of comments might be more helpful.

    I suggest this article. The man being inerviewd is highly repsected Israel Historian and military analyist. This is what he has to say about Iraq, withdrawal, Iran, Viet Nam:


  18. Joe,

    ..those of us who opposed the Viet Nam war did not do so because of “bad behavior” used…

    Really, did you tell John Kerry and other prominent anti-war activist at the time? Because. I do not think they got the memo. It is massive historical revisionism to say that the anti-war movement did not strongly advance the idea that America was the villain in the Indochina conflict. I realize that many people ashamed of their conduct during the war no claim to have been just hard headed realist (and those did exist) but as a political and cultural phenomenon the anti-war movement was premised on the idea that America was acting in an evil manner. Again, just look at John Kerry’s statements before congress. The fact that John Kerry made such extreme and completely unfounded accusations, never recanted and yet was considered mainstream left enough to be the Democrat Presidential candidate says all you need to know about the attitude of the anti-war movement towards America.

    And this was clear since the commies took over, turned capitalists, and now do business with us.

    You left out a little bit. That sentence should read:

    And this was clear since the commies took overand hundreds of thousands disappeared, they committed the greatest proportional democide of the 20th century, millions of refugees, an unending series of constant wars for the next 15 years, the economy of the entire region collapsed and Stalinism ruled. After the Soviets collapsed and half the country of Vietnam nearly starved, the Communist oligarchs in desperation turned capitalists, and now do business with us.

    You also left out the part where every two bit little thug in the world from Somali street gangs to Al-Quada points to the US abandonment of Indochina as evidence that a small, weak yet ruthlessly determined adversary can defeat the US.

    Your comments is a bit like saying, “well we won WWII, so I guess no one made any mistakes in the lead up to it.”

    The anti-war movement was an humanitarian disaster for the people of Indochina and a national security trainwreck for the US which we are still paying for. It occurred because of the narcissistic selfishness of the American Left who were so desperate for power that they let anyone else suffer any fate.

    We see exactly the same pattern in Iraq. The Left can’t stand the idea that cannot play a central role in the War on Terror and so they turn on it. They invent self-serving fantasy after fantasy, just as they did in Vietnam. The Vietnam fantasies did not survive the test of time and the fantasies about Iraq will not either.

    When you base your public policy on self-serving gossip then it will always fail.

  19. Raimo,

    It does not really connect to the article directly but rather indirectly through this statement

    “Most of us (probably all) would agree that the United States needs to hold itself to a higher standard than such barbarism.”

    This statement implies that we have known all conditions existed to warrant the USA to follow such high moral standard. This also implied the price accepted for following such standard is acceptable. The truth is no, you don’t know all conditions could possible existed and you have no inkling feeling of what price would come your way when it happened. You might use probability to determine the best possible outcome following a set of known conditions but here the keyword known conditions again. The example in case is the USA’s involvement in Vietnam which was wrong at the outset and also wrong at the end and I just gave another possibility might come true if the USA didn’t involve in Vietnam at the first place. There are many possible outcomes if America decided to stay the course and using different measures. We would never know what would be the best course of action because we have only 1 single chance in history to exercise our mental prowess.

    The next issue is the cost trade off involved. That’s fine and dandy if you stuck in traffic for hour caused by an unforeseen traffic but highly possible accident happened and you miss your most important appointment of your life, but it’s not OK when people having such proud of their high moral standard and their civilization without inkling idea of what price and trade off to uphold such standard. In general, it’s mostly not their loss they are dealing with like in the traffic accident example cited above with some minor irritations and discomforts, but there are other people’s loss involved and priority of whose loss is the utmost important. This applies to all kind people of all kind of ideologies, left, right, center, up, down, dead and undead.

    Disclaimer: Until proven otherwise, in my opinion (if it counts) this blog is a blog with many writers of high level of self introspection so don’t take it as an assault of chicken hawk BS. I didn’t response at first because I have read Ginny in some lengths so I gave Ginny the benefit of the doubt. Besides English is not my mother’s language hence it would take me a considerable time to think through all the issues to write an acceptable response in context. The high moral of those who started the war in Vietnam and those who ran away later irk me, hence I stick my neck out to point the obvious, even with past history, we don’t know what the heck we are talking let’s alone to be the expert to become a fortune teller. A little colorful though.

  20. After reading the Guardian article that Joe Hill links (three comments above):

    The Iraq Experiment in Democracy apparently is going from bad to worse. It seems to me that an option between the U.S. leaving or of the U.S. staying with conditions as they are (treading water, so to speak). The U.S. presence should perhaps adopt some more characteristics of the Mideast secular regimes that have successfully maintained order in their nations, not all, but some of their methods. If this is a war that we are in then it is well within our tradition to use these often draconian methods for the duration. It could be rather like playing “bad cop/good cop” (with the good cop being the Iraqi gov’t. of course). It would depend the U.S. public at large having the strength of character and foresight to maintain such a policy, which, admittedly, is not likely.

    Incremental cracking down and incremental easing of public controls could be exercised. When the Iraqi government/military gets strong enough they’ll kick us out.

  21. Much of this discussion is quite interesting and more thoughtful than my original post (which was actually inspired by the stories of the blankets & smallpox in early America – a point I clearly didn’t make at all and intend to in a later post). The remarks don’t seem related to what I thought was its argument: how can anyone combat “gossip” since it is by its nature not always rooted in fact, though sometimes in the context of a person’s other actions which make such charges believable but also sometimes in the fevered mind of the spreader of such tales who merely dislikes someone else and so is willing to give a context that may not be there. (And I acknowledge my own guilt in such chatter.)

    Well, that aside, since I’m usually digressive on other people’s posts, I will be here. Gates said yesterday what I thought had been the plan long before we went into Iraq – this was the model I’d thought we’d all assumed. Still, it somewhat fits into Tyouth’s comment. Of course, that it appears to have been a secret from most commenting, perhaps it wasn’t the plan before – or perhaps it was and no one thought to express it so clearly.

    WASHINGTON, Feb 27 (Reuters) – Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Tuesday the United States may have a military presence in Iraq for a “prolonged period” and drew a comparison with U.S. bases in Germany and South Korea.

    Gates, however, also said the United States had no desire for permanent bases in Iraq and any long-term military presence in the country would be far smaller than the current force level of some 140,000 U.S. troops.

    “I think that at a very much reduced level we will probably have some presence in Iraq, as we have had in Korea and Germany and a variety of other places around the world where we’ve been at war, for a prolonged period of time, a number of years,” Gates told the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee.

    Gates said even if President George W. Bush’s plan to increase U.S. troops in Iraq helped quell violence there, Iraqi forces would still need U.S. military help with logistics, communications, intelligence gathering and training.

    The United States has had forces in Germany since World II and in South Korea since the 1950-1953 Korean War.

    “We clearly have no desire for permanent bases in Iraq,” Gates said.

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