Sunday, July 15, 2007


Lately I have begun to cringe when I hear students and others say that they have researched a given subject. They mean, most of the time, that they have googled a subject and scanned the first page of returns to find answers to their queries. I cringe because I am more and more frequently guilty of the same careless kind of research. It is all so easy to get an answer.

This kind of feeble effort is a long way from research though. The Oxford English Dictionary provides this definition of research: "the systematic study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions." That is a high standard, expecting a systematic approach that would insure a broad if not deep knowledge about a subject. And then the idea of facts, not opinions. One of the scariest questions I am asked by students who have just gotten a new writing assignment is, "You just want our opinion, right?" The idea seems to be to write what is now regularly called a "reaction paper." This is one by which we say whether we like something or not. That seems to be the end of research: find someone's writing that confirms what I already thought anyway. And so the idea of really finding the facts, and the more difficult need to reach new conclusions, never happens.

Andrew Keen has written a new book that seems, from my research, mostly disagreeable to me. He castigates the millions of bloggers, among others, for not being professional, and for failing the test of research. This presents a problem for me. I like the idea that I can say what I want on a blog, and it is true, my level of research is probably in decline. I haven't read his book and probably won't. The Technorati website had this as a banner a few weeks ago: "70 million blogs. Some of them have to be good." My instinct is to trust that it is better to let us all blather on, Mr. Keen, professional, as well as the rest of us. I'm hoping that this collective talk won't be the cause of the fall of western culture. I feel like I'm one of 300 million Americans, all of us standing on soapboxes in MacArthur Park. I'm hoping this random behavior among us all might lead to some good place we didn't know about before.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


I am listening to the president's news conference spinning his interpretation of the interim report to Congress on Iraq. His words make it clear: this president is utterly incapable of speaking to our whole nation in any meaningful way that might help to create new solutions in government.

One reason why he cannot communicate in this way seems to be that he is unable to think outside of preconceived and for the most part timeworn, hackneyed categories of thought. If he were to talk about this skill he would probably say something like "I know it's important to think outside the box." But by categorizing this important habit of thought as just one more cliche of our dreary lives he would be demonstrating his lack of preparation to be president.

Really, to be president we need someone who has spent her or his lifetime preparing to think critically. The ability to do this requires a lifetime of hard intellectual work, an ethic lacking in and disdained by this president. He works hard enough when he rides his mountain bike or brushes at his ranch. But this isn't the kind of work we need in our president.

The consequence of Bush's intellectual laziness has been grave indeed. We are ruled by a fool who looks at the world and sees those who have a "dark vision" they want to impose on those who are "good people." Those with these dark visions need to be rubbed out. Of course, it is the president who decides whose vision is the dark one. Whoever becomes the next president, I have only one requirement: no ideologues need apply.

I have been reading David Halberstam's amazing book on the Vietnam War, The Best and the Brightest. The book is amazing because Halberstam depicts in compelling detail how the personal habits and personalities of the powerful can influence an entire national tragedy like the Vietnam War or, by extrapolation, the Iraq War. The Kennedy administration was ignorant when it came into power, but some in the administration, President Kennedy among them, were open to learning. And they did learn. Averill Harriman was the archetype of this kind of effective and useful public servant. Unfortunately, there are few Harrimans in the Bush administration.

One of the last things President Bush asserted at the end of today's press conference was his often expressed nostrum that he will act on principle and not on politics. Could we please have a president who believes in politics (real politics, not the debased Rovian version we have been infected with for too many years), who is willing and able to recognize that there are competing visions of the good life and that the role of politics in a democracy is to sort out those competing visions and use language to help make compromises among them? But we need someone who is not only smart (ok, Bush is probably smart enough) but who has taken the time to learn something well (I don't think it matters what field) and who can apply the rigor of whatever study to the complex task of being the president of all of us? Why should we be shocked that the Maliki government can't make compromises when our president disdains compromise?

He has become a truly frightening person--still in command of great power, but obviously unable to see or understand the world in any way that might help make a new peace. I pray that Congress grows enough backbone to act before the president is allowed to damage our nation and the world any further. Even the rhythm of his language is scary--one short, declarative, all-knowing sentence after the next.

I went to look at images illustrating this news conference. This is the photograph that National Public Radio chose to use to illustrate Bush's interpretation of a report that tells a story of failure. The soldiers are Iraqi cadets in training. It is the only one used to illustrate the news conference. What are they thinking, I wonder?