Friday, July 20, 2007

Snark vs. Smart 2

[posted by Callimachus]

Here's another object lesson in the stupidity of snark. It doesn't help that the poor fool picked as his target our friend Michael J. Totten, one of the tightest and most straight-up writers working his way through the Middle East.

Michael J. always describes what is in front of him. He tells you what he sees, and I, and many others, have learned you can trust that for exactly what it is: What one man sees as he goes to these places. If your narrative of what's going on there doesn't have room for what he reports, you better re-check the narrative.

Michael J. is in the category with Michael Yon and a few others who are free from the big-media editing machine and the Narratives-Ready-to-Eat that professional journalists carry with them everywhere. [Remember, I've worked among them for 20-some years.]

These two don't try to paint big pictures, though they will tell you what they think the big pictures are, and what makes them come to their conclusions. It's based on what they see when they go there.

Mr. Snark doesn't go anywhere. He reads stuff online and if it suggests Iraq isn't quite the simplistic fiasco he insists it is, he savages the author. Never mind that one of them is in Iraq regularly and the other isn't.

As if to show how far out of touch with reality he is, our snarker sits at his keyboard and calls a writer who has gone into the war zone to find out what's happening there a ... you guessed it: chickenhawk.

If the gasbag right truly believed in this occupation they call a war, not only would they enlist, but they'd reach out to the left to build support here at home. Instead they resort to petty insults and cheap shots, trying to rub our noses in their superiority.

Now, the bit about war supporters needing to engage skeptics in respectful and persuasive discussion might almost be a point worth making. Except that "petty insults and cheap shots, trying to rub our noses in their superiority" is exactly what Mr. Snark is doing and not at all what Michael J. is doing. And Mr. Snark clearly has no openness to being persuaded of anything on this matter -- he's already decided his den is a better place to understand Baghdad than, well, Baghdad.

The trigger for all this is a throwaway line in Totten's piece, in which Totten notes that some very Red State characters who work as contractors in the Middle East come away with a worldliness and sophistication that can run rings around the faux cosmopolitanism of many a sophisticate who considers skiing vacations in the French Alps to be globetrotting.

Willie and Larry work construction for private companies in harsh places like Iraq and Afghanistan. They are both well-rounded individuals with Red State tastes and political views and a worldliness and cosmopolitanism that surpasses that of most people who live in the Blue States.

Note, please, that he is talking about regional identities, not merely political sensibilities. Though he identifies them by their common handles nowadays, which are based on political splits, he's talking about cultures here, not votes.

The line is pegged to two specific characters with whom Totten crosses paths. They aren't made out to be great men or heroes. That's not his style at all. But they are recognizable types. I know some contractors, too, who rarely left the Deep South before they got swept up in this post-911 adventure, and it's been fascinating to watch them grow, yet not change. The skill set they evolve riding motorcycles up Lookout Mountain or hunting water moccasins or dealing with small town planning commissions and traffic cops finds remarkable opportunities to connect with the strange-but-familiar realities in Iraq.

But Totten isn't telling you "this is how everyone is here." He's telling you, as always, "this is what I saw." And, for those of us not in the place, what he sees is an essential part of understanding what is there. When he writes, "Lots of them [soldiers] are from Georgia and Texas," he means those he encountered. It probably has something to do with the units he moves among. He's not making a statistical statement about the U.S. military.

Snarky just doesn't get it.

If you want to know the big statistics, which are another essential part, you have to go get them. And Mr. Snark, accustomed perhaps to being spoon-fed truths by Huffington Post et al, proves singularly inept at this.

Totten writes, "Individual cities-within-a-city are home to millions of people all by themselves. The sheer enormity of the place puts the almost daily car bomb attacks into perspective. The odds that you personally will be anywhere near the next car bomb or IED are microscopic."

Snarky scorns this by citing a news article that includes the line, "The latest fatalities took the military's losses in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion to 3,625, according to an AFP count based on Pentagon figures." He then calculates a percentage based on that number and concludes it's 1 percent. Measurable. Totten is wrong.

Except Totten never made such a statement about the U.S. military. He's talking about the city of Baghdad, with its millions of residents, not the 150,000 or so Americans in uniform in the country. Even if he were, the 3,625 figure is total casualties from all causes. If you break it down, IEDs (1,503) and car bombs (102) account for less than half of military fatalities.

How many ways can Snarky get it wrong in just a few graphs? Now there's a statistic I'm not ready to tackle.