Never Do Either/Or When You Can Do Both/And

Collisions of anecdotes and accounts inform the imagination.  This happened to me again.  I have been reading The Terror Presidency:  Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration, a book I highly recommend.  I also read an article in The New York Times that alleged that Tom Ridge, first head of Homeland Security, would state in his forthcoming book that he suspected that he was asked to increase alarms about threat levels just before the Presidential Election of 2004.  Let me interrelate the book and the article.

In The Terror Presidency, Jack Goldsmith reminds readers of the variety of threats that the Bush Administration had to take seriously.  Mr. Goldsmith headed The Office of Legal Counsel from October 2003 through June of 2004.  He establishes persuasively that many inside the Bush Administration acted in completely good faith to meet the many attacks they feared.

Gov. Ridge apparently will claim that pressures to elevate the official threat level were among the reasons he soon resigned from Homeland Security.  Attorney General Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Gov. Ridge will state, urged Secretary Ridge to increase the threat level in response to a communique from Osama bin Laden.  Secretary Ridge refused to do so.

The juxtaposition of Mr. Goldsmith’s and Sec. Ridge’s contentions reminded me, first,  that we should always attend to Kenneth Burke’s “both/and” teaching.  We must never choose between alternatives [either/or thinking] when more than one alternative may be true.  In this instance, officials in the Bush Administration may have pushed for politically advantageous warning [instrumental manipulation of threat] in which they sincerely believed [good faith vigilance].  Indeed, political scientist Murray Edelman often reminded us that the most effective misinformation is misinformation that the misinformer holds true.

The collision between Mr. Goldsmith’s book and The Times article reminded me, second, that political truths usually result from confabulation.  In psychology “confabulation” is some use of false information to complete recollections.  That is, when humans re-collect their memories, they tend to fill gaps with information no matter how accurate or inaccurate the information.  Once humans have filled gaps, the filling so suits the memory that one can only with great difficulty question the false information. 

Many Americans, misinformed about Saddam Hussein’s complicity in 9/11, continue to believe that Iraq or Hussein bear responsibility for that attack on America.  Attacking Iraq makes less sense in the absence of such complicity, so many Americans have a stake in believing in a justification for the U. S. conquest of Iraq.  These believers also have a stake in believing that they are not credulous dupes [even though every human is]. 

Attorney General Ashcroft and Secretary Rumsfeld, having confabulated to the benefit of the Bush Administration, had a stake in President Bush’s re-election.  Hence, they lobbied Secretary Ridge to bump up the threat assessment.  The important point is that they did so as much from a collective confabulation sincerely held as from a collective campaign strategy.

Were the attorney general and the secretaries acting in at least somewhat good faith?  Probably.  Was each Bush official behaving poltiically and instrumentally?  Probably.


Does “Both/And” leave us with nothing to say or to think or to conclude?  Hardly.  Look what The New York Times article provided:

“Frances Fragos Townsend, who was Mr. Bush’s homeland security adviser, said that ‘there was a fulsome debate’ about the threat level but that ‘the politics of it were not ever a factor.'”

Four days before a presidential election, poltiicking is a factor in everything, so Mr. Townsend’s claim is at least misphrased.  In addition, Mr. Townsend appears not to understand that “fulsome” has, for the last few centuries, carried a pejorative connotation in English.  The phrase “fulsome praise,” for example, denotes praise that is over the top, insincere, manipulative, or offensive to good taste for other reasons.

Mr. Townsend misuses language to create a denial that is not plausible.  More to my point in this posting, Mr. Townsend needlessly makes himself ridiculous.  Earlier in The Times article, Keith M. Urbahn emphasizes one side of the Both/And without denying the other side.  Mr. Urbahn notes that the threats from al Qaeda might have justified increasing the public assessments of peril.  Mr. Urbahn’s response, that is, focuses on a disagreement between Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Rumsfeld on the one side and Mr. Ridge on the other.  Reasonable men might merely have disagreed in assessing a threat.  Mr. Townsend need not have denied the undeniable, but he did.  When he denied undeniable electoral motivations, Mr. Townsend engaged in implausible deniability.

I hope in future postings to show how confabulation is both a curse and a blessing.  Confabulation bedevils the republic because what officials start out by concocting they later come to believe.  However, confabulation also makes officials cocky.  Because they believe their own falsehoods, they spread those falsehoods.  Detecting and debunking the falsehoods exposes confabulators and confabulation.

In sum, language both enables leaders to mislead and enables the vigilant to show leaders to be purveyors of untruths.



One Response to “Never Do Either/Or When You Can Do Both/And”

  1. O. Says:

    “The official threat-level” seems to have been a pre-existing condition underlying Ridge’s difficulties, Ashcroft’s alleged maneuverings, and Americans’ confusion. –For the different colors meant almost nothing except “be scared [but at the same time, fear not, for Bush is on the job].” (Edelman mentions this fear-and-reassurance two-step.) When applied to smog-levels, the color- system actually means something concrete: If there is an orange alert, older persons and asthmatics ought to stay in side, for example. I don’t remember anyone’s having changed his or her behavior owing to a change from a yellow to an orange “alert.” Doubtlessly, people working for the government behaved differently when they learned of the information to which Goldsmith alludes, but “threat-level” and the color-code system seemed, a priori, “signs” crafted for political manipulation.

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