Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Mistakes were made

Jerry Stratton, April 1, 2006

One of the biggest problems with our charged political atmosphere today is that even obvious truths are difficult to state without seeing them twisted and used for political gain.

The most recent example of this is the reaction to Secretary of State Rice’s “admission” that the United States has made “thousands of tactical errors” in Iraq but that the overall “strategic decisions” have been sound. Responses have been that errors can’t be sound.

I’ve categorized other stories like this under the topic “unreasoning partisanship”. I’m digging into Wonkette’s commenters for the perfect example of how unreasoning this can be:

I have to try this on my clients: “I made thousands of mistakes on your project, but I still think the basic strategy, of you know, building a website was a sound one”.

Because I both build web sites and work with people who build web sites, I know that this is an obviously true statement, one that anyone who makes web sites would know is true: when you build a web site of any reasonable size, you will make thousands of mistakes. You fix them before you return the web site to the client. So, yes, despite those thousands of mistakes, the basic strategy of building a web site is a sound one.

The commenter, if they really do make web sites, must know this. But their unreasoning hatred of anything to do with the other side blinds them to this obvious truth.

Are future political leaders going to have to stop admitting that mistakes always happen, and that the goal is to avoid the ones we can, fix the ones we can’t, and mitigate their consequences when they happen?

The same thing occurred when Donald Rumsfeld said, in February 2002, that:

There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns--the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

It is, in other words, extraordinarily important to know that there are limits to our knowledge, and that these limitations affect our ability even to make decisions about what we don’t know.

Sorry, but if you don’t understand that, then you don’t know that there’s a lot you don’t know and probably shouldn’t be a journalist.

Our politicians are better politicians if they understand that there are some things they don’t know. Journalists would be better journalists if they understood this also. But when Rumsfeld said this, did we have a national discussion about what we don’t know, and what we need to learn about what we don’t know?

No, half the country made fun of him because he was on the other side, and the other half had to respond to that instead of getting into the useful discussion. Lots of people probably just stayed away from the fight completely and avoided political discussion at all cost. And judging by what’s going on in Iran right now, we still don’t know what we don’t know.

And unless there’s some sort of partisan advantage, we don’t care. It has become nearly impossible in this country for politicians to publicly acknowledge the limits of our knowledge without invoking a political flamewar.

There’s a Douglas Adams quote that I like to use a lot, from Mostly Harmless, that speaks to this:

The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at and repair.

There is a tendency among planners to try to preclude the possibility of error in order to ensure success. But that’s impossible and shouldn’t be encouraged. Any strategy that does not acknowledge the possibility of tactical errors will be a failure. We are more and more creating a country where our policies are impossible to get at and repair, because we do not allow our leaders to acknowledge the possibility that something might go wrong.

That’s got to make for a more dangerous future.

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