You’re accountable for your predictions

Daily Show host Jon Stewart was once asked how they made those great video pieces showing politicians contradicting themselves, backpedaling, lying, misleading the public, or just saying things that were flat-out untrue. He looked at the questioner unbelievingly and replied “An intern and a videotape duplicator.” Contemporary journalism imposes simplistic narratives on complex events, grabs viewers with ideologically pure programming and charismatic hosts, treats politics like a horse race with opposing sides, focuses on the trivial and immediate to the detriment of understanding big events. And in the 24-hour news cycle, reporters are always looking for new fodder, the latest news to beat the competition–last night’s news be damned. This last problem, at least, doesn’t HAVE to be this way. Modern technology stores everything written or said by a public figure, and that history is usually accessible within seconds by professional journalists. There comes a point when the most responsible action a reporter can take is to narrow her eyes, tilt her head, and tell a politician that he’s got it all wrong. The war in Afghanistan was not chosen by President Obama. The subprime mortgage crisis was not caused by bleeding-heart regulators forcing banks to loan money to undeserving minorities. Last year’s stimulus package did not lead to runaway inflation.

Holding public figures accountable for their statements and predictions has been on my mind lately because of Tea Party activists decrying the current administration’s spending. The entirety of President Obama’s agenda is responsible for only 10% of the deficit. That’s not up for discussion. It’s just how things are, and no amount of pundit spin or Glenn Beckian yelling or wishful thinking by teabaggers will change it. When reporting on Tea Party anger with the country’s budget, pointing out that the entire stimulus package accounts for only 7% of the deficit isn’t partisan–it’s CORRECT. David Brin has written more and better on this than I ever could (see his article on supply-side vs. demand-side economics, for instance),  and I think his focus on prediction is exactly right. I had a coworker ask me a few months back ask me why I continued to support the stimulus package, and my answer was “They proved themselves right.” The president’s advisers and economists implemented Keynesian economic policies, explaining why they took those actions and what the consequences would be. And they were right; the economy performed as they said. The economy is growing, jobs are coming back (although not as fast as we would like), exports and manufacturing are up. That’s why I continue to support current economic policies and progressive economic ideas in general: they don’t just coincide with my own ethics and beliefs, they have proven themselves right. And that needs to count for something.

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Looking at a Wilfred Owen poem

National Poetry Month is almost over; given how big a role poetry plays in my intellectual life, I wanted to devote some time to one that I’ve been thinking about for a little while.

“Six O’clock in Princes Street”

In twos and threes, they have not far to roam,
Crowds that thread eastward, gay of eyes;
Those seek no further than their quiet home,
Wives, walking westward, slow and wise.

Neither should I go fooling over clouds,
Following gleams unsafe, untrue,
And tiring after beauty through star-crowds,
Dared I go side by side with you;

Or be you in the gutter where you stand,
Pale rain-flawed phantom of the place,
With news of all the nations in your hand,
And all their sorrows in your face.

Wilfred Owen

A friend sent me this poem as an example of the sort of thing she had trouble understanding. M. is very intelligent and educated, but more toward the hard sciences than in the humanities. I’ve no notion of writing some critical manifesto, but it may be that some of you who read this will find it useful to see a process of interpretation.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

First off, this is from Wilfred Owen. He’s one of my favorite modern poets (modern in the sense of cultural movements, anyway; he died almost a century ago). For my money he wrote the best English war poetry of any era. Even this short poem set on a British street is informed by his experience of war. The narrator sets himself apart from the men he observes with “they” and “those”: “they” are a happy crowd walking eastward to meet their wives at home, and by implication our speaker is not. He sees himself as a wanderer following dangerous dreams whose only chance to enter that domestic world of the first stanza would come by “daring to go side by side with”–who? A soldiers’ sweetheart as literary convention perhaps, though I find it more likely that Owen is alluding to romantic desire for his hero, the handsome, renowned poet Siegfried Sassoon.

And then there’s this third stanza. What an odd turn this is; try as I might, I cannot make satisfactory sense of that first line, “Or be you in the gutter where you stand”. The standing figure holding “news of all the nations” must be a newsboy; he is fixed to the spot as he sells his wares, but like the speaker he too is aware of the world outside domestic bliss, aware of the tragic stories he sells. I THINK Owen linking this figure to the object of desire in the second stanza with that “or be you” line, but I can’t quite work out the detail.

So, not one of Owen’s best poems, but certainly a touching little piece–I particularly like “tiring after beauty through star-crowds” as a description of a restless young man. It’s also nice to see Owen deal with something besides the horrors of war.