Monday, September 20, 2004

On being a syndrome 

I guess I should feel special, now that a syndrome has been officially named after me. The Chez Nadezhda blog has a long new post titled "Chrenkoff Syndrome and Its Cure," the syndrome in question being, I gather, a condition of supposedly unfounded and unrealistic optimism that things in Iraq might not actually be all going to hell in a basket. It relates to, of course, my practice of gathering and publishing the good news stories coming out of Iraq.

An interesting polemic, but unfortunately a misdiagnosis. My erstwhile fisker is wrong both in regards to the nature of what I'm doing as well as what I'm trying to achieve through my "Good news" series. He writes:
"I feel somewhat churlish--much like I did when I told my younger brother there was no such thing as Santa Claus--doing this to a guy who puts so much work into what he does, but today I'm going to rant a bit about 'Chrenkoff Syndrome,' because I think it inhibits clear thinking about what is really going on in Iraq."
He (or she) need not fear - both Iraq and Santa Claus should be topics open to constructive debate.
"What Chrenkoff and his adulatory followers seem to lack is a sense of what is important, and often go to absurd lengths to find positive news; summarizing a depressing CSIS report as simply 'Iraqi Optimism Endures but It Is Fragile' is a prime example of the latter problem. While CSIS itself notes that 'although Iraq’s governing institutions lack adequate capacity and negative trends dominate security, jobs, and services like electricity and sewage, Iraqis themselves remain optimistic' Chrenkoff argues that 'whereas the fragility of Iraqi optimism is a function of continuing violence and reconstruction pains, the American optimism is under the constant assault from the negative media coverage.' But if these negative trends ('continuing violence and reconstruction pains') do in fact exist--an element of the report that Chrenkoff does not dispute--then the media is reporting appropriately, and Americans are merely reacting naturally to the bad news."
Leaving aside the minor quibble that the headline "Iraqi Optimism Endures but It Is Fragile" is newspaper's and not mine, I never begrudge the mainstream media their right to report bad news from Iraq; neither do I deny that there is much bad news to report. What I merely point out is the totally disproportionate attention that the media is paying to negative developments at the expense of informing their readers and viewers that some good things are indeed happening in Iraq. In summary, I'm not questioning the existence of "negative trends", merely the almost total absence in the media coverage of any "positive trends".
"Another element of Chrenkoff Syndrome that bothers me is that it takes normal events and spins them as 'historic.' Chrenkoff seems to believe that Iraqis have never experienced economic activity. While in his introduction, Chrenkoff nods in this direction by referring to 'normalcy,' he gets overly enthusiastic when he goes on to say that 'the Iraqi caravan is certainly on the move' when according to the CSIS report he cited approvingly, Iraq is advancing in a backwards direction."
It's easy to be blase about "normal events", while looking at the world from the perspective of a resident of a wealthy, democratic and free Western nation. Alas, what many of us in our arrogance and ignorance all too often consider "normal" can in actuality be quite "historic" for many people in different countries and different cultures. Iraq has suffered through three decades of an almost totalitarian dictatorship, three bloody wars and over a decade of economic sanctions - sadly, many commentators don't seem to comprehend just how much damage Iraqi society and economy had suffered as a result, and therefore just how low the base line for development is.
"Yet another masterful element of Chrenkoff Syndrome is the spinning of clear policy reversals as good news, for instance, the announcement that the four dominant parties in the new Iraqi National Assembly are Allawi's Iraqi National Accord but also the Communists, the Sunni Islamists, and the Shi'ite Islamists. While it's good that everyone is able to participate in civil society, few Americans would recognize the ascension of a Communist or an Islamic fundamentalist government as a successful outcome or a step towards liberal democracy... Not to mention that, according to the very poll Chrenkoff touts, 80% of Iraqis aren't affiliated with any political party, so the body can hardly be said to be representative of Iraqis as a whole."
Aside from the fact that in principle policy reversals can indeed be good news if the previously pursued policy was wrong, I'm not sure how the example cited demonstrates my critic's point. In my original post I was merely trying to flesh out the Iraqi National Assembly for Western readers to give them some idea of who's involved, and that means pretty much the whole spectrum of Iraqi politics. The Assembly as a whole is as representative as an unelected body can be; soon enough the Iraqi people will get a chance to vote for whoever they want to represent them.
"Chrenkoff might say that what he is doing is important in order to lend balance to what he sees as a biased mainstream media that is hurting American morale. The only way America can lose, in this view, is if we lose our nerve. If America does lose its nerve based on bad information, that would be tragic. But obviously this approach can be taken to absurd levels. When is enough enough? Would Chrenkoff ever be able admit that a change of course is needed, or that our presence is actually a source of instability in many cases? Even though the latter has been admitted in recent weeks by various commanders on the ground, I doubt Chrenkoff would ever acknowledge it."
It's not my role in presenting the "Good news" series to tell readers when "enough is enough" - they are intelligent enough to make their own assessment. All I'm doing is providing them with more information to form a truly informed opinion on that topic. I'm afraid though that we are quite a long way away from the point where America might make a wrong decision because the picture painted of Iraq in the media is overly positive.
"While I agree that an American withdrawal would have enormous propaganda value for Al Qaeda and a devastating effect on Iraqi moderates, I do find value in honest assessments of the state of play. An account intended to Balance what one sees as overly negative media stories ought not to be mindless puffery; it ought to be itself balanced. American optimism, if that is the goal, is more useful if it arises not from propaganda but from perspective."
I'll leave it to readers to decide whether the "Good news" series is "mindless puffery," but alas, the above is a clear misreading of what I'm actually doing. I'm not in the business of providing an "honest assessment" - in fact, I'm not in the business of providing any "assessment" at all - I am in the business of providing information, though. If the media is painting an overly negative picture of Iraq, my mission is to point out to people all the positive developments taking place. My readers can then look at both, give each set of information the weight they consider appropriate, and then make up their mind as to what's going on in Iraq. If after the end of the whole process my readers are convinced that Iraq is after all going to hell, that's perfectly fine with me - the point is not to convince them either way, but to enable them to reach an educated judgment. My fisker is indeed the perfect example of how it all works in practice: he (or she) obviously follows the mainstream media coverage of Iraq; he (or she) also looks at my work, doesn't find it convincing or persuasive enough (as he or she is perfectly entitled to do), and arrives at the conclusion that situation in Iraq is truly bad - the most important element here is that he (or she) is now making that assessment based on all the information available.

My commentator thinks that reading "Good news from Iraq" "inhibits clear thinking about what is really going on in Iraq". I would have thought that trying to form opinion about the situation in Iraq after considering only one side of the story is far more dangerous.


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