The Testosterone Defense: being wrong but never paying a price

Echidne has an interesting analysis of Bill Keller’s hilariously titled article, “My Unfinished 9/11 Business:  A hard look at why I wanted war.”  (Get it?)  She comments on his stupid evocation of manly hormones to explain his useful idiocy in supporting–against all evidence and logic–the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

I remember 2002-03.  There were a lot of so-called “liberal” and even left “men” who had major hard-ons to invade Iraq.  You probably can remember some of them, too:  wrong blogger Joshua Marshall, wrong New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, and wrong writers Christopher Hitchens and George Packer.  Wrong Kenneth Pollack–who alone among this crowd has had the decency to retreat into the background–gave the rest of the rat pack cover for their support for George W. Bush’s second war.  None of them had military experience.  All of them treated the invasion of a sovereign country as though it were a stoned late-night game of Risk in their parents’ basement.  (Only even stoned Risk-players know never to get bogged down in an Asian land war!)

All of them were egregiously wrong, and yet they either retain their prominent perches as news analysts and opinion-makers or they’ve even been promoted.  Why does anyone take them seriously any more?  Why, when there are so few paying jobs for good writers, do these tools continue to spout their nonsense?  All I can conclude is that there’s never a price to be paid armchair warmongers.  Warmongering is something that the other dudes who read, pay, and promote these guys like. 

The big mistake would have been not to go along with the warmongering in the first place, like Phil Donahue.  (Who??)

20 thoughts on “The Testosterone Defense: being wrong but never paying a price

  1. As Erasmus, Dulce bellum inexpertis: War seems sweet to those who have never been in one. But of course those old humanists have nothing to tell us sophisticated moderns . . .


  2. Sorry, that’s, As Erasmus wrote, Dulce bellum inexpertis: War seems sweet to those who have never been in one. But of course those old humanists have nothing to tell us sophisticated moderns . . .


  3. Being wrong about Iraq is the most egregious thing for which dudes got forgiven, but there’s a wider pattern. Take Mike Barnicle, the Boston Globe columnist. He got forced out for plagiarism, but quickly found lots of other work in print journalism and on TV, and he thrives today. Whereas Janet Cooke, another practitioner of false journalism (but with fewer instances of misconduct than Barnicle’s), was hounded out of … well, everywhere. Cooke happened to be female and African-American.


  4. Pundits are supposed to have insight? and admit when they get it wrong?
    I guess I assume anyone who writes 2-3 columns a week will get stuff wrong all the time, but when it costs us many lives and lots of money, it is decent to admit mistakes and try to figure out why they were wrong. Hormones, it seems to me, is the adult equivalent of “the dog ate my homework.” It’s odd that he hasn’t paid attention to the echo chamber that the news folks live in.
    Oh, and all I could think of was Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est..” But as Tony Grafton says, we can’t learn anything from dead people.


  5. Most of our big pundits are idiots. Their thinking, if one can call it that, is simplistic, seldom founded on logic or experience and quite low level. If they got to to top, it has nothing to do with their ability. Why does anyone expect their status to change because they made a mistake on Iraq?

    I am not sure one needs military experience to express views on wars. All you need to know is that war is hell, arbitrary, unpredictable, foggy and a lot of people die on both sides. The glory part of war is at best tiny. Some generals like wars and many hate them. Non military people including pundits can be on one side or another.

    Mistakes should not trigger major punishment. If Friedman was wrong on Iraq, but is doing a good job otherwise, there is no reason to demote him. (He does a lousy job day in and day out.)

    Being right on the war in Iraq should not elect dysfunctional individuals to presidents either.


  6. Word on Friedman. He is the worst! Just shockingly dumb. He reminds me of the kind of character that comedian Will Arnett plays: totally self-confident but completely misinformed and pretty stupid. He’s not entirely stupid–like a very bright college freshman, he can string a sentence together and construct a basic argument with a little bit of research. But he just so clearly doesn’t have any depth of knowledge or experience with anything he writes about. (Or so it seems to me–YMMV.)

    I don’t think that one needs military experience in order to have an opinion on a war. I have precisely no military experience myself. I was just struck by the complete absence of that kind of experience among the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for the Iraq invasion, and I think it was functionally related to the willingness to support the Iraq invasion.

    The problem is that when the civilian leadership and media cheerleaders are hyping war, people currently in the armed forces & who may be called to serve are in a difficult position. They don’t want to come out against what the civilian politicians want. We need more retired military leadership to step up and put the brakes on these frenzied calls for war.


  7. p.s. Good point on Barnicle, LadyProf. I was living in Boston and a Globe reader around the time of Barnicle’s downfall. He wrote mostly just dopey, what-does-the-guy-at-the-coffee-shop-think type columns. He was even too lazy to bother to write original (and super easy, and no research or actual reporting required) slice-of-life colums!

    There’s an even more immediate parallel to Barnicle’s strange career: Patricia Smith was another Globe columnist who was also fired for plagiarism in her work in the very same year. I guess she’s landed on her feet OK, but she’s not on a morning news show offering her opinions every day.


  8. Heck, if any of them had simply read or watched “The Princess Bride” we’d all be better off!

    I take great satisfaction in knowing that my loud and repeated denunciations of the invasion scheme were entirely justified even if my failure to support the war has essentially estranged me from some relatives who take it as a failure to support the troops.


  9. Wow, Janice–that’s too bad. Even the Republican in my family thought the Iraq war was a crock. (It’s a small family, though–not too many opinions in all, let alone a wide variety of them.)


  10. I’m not sure expressing wrong opinions in what were essentially opinion columns is that big a deal (we’d have to fire everyone in the media, right?)

    But I agree with the gist. I remember leading up to the war, and in our early post 9-11 fever, I had many male acquaintances who almost seemed to indicate they were so in support of this that they would join up if we invaded! Only one of those people did join up (Navy, though significantly later than the invasion).

    It’s all about what your local culture is. I went from working non-profit healthcare industry where being anti-war was something you could talk about in the workplace. Even the “conservatives” there did not seem to welcome a war, though presumably they thought it might be necessary. When I left for male dominated engineering industry the culture was much different. The war was more like this thing that just happened. It didn’t really matter if you were for it or against it. It was its own machine. Those that served in Afghanistan or Iraq often didn’t discuss their service at work. Strangely it was those who’d been in say the Navy in non-war times who spoke most often of their personal commitment to patriotism. It seems the less personal experience people have, the more patriotism and eagerness for war they are willing to project.


  11. As a rider to all this, the _Times_ front-paged an article earlier in the week reporting on a study that found that things like reading _Goodnight Moon_ “for the umpteenth time” (and, needless to say, to kids, not on Metro-North while commuting to the hedge fund shop) made testosterone levels drop substantially over time. The cultural-as-well-as-scientific commentary that they solicited from experts “not involved in the study” was all over the map and interesting. Not sure this could make even a measurable contribution to war-adoidance, even if “used in a conscientiously-applied program” of other tempering measures. I wonder how they got that squishy “umpteenth” metric past the peer reviewers? The burden of the study claim, apparently, was that parenting behavior intervenes/ed, over evolutionary time, in biological processes, in some coherent way.


  12. How about Dick Cheney getting the big payday for writing a book about how he wasn’t wrong either — about !!!!anything!!!!ever!!!!!!

    Or Ann Coulter, who has just written yet another big book of lies that makes me long for British slander laws? The NYRB reviewed it, and I thought about all the *great* novels that never get published, and good history books that get shunted into academic presses with weak distribution, because all marketing cares about is a huge audience and massive sales, not that anything in the book is valuable, smart, interesting or true.


  13. Speaking of making shit up and not paying a price: David “the liar” Brooks. The kid who took him down is still relatively unknown, but Brooks wound up on the Times editorial page. Sigh.

    (Note: Sasha Issenberg, the kid who did the takedown, is a former student of mine, so I might just be a teeny bit biased).


  14. The Barnicle story is a good example of no consequences, but the details are more intertwined than coincidental on why he was fired. Patricia Smith was fired not for plagiarism but for infrequent small embellishments of her anecdotal columns, eg, making up a quote from a fictional persona to add commentary as she saw fit. These were opinion columns, and many of us were not pleased she was railroaded out instead of some other measure taken. Barnicle piled on, railing against Smith, as if he himself were not blatantly guilty of worse. The Boston Phoenix took it on themselves to fact check Barnicle’s work, since the Globe was reluctant to hold their brash white male columnist to the same standard as they judged Patricia Smith, a black woman writer and poet who was a vital part of the greater Boston community. The Phoenix busted Barnicle and the Globe was basically forced by public exposure to let their main opinion columnist go. He wasn’t busted for plagiarism, either, but for wholesale inventing of characters, including turning a white family facing their child’s cancer into “African Americans” to up the heartstrings factor of another family’s helping them out. There was more, such as the Globe shelling out settlement money to cover-up people he’d misquoted and mischaracterized.


  15. Well, the testosterone defense strikes me as slightly less persuasive than the Twinkie defense (which has always seemed to me a tiny bit persuasive -w ho knows what the human mind is capable of all hopped up on twinkies), but at least it’s gesturing towards some kind of explanation for those months of mass delusion that led to the invasion of Iraq. It was so willfully self-deceptive that it’s mind-boggling to even think back on it. I was in Europe during the lead up to the war, and every European news cast I watched said flat out, There are not WMD in Iraq. There is no connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq. They were just shaking their heads, like, can you believe these Americans? So I had a totally different impression of what was going on than mainstream America. And I returned in the US only after the war had begun, so you can imagine the depths of my culture shock.


  16. Pingback: Being wrong & never paying the price: a Washington journalist testifies on the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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