Cutting through the bullshit.

Tuesday, 28 November 2006

Democrats’ 'values and deepest principles'

George Lakoff had an op-ed in yesterday’s NY Times where he analyses how the slogan ‘staying the course’ provides a useful frame for Bush’s propaganda campaign:
“Stay the course” is a particularly powerful metaphor because it can activate so many of our emotions…Because achieving goals so often requires going to a particular place…we think of goals as reaching destinations.
Another widespread — and powerful — metaphor is that moral action involves staying on a prescribed path, and straying from the path is immoral...
In the context of a metaphorical war against evil, “stay the course” evoked all these emotion-laden metaphors. The phrase enabled the president to act the way he’d been acting — and to demonstrate that it was his strong character that enabled him to stay on the moral path.
In this context, he offers Bush some sound advice:
The first rule of using negatives is that negating a frame activates the frame. If you tell someone not to think of an elephant, he’ll [sic] think of an elephant…
To not stay the course evokes the same metaphors, but says you are not steadfast, not morally strong. In addition, it means not getting to your destination — that is, not achieving your original purpose. In other words, you are lacking in character and strength; you are unable to “complete the mission” and “achieve the goal.”
If the Democrats do well in next month’s election, he reckons,
…it will be because of Republican missteps and not because they’ve acted with strategic brilliance. Their “new direction” slogan offers no values and no positive vision…
This is a shame. The Democrats are giving up a golden opportunity to accurately frame their values and deepest principles (even on national security)…
I immediately sent the op-ed around to a few people thinking what a joke – Lakoff still thinks the Democrats have values, principles, and vision. Obviously the closest they come to having vision is an illusion of more of them sitting in Congress, and maybe one of them in the White House.
But then I came across this exclusive interview with former First Lady Hillary Clinton, linked from the invaluable Information Clearing House, where she articulates the Democrats’ elusive deepest principles.
In the true spirit of the Democrats’ name, Clinton reckons January’s PA elections weren’t sufficiently democratic. You might think that’s because elections, insofar as they are ever meaningful under any circumstances, are completely meaningless under military occupation. But in Clinton’s view,
…we should have made sure we did something to determine who was going to win …
On the occupation of Iraq,
I think my position differs with the administration largely with respect to the execution and implementation of the policy, which I think has been a terrible series of blunders.
Blunders like massacring 655,000 and disabling nobody can even speculate how many, not to mention the estimated 1.6 million forced into exile? Blunders like imagining that Iraqis are stupid enough to think an occupying army can impose democracy? Or that the primary US objective in invading Iraq is something other than to secure unchallenged control over the planet’s second largest known reserves of petroleum? No, actually,
…I don't know why they wouldn't put in more troops…
As for the sovereign, democratically elected Iraqi government,
We haven't told the Iraqi government, "You've got to deal with the unfinished business, and we're going to push you to do it and we're going to help you do it, but we're not going to stand by and have you ignore doing it."
Sometimes you forget that in American political discourse ‘democracy’ has nothing to do with people making their own decisions - democracy means ‘elections’, and not just any elections, but only those where ‘we’ ‘determine who was going to win’. And of course, once ‘our’ favoured candidates take ‘power’, they must stick closely to ‘our’ agenda, or risk being branded ‘a failed state’.
When asked about the ‘war on terror’, Hillary opines,
…we must do everything possible to prevent any of them – Iran, Al Qaeda and the like – from getting nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction. That's the ballgame.
After all, it wouldn’t be fair to send ‘our boys’ and girls up against an enemy that wasn’t entirely defenseless. This is a true game of hardball, where the balls explode on contact, demolish buildings and infrastructure, and penetrate human flesh. In this ballgame, ‘we’ make the rules and the first rule is, whoever makes the rules doesn’t have to play by them.
While on the subject of the 655,000 dead, on the 19th, I put a comment up on ICH in response to ‘The Science of Counting the Dead’, by Rebecca Goldin Ph.D:
There are actually two methodological issues with the survey that I've noticed.
One is that the authors define a household as ‘a unit that ate together, and had a separate entrance from the street or a separate apartment entrance', but do not indicate whether or how it was determined whether the group ate together, much less why this would be relevant. While this oversight is annoying, it is common to nearly all surveys conducted by national statistical agencies in peacetime and doesn't impact a great deal on estimates.
Related to this is the failure to determine who comprises the 'unit' with respect to visitors and persons temporarily absent, except that 'Deaths were recorded only if the decedent had lived in the household continuously for 3 months before the event.'
The other issue relates to the clusters. The authors have compensated in part for their implementation effectively of a 'skip' of one. That is, the forty households in each cluster were adjacent. Ordinarily, you would sample, say, every seventh dwelling in the selected block. However, instead of including EVERY next household in the sample, 'Empty houses or those that refused to participate were passed over until 40 households had been interviewed in all locations.' In principle, this distorts the sample, but it was clearly necessary to skip the refusals for the safety of the interviewing teams. Obviously data were not available from uninhabited dwellings, but by excluding them from the sample, we miss out on data that would probably directly impact on the estimates. People leave houses empty for all kinds of reasons, but in the context of Iraq, it is plausible that the dwellings were empty either because the residents were dead or had fled. So, impressionistically, this introduces bias that would result in a LOWER estimate.
The main issues remain:
- the methods deployed in this study are absolutely standard and are not controversial at all when applied outside Iraq
- they are not significantly worse than the methods used by professional, official statisticians in countries at peace
- the total population of Iraq is in doubt and this does impact on the calculation of the weights by which the actual observations are multiplied, but this is the case wherever there are not robust systems for recording births and deaths, which means most of the world, and statistics from, for example, Pakistan, are not treated as controversial
- it is important to remember that in statistics, an 'estimate' is not just a guess - it is calculated by multiplying the number of actual observations by the weights, i.e. the proportion of the population represented by the sample
- finally, the nature of the 'margin of error' is that the estimate at the centre of the range is JUST as likely to be low as to be high. It is NOT more likely that the true number of deaths is 392,979 than 942,636. In other words, there could just as easily have been nearly 1 million excess deaths as under 400,000. The probability of a toll along the lines of the Iraq Body Count of under 50,000 is vanishingly small - nearly impossible.
I actually have a little beef with ICH about this. The very first line at the top of the ICH home page proclaims: ‘Number Of Iraqi Civilians Slaughtered In America's War? At Least 655,000’ [my emphasis]
Now, Tom knows as well as I do that the Lancet report that provided the estimate of 654,965 makes no such claim. The authors are quite explicit that, ‘Separation of combatant from non-combatant deaths during interviews was not attempted, since such information would probably be concealed by household informants, and to ask about this could put interviewers at risk… some were probably combatants…’.
Second, the estimate is the midpoint of a range. The study claims that the analysis provides 95% confidence that the actual number of people who have died since the invasion who would otherwise not have died is between 392,979 and 942,636. Although as the margin of error narrows, confidence decreases, it is still probable that the actual number is near the middle of the range. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, it is decidedly not more probable that the actual number is nearer the low end of the range than the high end. Or vice versa. Therefore, to write that the number is ‘at least 655,000’ suggests a belief that the authors are wrong to assert that it could be as low as 392,979.
Curiously, in the daily email of ICH headlines, I read, ‘Number Of Iraqi Civilians Slaughtered In America's War? As Many As 655,000’ [my emphasis], suggesting that the Lancet report’s authors are wrong to think that the actual number of excess deaths could be as high as 942,636.
I’ve written to Tom a couple of times to point out the contradiction between the two assertions, as well as that both formulations actually distort the study’s findings, but he has declined either to refute my argument to make the necessary adjustments. So I guess the time has come to go public.
Bearing in mind that the study was conducted between May and July and many more have died since then, the number of persons killed as a result of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq is probably at least 393,979 and as many as 942,636. And whatever the actual number may be, that is exactly the number more than it ought to be.

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