Maureen Dowd, a columnist for The New York Times, is famous for mixing over-the-top criticism verging on satire with humorous irreverence.
Regrettably, this is in contrast to the recent reporting in this paper which has shied away from thorough criticism and the inclusion of dissenting views. See "Now They Tell Us"by Michael Massing in The New York Review of Books (Volume 51, Number 3 · February 26, 2004) for a piece documenting the reporting biases in the Times leading up the Iraq Invasion. Many blogs have covered this ground as well— bless them all and bless the blog—but this quite a detailed and thorough treatment.
Now, what to make of Dowd's writing? I find her entertaining, daring, sometimes witty but bordering on trite, silly, hyperbolic, and cutesy. Granted, this approach is probably a stylistic strategy; otherwise the truth of her barbs, if taken seriously, might never have a chance to be said. She is clearly playing the Court Jester, the Foil. I'm sure she incenses right wingers, especially hard-core Bushies: the temptation to find ways of "getting rid of her," I'm sure, is very great. And this administration has had a rather scary record of punishing people for speaking out. For example: Former Ambassador Joe Wilson's experience, which he writes about in his new book The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity: A Diplomat's Memoir.
Anyway, perhaps because my expectations were low, I was struck by her quoting Bornstin's snippet of wisdom, especially timely for now. These words were found in the closing sentences of "Clash of Civilizations", May 13, 2004.
"The hawks, who promised us garlands in Iraq, should have recalled the words of the historian Daniel Boorstin, who warned that planning for the future without a sense of history is like planting cut flowers."
History is such a fertile place for learning and new ideas, but it can also constrain and mislead people. The past is not always a reliable predictor of the future. While huge generalizations, Europe is often said to have too much history, and America too little, which is possibly why these two perspectives are important compliments to each other—why the current disaccord is so worrisome. Unencumbered by too much past, new things are easier to start in America. This is the great virtue and asset of America. This freedom from the past. But serious and long-lasting mistakes can be made if the past is not understood as part of the context; and indeed, the thing we call "history" is often the only place where we can see slower moving drivers at work, drivers that may pop up to the surface and bite you in the ass. So good planners, good learners, need to always look both forwards and backwards. A rule of thumb we have: for whatever time interval you are looking ahead, you need to look backwards twice as long.
America is now living with the costs of not paying attention to history. And moments like these only accentuate certain proclivities, certain cultural predispositions. While this is true with the specific case of Iraq, a case has been made that this is also a broader "asymmetric weakness" of the US: the difficulty of having a Long View, the difficulty of understanding of the power of history beyond its boarders— especially in contrast to places like China, which is more culturally accustomed to thinking ahead in 100 year terms. (This was something we identified when doing national security scenarios for DARPA in the summer of 2001.)
Switching the conversation to Boorstin, the person Dowd quotes, I think he should be mandatory reading. He recently passed away at the age of 89, so this is partly why it jumped out at me. The Economist's obituary featured him as the one of the last great amateurs. This would have pleased him greatly since his work (The Discovers, The Creators) documented how many of the world's most important developments and discoveries were made by amateurs—not the experts and specialists. He wrote extensively about America's exceptionalism in this front as well.
This in turn reminded me of a saying I love, "The Titantic was built by experts, whereas the Ark was built by amateurs." We have too much Titantic thinking these days, and not enough amateur wisdom. How can this emerge in our highly specialized, knowledge-intensive world? Is it possible to be an amateur in things like the biosciences? (Some people tell me that bio-hacking is just hitting the "garage" startup stage; that is, it's possible to do with basic tools and tech. But the knowledge barriers are still quite high, no?) Or in finding solutions to climate change? Where does amateur wisdom, the Beginner's Mind in us all, fit into to the collective problem-solving process? The phenomenon of blogging may be part of the answer, filling this need, the precursor to future innovations of this sort.
I think we are at a point where the existing knowledge paradigm, which prized rationality and vertical specialization over other ways of knowing, has reached its logical limitations. The most important breakthroughs and insights are now coming at the intersection of disciplines and domains. Horizontal or "lateral" knowledge, intuition, and wisdom (dare I say it?) is starting to be valued, that is, the kinds of skills that link, connect, and make sense of patterns beyond the traditional parameters of a problem. So stay tuned. Start looking for new knowledge strategies, and other ways of knowing, emerging to the forefront and increasingly gaining acceptance. This is what's needed now.Posted by nicole at May 14, 2004 11:36 AM