Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Solway and Solace

I often complain that Canadian writers make themselves socially irrelevant and don't pay enough attention to the world beyond their laptops--that they only get politically active when they perceive a threat to their precious public funding. But then, whenever David Solway writes about contemporary politics, I think maybe this is for the best.

I picked up the latest issue of Maisonneuve the other day. It's a magazine I've always enjoyed and have contributed to several times (which I haven't always enjoyed, but that's another story). In this issue, in "The Iconoclast Department," is Solway's latest volley in his campaign to convert us to his brand of Zionist, paranoid, pro-American xenophobia.

In the article, Solway responds to a review, by Cas Sunstein in the New Republic, of two books: John Mueller's Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them and Robert E. Goodin's What's Wrong with Terrorism. I haven't read these books, but I don't think Solway has either. Anyway, that's not really the issue here. Solway's piece is a sort of review of a review, and this is a review of his review of Sunstein's review of the books--and more broadly, it's a review of the pernicious rhetoric and bogus logic Solway and his ilk need to resort to in order to sell their very dubious agenda.

Solway's article is framed by his dismissal of the argument that you're more likely to die driving your car than in a terrorist attack. He says this is "a tissue of the simple-minded inferences and deductions that rely mainly on the abstract power of comparative numbers." Please forgive me for quoting at length, but I need to in order to address this point by point. Solway says:

Take those reassuring statistical comparisons that tell us that air travel is far safer than driving. Sunstein himself regards it as a given that "driving is more dangerous than flying" and ultimately more destructive than terror attacks. But is this belief warranted? Do we ever stop to reflect how flimsy, even misleading, such quasi-mathematical structures really are? For example, a minor malfunction in an automobile will likely lead to nothing more than stopping by the side of the road, pulling over to a garage station or simply waiting for a convenient moment to address the problem; a similar malfunction in an airplane may plausibly lead to a hecatomb.

There is so much wrong with this paragraph, I hardly know where to start, but a few things stand out:

A) Driving is more dangerous than flying. Way more dangerous. It's not a question of "quasi-mathematical" manipulation of stats. And it's not just because more people drive than fly that there are more automobile fatalities than aviation deaths. A researcher in Chicago has determined that "about one of every 6,800 drivers in the U.S. dies in an auto accident while the annual rate of deaths for airline passengers is one in 1.16 million." Pshaw! Mere statistics! Yeah. Even if the numbers are a little off and even if they don't take non-statistical factors into account, as Solway makes the strained quasi-logical attempt to claim, that gap is fucking enormous, David. But don't bother stopping "to reflect how flimsy" your argument is...

B) David clearly knows sweet fuckall about airplanes and the commercial aviation industry. Fortunately, I worked in that business for seven years, so I can counter his irrational beliefs with a few facts. "A minor mechanical malfunction" is incredibly unlikely to "lead to a hecatomb." Dave seems barely convinced of this himself as he says, hedgingly, "may plausibly." He's right to doubt his own rhetoric, but he doesn't push it far enough. For one thing, minor malfunctions in airplane instruments and systems are much rarer than they are in cars. Unlike car owners, commercial plane operators are required by law to subject their equipment to rigorous pre-flight safety checks and regular maintenance. Most mechanical problems are detected when the plane is very safely on the ground. Even if they aren't, most "minor malfunctions" in an airplane are, at most, as consequential as Solway claims they are for cars. When a problem is detected mid-flight, it is recorded, reported and corrected at the earliest opportunity. Also, in airplanes, unlike cars, there is significant redundancy built into most systems, so that if something goes wrong, it's not the end of the world; the airplane's designers anticipate problems and build the solutions into the plane. If cars were built this way, they'd probably be too expensive and large (imagine having two engines under your hood) for most car-owners to acquire and operate. And very few car owners are as skilled at operating their vehicles as commercial airline pilots, who go through intense training and regular recertification before they can ever take the yoke in hand. And in most commercial airplanes, there are at least two trained pilots in every flight deck, drastically reducing the likelihood of undetected human error. If you want to get anecdotal, Dave, I'd rather entrust such professionals with my life than, say, a sexagenarian poet...

C) People in the airline business tend to have a pretty dark sense of humour. "You crash, you die" was an oft-heard phrase on the tarmac when I was loading airplanes. During my seven years working for a very busy medium-sized airline, two pilots did lose their life and people in the business understand that this is always a possibility. The difference between those black jokes and Solway's observation is that people in the business also know how rare the first half of that equation is. The two pilots who died, for example, lost their lives not in a routine passenger flight, but in an off-strip cargo job. Solway's comparison of what happens in the case of a "minor malfunction" is not only factually inaccurate, it's completely specious. In a car crash, as in a plane crash, people are very likely to die. And if it's a bus crash, it could very well "lead to a hecatomb."

But Solway's never been terribly interested in facts. In one of the essays in his book Director's Cut, he says that "the factual is merely factitious." In the context of that essay, he had a very valid point. He was talking about poetry. But in the world outside of poetry, in the realm, let's say, of public policy, the factual is pretty goddamn important. But Solway thinks we should base our policies on how we feel about things, not about how they actually are:

Owing to their spectacular nature and the amount of immediate damage they can do, acts of terrorism are far more conspicuous and, indeed, "terrifying" than random traffic accidents. Statistics offer no solace and they cannot, no matter how the experts pontificate, diminish the collective feeling of threat and exposure.

This is quite astonishing. Basically, what Solway's saying is that terrorism is a squeaky wheel, so it needs greasing, whereas traffic safety isn't something most people notice, so we can ignore it. Forget responsible policy-making, what we need is more "solace." Maybe Hallmark should be our government, they're great solace-dispensers. Whaddya say, David, Maya Angelou for Prime Minister?

Funnily enough, after supposedly disposing of numbers as so much wool in our eyes, Solway hauls out a few to defend his position:

Three thousand deaths in one hour and in a single circumscribed spot of approximately one square mile--the 9/11 massacre--is a much different kind of event than forty thousand automobile deaths spread out over twelve months and across fifty states, or approximately 3,537,442 square miles, which scarcely registers on the psyche and certainly not in the same way as a terrorist atrocity. The effect of a massive and designed event such as 9/11 is like that of an asteroid slamming into the earth, which doesn't happen all that often. Once is enough.

Yes, that's right, he said asteroid; I guess if his numbers don't get you all freaked out, his hyperbole should do the trick. Leaving aside the fact (damn pesky facts) that the impact of a large asteroid would be more likely to wipe out the city of New York (and would probably have a devastating, world-wide ripple effect) than knock down two buildings and kill 3000 people, it's hard to figure out what Solway's suggesting here. That we should prepare for an asteroid collision? Forget poetry, he's in the realm of science fiction here.

But let's take him more seriously than he deserves. I don't think anyone is suggesting that we should ignore the threat of terrorism and just let the odd attack happen without doing anything to prevent it. Funny thing is, this was pretty much how the US has dealt with, and continues to deal with, threats to the safety of its citizens. Many media investigations have revealed that security at US airports is still, almost six years after 9/11, pretty lax compared with European countries. Maybe Solway should read this report, from a conservative think-tanker, who suggests that money spent on security improvements in US airports has provided more solace than real security. Oh, but wait, Solway wants more solace, never mind. Since Solway's into natural disasters, how about Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans? This was an event far more predictable than an asteroid hit, and far more preventable than a terrorist attack. Or how about the fact that there was clearly no Emergency Response Procedure in place at Virginia Tech--an institution within spitting distance of Washington, D.C.--to deal with a terrorist attack?

But Solway's not interested in practical preventative measures, probably because they don't make him feel any better. Oddly, after saying that because we don't feel the scattered thousands of deaths in traffic accidents, then they don't require the same attentiion as fewer, more concentrated deaths in a terrorist attack do, he then, later in the essay, says that the "ever-cavalier Mueller['s] ... logic is abominable ... infantile ... shallow and barbarous." What was Mueller saying? Apparently that "deaths numbered in the thousands "can be readily absorbed."" Yeah, there's something icky about such a statement (not that I trust Solway not to distort it through quotation), but it's exactly what Solway is saying about automobile deaths. Dying in a car crash is the cost of doing business, according to Solway's logic, whereas dying in a terrorist attack is a senseless tragedy. If only the real world was as neat and tidy as this.

The closest Solway comes to any constructive suggestions in his essay is basically that we have to be tough on terrorism. We need "increased surveillance" at home and attacks on "the enemy in its bases, training camps, offices and military installations." Never mind if they don't have any such facilities, never mind if such tactics have proven ineffective, expensive and destructive in war after war and only serve to strengthen the resolve of "the enemy," which is protean, mobile and amorphous, quit bothering David with your damn facts, will ya, can't you see he's scared?

Oh, but these are crazy times, Solway tells us: "Paranoia may be the only sane response to the current state of affairs," echoing Kurt Cobain, that great philosopher of the late 20th C., who said "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you." In times like these, democracy is, for Solway, a great inconvenience, one we can ill afford. This is not a good time to "doubt [the] bona fides" of our leaders or to suggest that they might be, in no small part, responsible for this terrorist threat in the first place. He actually goes so far as to say "There is no verifiable proof that our political leaders may be involved in ... nefarious practices, whether with respect to Iraq ... or homeland security." Actually, Dave, there's verified proof that America's present foreign policy is based on a foundation of lies and the willful misconstruction of questionable evidence. Sorry, facts again.

Finally, Solway finishes up with the devastatingly irrefutable argument that these terror-downplayers aren't to be trusted because, gasp, they're university professors: "A university chair is a sedentary thing; and, as often as not in today's PC climate, a tenured position is a neural carapace." Solway's safe in saying this because he's a retired college professor and so much more in tune with reality than these scholars in their "beta version of reality ... ensconced in safe and insular positions where words are the currency of exchange." He accuses their arguments of being "partisan." They likely are, but are we to believe that Solway's are not? Is the author of The Big Lie not at all biased against Islam by his Zionism? And are we to trust Mueller and Goodin less than Solway's exemplar of a stellar social critic, Mark Steyn, whose authority for his pro-Bush arguments comes from what? His experience as a reviewer of musical theatre? Yeah, he's out there in the real world, on Broadway, not in some ivory tower.

Reading Solway's risible political essays, I'm put in mind of Pound's equally uninformed advocacy of Social Credit and his defense of fascism. Not to mention his execrable racism. And I can't help thinking of Auden's observation that if poets are put in charge, what you'll wind up with is a totalitarian dictatorship. Solway can sometimes be very good when it comes to criticising poetry, but his political analysis is a perfect example of what can happen when a big brain like Solway applies himself to a subject he knows nothing about.

UPDATE: Thanks to Michael, who wrote in with the link to Mueller's article, which is worth reading for this bon mot alone: "Normally ... only children and lunatics rail at storms; sensible people invest in umbrellas and lightning rods."