Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Privileging Families, by Tom

Americans have a real problem with privileging families in storytelling and politics. Take September 11. Thousands of Americans (and others, but I'm talking about the U.S.) lost family members that day. I nearly joined those thousands. Was it not for a late ride that awful morning, my sister would be a widow, my niece and God daughter would have lost her father, and nephew and another niece would not exist. It makes my stomach turn just to think of it--it is powerful emotional stuff. Their pain is their own, but we feel for those who lost family members at a very gut level because it is not hard to imagine being them and losing someone we love. The same goes for the family members of American service men and women who have died performing their duties.

That said, the stories of family members are a very limited thing. A widow or widower can tell us how it felt to her or him to lose a spouse in a terrorist attack. A grieving mother can share her unique experience with losing a son in battle. These are important stories to tell--they remind us of the human side of the collapsing building; they remind us of the human cost of every war. We should, and I think mostly do, embrace those lessons. But when it comes to understanding events historically or forming policy, those stories can ultimately tell us little more than what it was like for specific individuals to lose loved ones. This is nothing new--it is the difficulty of social studies and social history, and the reason social scientists and historians so often turn to statistics to make sense of their subject(s). As someone who is a fan of overwhelming anecdotal evidence as part of diverse sources, I nevertheless recognize this serious weakness and limited utility of individual accounts of any event.

Yet journalists and politicians consistently give the stories and opinions of grieving families far more weight than they merit in politics and telling stories. The families of those killed on 9/11, as individuals who lost family members on 9/11, have no special insight into why it happened. Their killers did not target their loved ones as individuals, they targeted them as Americans. As such, it is not callous to say that any American had as much of a reason to testify before the 9/11 Commission as any of the individual 9/11 family members. As an American I took the attacks personally. And I have very strong opinions about why and how it happened and what we should do in response. Yet here I am, blogging in my pajamas, and no one asked me to testify at or even sit in on the 9/11 Commission hearings. Nor does anyone seem to care who I am endorsing in the presidential campaign.

Likewise, while I think the parents, spouses, and children who lose loved ones in battle should often have their story told and deserve our sympathy, they are extremely limited sources in telling the story of a war. Yet journalists have made a habit out of asking parents what their son or daughter was fighting for. The answers are hearsay, and can only be deemed credible if they are supported by plenty of other evidence like letters, diaries, the accounts of fellow service men or women, and so on. Pat Tillman is a prime example of this. When he was killed in Afghanistan, he left no personal account of why he had passed on a big NFL contract to join the military and fight in the war. Journalists and reporters interviewed anyone they could find who knew him. Everyone had an opinion, but Tillman wanted his decision to be his own, and that ultimately is exactly what it is. Obviously, he felt in some way that he had to join the military in wartime, but why—his country? his family? the flag? the cause? to see the spectacle of war? to kill? curiosity at how he would react? family tradition?—went with him to his grave.

It doesn’t take genius to know that people do not always tell the truth or the whole truth to their parents, children, and spouses. But reporters and politicians can get folks crying and score political points, so they privilege the opinions of family members far too much. The result is that we are drawn into the story of poor Samantha who lost her husband Jimmy in the war. “I loved my Jimmy,” she tells us, “and he loved his fishing boat. He joined the Army to pay for his fishing boat.” The serious reporter asks, “Do you think Jimmy would be pleased with Fred Politician’s efforts to close Local Lake for fishing? Is that what he was fighting for?” It’s a stupid example, I know, but circle one of the versions to the statements below to see what I’m getting at:

“Jimmy joined because he needed the money to pay for college/loved his country and felt it was his duty.”
“Jimmy never/always thought he would fight.”
“Jimmy never/always supported the president and liked/disliked the president’s policies.”

It seems to never occur to journalists that these questions may have meant far less to twenty year old Jimmy than how many beers he could take at a time from a beer bong, and the answers they are getting are solely the opinions of the parents, wives, or children. If a historian or biographer relied just on the word of loved ones to tell a story, it would mean that they wrote a very, ahem, limited history or biography. This should be common sense. Can you imagine what kind of biography Ron Reagan would write about his father? It would be as, ahem, limited as Margaret Truman’s book on her dad.

The scary part is that it seems reporters are starting to believe their own nonsense—that family members really are good sources on what other people think. Last night I saw Newsweek’s Howard Fineman on Joe Scarborough’s show on MSNBC—yes, I’m the one who was watching—and they were discussing the CBS, Dan Rather, forged documents issue. Fineman thought that all the scientific proof that the documents were forged was interesting. But to him the most devastating evidence against the documents were the opinions of the purported author’s wife and son. Apparently, both say it was out of character for him to write memos to himself, that he never typed, and he had a high opinion of Lt. George W. Bush. Fineman thought it was unforgivable that CBS had overlooked this powerful evidence. Huh? I can think of about a thousand scenarios right off the top of my head where that Lt. Colonel’s wife and kid would have no idea what he was doing at work, or what his opinions of George W. Bush were thirty years ago. Put it this way, if the documents could pass muster as authentic, would we even take seriously the word of the wife and kid? No way. At best, their accounts support a wide variety of other evidence. That is it.

It should tell us all something that the chief political correspondent for one of the major news weeklies believes that solid evidence is what one person says about what another person thinks.

Maybe I’m being harsh, but I think I’m right about this one. My wife thinks the same thing, and my dad, and cousin, and former college teammate who is a Marine in Iraq, and the lady playing the banjo I passed on the street today, and the guy who yells “We Must Protect This House!” in the UnderArmor commercials, and my dog….

(This post originally appeared at the now inactive Rebunk, and has been edited slightly.)


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