Subtleties and Distinctions Matter
Scott once told me that, and I am thinking of making it my motto. I have been avoiding commenting on recent events in Iraq because I'm sort of trying to write about them for class, and I don't want to let my opinions gel too much. But I am also struck by the extent to which people on both sides of the red and blue divide have made sweeping statements and declarations without really slowing down and taking careful stock of the situation.
During the Washington trip it occurred to me that the constant need for talking points (apologies to Mr. Marshall) and policy summaries is satisfied at the great expense of both accuracy and precision. That is, if you are trying to understand a big, complex set of information and ideas in order to solve a problem, always
summarizing and condensing it to either an average generalization or a few "key pieces" may help you grasp the breadth of the set, but it also entails a huge risk: obscuring and twisting exactly those details which might be the key to unlocking the solution or at least best action for whatever problem you are trying to solve. If you need to analyze river traffic in Rouen, a painting by Monet
might give you a good general feel of the area, but it's certainly not enough information. Yet I think the American people and even, perhaps, a large chunk of the Government (both the executive and legislative wings) are probably operating with that kind of impressionistic information. It seems like this flow and processing of information by the various elements of The Republic has plenty of room for optimization, and I'd like to start reading about what others think of this problem. Please send me anything you have on the topic.
I also think that this is not just a concern for policy wonks, journalism buffs, and information geeks. Efficiently processing and dealing with information in an accurate and timely manner seems like an increasingly large part of the moral core of modernity. Issues of ethics and morality for the individual as they have always been framed still exist, and are important. But in what one hopes is an increasingly democratic world, issues of political ethics and political morality are increasingly the concern of the individual-turned-citizen. Even the humblest citizen of the most vaguely democratic state has some moral responsibility to take an interest in the affairs of their society. We have to look at the need of both citizens and bureaucrats to be constantly evaluating and making political choices as a moral need; that is, ideally, we want those citizens and bureaucrats to make ethical and just choices. Therefore, efficiently presenting them with accurate information that preserves as many subtleties and distinctions as necessary becomes a moral imperative, not just a pragmatic one
Given the situation our nation finds itself in now, and the role bad information flow played in getting us into this situation, I think it should be pretty obvious why I am saying this.