posted Jul 16, 2004

I ought to be working but I have to amplify on Den Beste's latest on form vs. substance.

Human memory is notoriously unreliable. Unbelievable memories can be made up out of whole cloth. (False memory, memory, and repressed memory therapy from the Skeptic's Dictionary.) It is also extremely difficult to project a lack of knowledge back in time, as I discussed in my Learning to Expect the Unexpected post.

One of the differences between "form" and "substance" is that to the extent that form lives in our human minds, it is much easier to change than substance is. Changing the substance of history... well, that is objectively impossible. Changing the current perceptions, ah, thanks to the nature of the human brain, now that is easier.

Now, I won't claim my memories of that time are intrinsically any better than anyone else's. But at least from my point of view, the current media frenzy is coming from some sort of parallel reality where the arguments were very different. To me, the real arguments were always "Given time, Iraq will possess WMD" and "Iraq has not fulfilled its obligations as laid out by UN declarations." The latter objectively true, the former is extremely likely.

Therefore, "we didn't find any WMD" doesn't say to me "We should not have invaded." It doesn't address either of those two arguments. What it says to me is "Either Saddam knew he had no WMD, and he is therefore an idiot for not removing that justification by simply complying, or he did not know he had no WMD." Either way, I still believe he had the intention.

But the substance of the arguments need not be changed. Only the perceptions of the arguments do, and to my ears, that has been done very successfully. Bush's lack of oratory ability is merely a symptom of the larger problem this administration has with communicating clearly. (I really think they need to embrace the Internet and get some good essayists writing on the site directly. It's still to focused on a press release, pure propoganda dumping of information.) The left is slowly but surely confabulating the debate they wanted to have last year into existence, even though logically speaking, it is still irrelevant.

It is commonly recognized (at least in theory) that a statement repeated often enough becomes true. It is also the case that a criticism repeated often enough become a response to an argument the other side made. In metaphorical terms, a straw man raised often enough becomes a real boy, and regrettably, the argument "I never said that" always sounds disingenuous, even when 100% true.

(To be fair, I do have some concerns about how the administration pursued their arguments. I will spot them mis-interpretations of evidence, I will not forgive them making it up. But protestations of some people to the contrary, I don't have enough data to render judgment on that yet.)

Another relevant difference between form and substance that gets confused too often is that form is much easier to fake. You'd think this was obvious but people's behavior contradicts this. Kerry is, to me, doing a wonderful job of projecting a form of a foreign policy, where everything is fluffy bunnies, everybody loves us even when our interests, policies, and philosophy are in direct conflict, and the US is simply safe via what seems to be to me merely waving a wand.

But I hear no substance. I too can sit here and claim "We will never wait for a green light from abroad when our safety is at stake but we must enlist the support of those we need for ultimate victory." But I have no idea how to actualize this claim in the real world. I can easily imagine many contradictory or impossible things. I can imagine a square circle. If pressed, I could even discuss some of the properties such a thing would have, and with skill I might even be able to hide the inherently contradictory parts with enough verbiage that you would have to spend hours analyzing my claims to actually show the contradiction. Nevertheless, while I can project the form of a square circle, I can never actually produce one. I am concerned that Kerry's foreign policy statements are glorified square circles.

"If the substance of history didn't go your way, re-write people's perception of form to your liking. If you can't produce substance, produce form. Form is malleable." Which is just an actualized statement of Post-Modernism, which in its pure philosophy form (which nobody really lives because it is impossible) would add "Form is substance."


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