Sunday, June 10, 2018

Karl Rove and the rejection of discernible reality

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." Remarks later attributed to US Presidential Adviser Karl Rove, North American Summer, 2002. 
The excerpt is from a New York Times Magazine piece by Ron Suskind, Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush, 17 October 2004. It came to me via a comment from Johnb on a post on my history blog, .Is technology bringing history to life or distorting it? .I found it quite chilling.

 The comment was made at a time when many in the US did believe that US power was such that they could control events and thus results. We now know that discernible reality was such and should have been seen to be such to indicate the limits of US power. It is certainly true, however, that the actions of the time taken independent of discernible reality created a new discernible reality, one that we are all trying to manage today.  

I think that is true that many of those in power and not just in the US still believe that they can and should be able to control events, to do things, independent of practical limits to their power. I suspect, too, that they believe that they can in fact substitute a new discernible reality along their desired lines.not recognising that their actions will create a new reality that they might not like.

 In his interview,  Mr Suskind refers to enlightenment principles and empiricism. I fear that both are in sad decline, their value rejected on all sides. I am not blind to the underlying difficulties of the very concept of discernible reality.

By its nature, discernible reality deals with the position at a point as seen at that point. It becomes a constraint as exemplified in the words "the reality is". Many of the best things in history as well as the worst   have come about because people have rejected an existing discernible reality and sought to create something different.

Slavery was a discernible reality. Part of that reality was that slavery had been a feature of human societies for a very long time, was indeed seen as part of the natural order of things. That is still the case in some parts of the world even today. Some of the then European colonial powers had benefited greatly from slavery. It was built into the structures of empire. And yet, reformers in the British Parliament were able to begin a process that led to the progressive abolition of slavery in the British Empire that then flowed on. It took time and sometimes violence including a bloody civil war in the United States, but the end result was freedom for many.

Unlike Mr Rove, the anti-slavery movement did not and could not ignore the the existing discernible reality. They did not control the levers of power. They recognised a reality and sought to change it using the constitutional mechanisms open to them. Their success created a new reality, one that the anti-slavery campaigners of today seek to build on. Progress comes from recognising a discernible reality and seeking change, not from denying the presence of the reality in the first place.  


Anonymous said...

I don't understand why you find that particular observation "chilling"? Seems to me it is a simple statement of fact that the makers/actors of history get to set the discourse, which is then observed and agonised over by others.

On the other hand, maybe it is chilling in the sense that these actors are contemptuously aware of their power, and feel it unnecessary to hide the fact. I give you Ben Rhodes, on the Obama deal with Iran:

“All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

And again, another 'operative' in reviewing the Obama legacy:

When I asked Jon Favreau, Obama’s lead speechwriter in the 2008 campaign, and a close friend of Rhodes’s, whether he or Rhodes or the president had ever thought of their individual speeches and bits of policy making as part of some larger restructuring of the American narrative, he replied, “We saw that as our entire job.”

I don't use these quotes by way of partisan criticism; simply illustrating that what you find chilling is pretty much how the world works, and how 'history' is made by "history's actors".


2 tanners said...

The point about Rove and others of his ilk is that empires can control actions. They cannot control results. Iraq is a case in a point. Desert storm was supposed to be a quick surgical strike that would solve a problem and leave a better (more US friendly) situation behind. Ignoring the argument that US actions may have created the very problem that they tried to solve, there is a country a war, the temporary creation of the ISIS "caliphate" and a great hostility to the US in Iraq. The US is now fighting wars on three fronts and frankly not doing well in any, lowering its reputation. Rove's "acting and acting again" is useless with examination of the results.

Anonymous said...

tanners, are you maybe referring to the later "WMD" war, as opposed to Desert Storm which was in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in the early '90's?

There's been so many of them, I get confused :)


Evan said...

The alternative isn't The Enlightenment of nastiness.

There are people trying to sort through the Enlightenment legacy.

One example is The Politics of Virtue by Milbank and Pabst - from what I can gather a couple of conservative British catholics. Useful, because they try to come at things from a tradition other than the Enlightenment.

From a philosophical perspective Matthew Crawford's The World Beyond Your Head is good too (blessedly readable).

2 tanners said...


I was referring to Desert Storm. That was supposed to solve everything and cow Saddam into obedience. WMD was the clear statement of failure of that policy.

Jim Belshaw said...

I found it chilling because it was so delusional, kvd, as well as contemptuous. In a way, it reminded me of Hitler sitting there ordering the movement of troops that had already been wiped out still believing that because he said it could be made so. The US still had its divisions but there was no recognition on the limits of US power.

The summer of 2002 cam after the launch of the war on terror and the invasion of Afghanistan and was leading up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Rove was an already influential adviser who went onto more senior roles. The belief that the US could determine reality, was not bound, proved to be a fallacy. The "discernible reality" that resulted and that people then had to deal with left the US much weakened.

I do not think that the Obama period remarks are in any ways comparable. The first can be thought of as a practical observation, uncomfortable perhaps, the second a description of the normal political process where reshaping the narrative is part of the process, one that has still to be watched very closely because it can mislead, may be intended to mislead. The Bush Whitehouse at the time of the Rove quote certainly also sort to shape the political narrative and with considerable short term success. But it was based on a fallacy, a mis-belief in power as well as the shape of the world.

Jim Belshaw said...

By the way,2t, I accept that what I said is close to what you said!

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Evan. I have not read either. I will look them up

Anonymous said...

Have to agree to disagree Jim. You, yourself, followed up with "It is certainly true, however, that the actions of the time taken independent of discernible reality created a new discernible reality". The meaning of "is" is :)

I accept tanners' comment that "empires can control actions. They cannot control results" - which deals with outcomes, rather than the power to "move" the existing 'discernable reality'.

Anyway, it's all just words: what you find chilling I dismiss as mundane.


Johnb said...

Dr Mathew Crosston who also blogs has an article in Modern Diplomacy that also touches on these issues.
He is Senior Doctoral Faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University and still found it necessary to qualify his analysis expressed in the article which for me demonstrates the power of the established message he is critiquing.

His concluding paragraph illustrates why this matters to those of us here in Oz as well as his American audience..
“Understand that this is not a missive trying to push for the beatification of Putin and Kim. They are not saints. But it is arguable that no world leaders are. What would behoove America moving forward is to stop being so fascinated by how it might push ‘sexier’ narratives or how to push more salacious stories rather than the more salient. Salacious over salient matters because it produces an American public horrifically disconnected from true global reality. It produces an America that does not realize how controlling the narrative is not the same thing as controlling reality. For now, as crazy as it sounds, Putin and Kim control the latter far more.”

Jim Belshaw said...

I didn't know what to think of that Crossman piece, John. Still trying to think these issues through, mind you, recognsing how profoundly I disagree with kvd's point about mundanity.

The starting point is discernible reality. Where a mind set diverges so far beyond that, where policy is based on the Rove perspective, then disaster follows. The importance of words is a different issue. By shifting words you can shift perceptions. Often, key policy changes requires a shift in words because the change cannot happen without shifts in perceptions. When shaping the narrative becomes an end in itself independent of the purpose the narrative is meant to serve beyond immediate popular impact then you have a problem.

The examples that Crosston cites appears to me to relate to circumstances where popular narratives and perceptions of themselves create a barrier between the perceived reality, if those words can be applied, and actual reality. Reactions to Mr trump may be a case in point.

Johnb said...

I’ve only got so far Jim as to conclude that being an informed citizen in a functioning democracy has become a lot harder for both the citizen and the democracy. What reality do you accept and when do you change your acceptance of that reality on being confronted by the new. What do you hold and what let go.

Jim Belshaw said...

kvd, first. I hadn't properly picked up your bolded comment, “We saw that as our entire job.” That suggests a blindness that is itself chilling because it ignores the reasons why you are reshaping the narrative.

John, a while ago I wrote some posts on mental mudmaps, the simplified constructs we used to interpret the world and how they change. I must revisit.

I suspect that it's only got harder because we are now overwhelmed to some degree with information including visual imagery along with messages most of which are irrelevant. Most of us survive by tuning out those elements that are irrelevant to our immediate concerns.

A bigger problem lies in the desire for constant change at official levels and to a degree in society when most of us just want a degree of stability!

Johnb said...

I spent some time with Morris Angel, an oceanographer at Southampton Uni. some many years ago Jim and he remarked that the older he got the more small S socialist and more small C conservative he became. I have found a lot of truth in that observation.

Jim Belshaw said...

Afternoon John. Sorry for the slow response. Very cold here but not as cold as Armidale.

I'm not sure that I haven't gone that same path! I would like to think that I maintain at least of the taint of reformer and radical!

Johnb said...

We all have that hope Jim that we leave some part of this world in better shape than we found it as a mark to our being. Your Belshaw history illustrates that ambition nicely.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, John!