Sunday, May 28, 2006

Thinking in Time

Like The Boy, I don't have much to add to the cheering of our side of the blog world for Greenwald's How Would a Patriot Act? Firedoglake is doing a book group on it that will be more interesting and provocative than anything I can say. What I would like to second is the praise it's getting for pulling together the historical record of the long trail of abuse of freedoms which have led us to the state we're in now. It's not just a well-made argument, it's a factual reprise, the best possible use of history for understanding and shaping political response.

I hope Jennifer Nix, Working Assets, other progressive agents and publishers will use Greenwald's work and success to start pulling more of these efforts together. We are bad about understanding the historical context of most of our complaints about Bushnev and Politburo or about the past works that already spelled out what we see with light bulbs going off over our heads lately.
Atrios has a post up today about Faludi's Backlash from the early 1990s, which, long before Lapdogs et al., spelled out media cupidity. He also links to Mark Hertsgaard's On Bended Knee, which was What Liberal Media? two decades ago. Two decades ago. We've had a recent George Lakoff phase, but he was putting out accessible works two decades ago also. Framing? Check out Robert Reich's Tales of a New America. Almost two decades ago, he outlined our basic template stories that we Americans tell about ourselves and others, our histories and our futures, that should be laminated and pasted to the cover of every progressive speechwriter's laptop. It's been frustrating over the last few years watching wheel after wheel be reinvented when these and similar materials have been there to ground effective political action on.

In a sense, this should lead to the tirade against American historians that is still in the boiling stage and will likely find posting soon. In the meantime, let's look briefly at a book that reflects both problems and whose use now would guide and save a lot of valuable time. That book? Richard Neustadt and Ernest May's Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers.

Published in 1986, these two Harvard types spell out, through case studies and exercises, how history can and should be used to make effective decisions, to understand the situations facing decision makers and what likely consequences will follow likely actions. What is especially important for political types, the authors counsel against moving directly from "we have something we don't like" to "here are our bullet points for our favorite, pre-fab solutions." They strongly argue for careful analysis of the problem itself and of similar situations in the past. They DO NOT say that history repeats itself, but people tend to create and respond to problems in predictable ways that should be carefully considered prior to action. Analogies of various kinds with past situations can be developed, with subsequent careful listings of how they reflect and differ from the situation at hand. I especially liked how they recommend that decision makers ask their advisors to "tell me the story," which will break away from powerpoint talk (my phrase, they did not say "powerpoint" in 1986), and to ask what kinds of information it would take to move the advisors away from their recommendations or how much of their own money they would bet. The obvious application for Iraq and everything else warped by Bushnev and his Politburo alone should make the relevance of the book clear.

Thinking in Time is still found and used in academe, but you'd be hard pressed to find references in actual policy making or among the sources we in the blog world cite to back our own recommendations. It's a good read just in itself, but its greatest utility would be to sensitize us to the needs to use history well in our policy discussions from problem definition through program formulation, approval, and implementation to evaluation of effectiveness. Imagine if Greenwald's book had been disseminated to Dems prior to the Patriot Act votes, the court nominations, etc., the way Firedoglake organized the Crashing the Gate giveaway. Well, actually, the Dems still would have likely folded up like puptents like they did and still do. But the response to that well-honed cowardice would have been ready. Greenwald is still timely and Nix and Working Assets give us hope for the future. Thinking in Time will show us how to start thinking about the other key issues out there, especially the weather, water, energy triumvirate that will control our politics in the next few years. Hunting it down online or in your bookstores will be good thinking in time.