Blogs > HNN > Privileging Families

Sep 16, 2004 10:26 am

Privileging Families

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. Update, Sept 16, 10:25 AM: The same goes for the new story from the Lt. Col.'s office's secretary.

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….*

* I’m endorsing the UnderArmor Guy for president.**

** I’m joking.

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More Comments:

Derek Charles Catsam - 9/16/2004

Tom --
True. Although this is yet another case where I am going insane watching the big names in the blogosphere congratulate themselves over what a bang-up job they are doing.

Tom Bruscino - 9/16/2004


You are correct about the maudlin nature of it all--weepy, dramatic stories suck people in--but I think you had it right the first time about it being all the better if it proves a political viewpoint. The political viewpoint thing is a distant second in most cases, but just as Rather, because of his personal politics, was assuredly taking some delight in burning the president, many of the people on the other side of this story, because of their politics, are taking some delight in burning Rather.

Again, the delight on Rather's part came after his desire for the popular success of a headline grabbing report, but it was still there. As far as the other side goes, they are so spread out over a variety of media in this case that it is impossible to say what their collective motivation is. The Washington Post, it seems, is far and away more concerned with the spectacle of a big story. Whereas it just might be that has a few issues with Dan Rather.

In any case, the new media is making everything more fun and interesting and (I think) democratic. Pre-blogosphere, what would be our, as junior scholar no-names, public forum to discuss issues such as these? It's nice to be a part of something like this.

Derek Charles Catsam - 9/16/2004

Ralph --
I agree that I do see too much politicization of contemporary history, although it is less often in the product -- the written work -- than it is in the work of journalists. Given that bellisiles and ilk are an outlier, the fact remains that most historians do not overtly politicize their scholarly work, and I maintain that it is much more rare than non-academics suspect that we polticize in the classroom. In any case, as i think about it, maybe it is not politicization, but rather a drive for ratings that makes journalists act as they do on this front. Maudlin pulls in the eyes, alas.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/16/2004

I was with you right up to the last clause, Derek. I see lots of lazy and lots of maudlin in contemporary journalism. I really don't know whether I see a lot more hidden-agenda politics in contemporary journalism than I do in contemporary history. And, maybe we actually do want it in both. We certainly want interpretation and I'm not sure where there's a clear line of distinction between "hidden agenda politics" and "interpretation."

Derek Charles Catsam - 9/15/2004

Ralph --
Bingo -- you are absolutely right. That is the hugest part of our training as historians -- to read the documents and to go through every sources we can find, and where there are contributions to do our best to discern, based on the mass of evidence, our own knowledge, and maybe a bit of alchemy, what the correct story is. but the more pernicious aspect, as Tom points oput, is that journalists too often skip all of that hard work and go for the easy, maudlin tale -- and all the better if it can convey a not-so-hidden political viewpoint.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/15/2004

Of course, I agree with Tom's post. His humorous conclusion does point to a significant reality, however. There are times when the historian can point to all the all the documents she or he wants to as substantiating an interpretation of things and those who were there, in whatever capacity, will still say: "how would you know? I was there." Richard Morgan points to an instance in which he has two primary documents about his service record. Both of them are incorrect in one way or another. There remains only his memory to say why the documents are inaccurate. The fat hits the fire when you have to make critical decisions about what first party testimony to privilege: that of a secretary who says: "I think those documents are forgeries. I didn't type them. But they do reflect my boss's sense of things" or a wife who says: "My husband didn't commit things like that to paper and he didn't think those things." It gets really difficult when there is some indication that the authentic document collection may have been sanitized sometime in the 1990s.

Tom Bruscino - 9/15/2004

As far as I know, the White House initially gave the documents about as close scrutiny as CBS did and then returned them to the station, and the initial challenge to the authenticity of the documents came from conservative blogs like Powerline and Little Green Footballs. CBS still hasn't admitted where they got the documents, although they have been promising some sort of statement today.

Let me be clear, I think that a reporter interviewing a mother who lost a son in Iraq who says her son never wanted to fight and he only joined to pay for college and he opposed the war in Iraq, and the reporter presents this story without making clear that all of these statements were or were not corroborated by any other evidence, is just as bad as pretending that Killian's son's testimony proves anything.

Richard Lee Altman - 9/15/2004

Indeed I think Gerhard Weinberg would have laughed me out of my graduate history seminar, if I had attempted to document my work with the recollections of a politician's 9-year-old son, as anything more than "flavor" for more serious research. Clearly with current politics and journalism, different standards apply.

Unfortunately I think CBS should have done a better job researching the provenance of these documents. Knowing the record of the Bush campaign and their surrogates, it must have been obvious they would attack the authenticity of the papers. Frankly, CBS did not have an airtight explanation of their origin, which allowed Bush allies to dredge up everything from font styles to widows.

Derek Charles Catsam - 9/15/2004

Tom --
You're 100% right. most people cannot give that great of an accounting as to what our wives, girlfriends, friends, colleagues, siblings, parents do in the minutia of their work. Given a thirty year gap, am i to tyake seriously the son's pronouncements about how often Dad typed (as if he could not have had a secretary do so and then signed it), what sorts of memoes he wrote, and so forth. I am always shocked when i get an attachment from a close friend or colleague and it is in Wordperfect. Am I going to remember 30 years from now the years when my advisor changed from WP to MSWord, and then will the netowrks take me seriously if i ascribe a political motive to it all? That is just inane. people's voices deserve to be heard. But oral history is problematic. hearsay and oral history about other people tends to be worthless. Oral history in the face of more substantial evidence is moreso. It's lazy -- easier to get the young, pretty, teary-eyed widow on the screen than to do actual work. easier to find someone who may or may not have been there and may or may not have played an important role to find out how they felt than to go to the archives or file the FOIA request.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/14/2004

Conflating experience with expertise, which is at the root of what you describe, is all too common, I agree. There are elements of anti-intellectualism, psychologism, and drama in these testimonials, all of which are easy sells, these days.