"Pay close attention to that man behind the curtain!"

Monday, May 09, 2005

Do writers really "create" propaganda?

Or do they just shit out whatever's fed to them?
Every day via Bloglines, I can keep up with some of the memes about Taiwan being a "renegade province," the lies about China's so-called "olive branch[es]" being extended to Taiwan, and so on.

A couple of days ago, a piece called "Do Countries Really 'Point' Missiles At Each Other?" by Daniel Engber in the online magazine Slate was one of the items offered for my perusal. Here are some excerpts from that piece [links present in original]:
The head of Taiwan's opposition party returned
on Tuesday from an eight-day visit to mainland China. Relations between the two countries may be on the mend; after the visit, China made a peace offering to the island in the form of two giant pandas. But reports about the possible rapprochement have been careful to note that the Chinese military still has around 725 missiles "pointed" at Taiwan, with no plan to remove them any time soon. Wait, are these missiles literally pointed toward the island?

Well, not right now. [...] If China were to launch a missile attack, it would first need to haul the missiles out of these tunnels, turn them on, and point them in the right direction.


Before China could use the missiles, the military would have to drive them out of the underground tunnels on transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) [...] The missiles must also be "spun up," [...]. The missiles "pointed" at Taiwan may already be targeted; spinning them up would probably take about half an hour. [Emphasis mine]
What a funny guy, eh?

No? I didn't think so either. [LET ME EMPHASIZE: We, the targets, do solemnly swear that we don't give a flying fuck whether the missiles are literally "pointed" at us or not.] I wrote to the author to express my consternation about his semantic games. I wrote more than once.

Here's what transpired (published with the unexpected permission of the author; e-mail addresses and redundancies removed; emphasis added here):
From : Tim Maddog
To : Explainer
Subject : Semantic bovine excrement


Do I detect an excess of semantic something-or-other happening in your piece called "Do Countries Really 'Point' Missiles At Each Other?" [http://slate.msn.com/id/2118034/]

Lemme make myself as clear as I possibly can.

China has these missiles, see, and they're massed along the coast facing Taiwan, dig? [Taiwan Theater Missile Facilities http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/china/facility/theater.htm] These missles aren't there for the purpose of decimating marine life. Nor are they there to crush an uprising of peasant farmers in Zhejiang or Chengdu either, okay?

If you've been paying attention to the news recently -- and being "(the) explainer" and all, I sure hope you have -- China just passed something they call an "anti-secession" law. Boy, the fun we could have with the semantics of that one! Lemme tell ya! You can read the full text of the law in English here:

It's only 788 words long, so it shouldn't take up a whole lot of your time. Note in particular that it mentions "Taiwan" approximately 27 times and "non-peaceful means" 3 times.

Anyway, I'll let you figure the rest out for yourself, but thinkin' folks here in Taiwan see things a tad differently from the way you present it in your article, what with that "renegade province to be reunited by any means, even by force, if necessary" stuff constantly spewing out of Beijing. And, yes, the spewage is pointed at us here in Taiwan.

Whether the missiles' pointed ends are currently facing Taiwan or not, I would really appreciate it if you didn't play word games about this. You and I both know that they're targeted at Taiwan, no matter which direction they originate from.

As serious as a heart attack,

China passes "anti-secession" law threatening Taiwan

Full-text Chinese version of the "anti-secession" law
(Note the word "antiseparation" in the URL)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Question everything -- especially this!
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
A PSA from nobody in particular.

From : Explainer
To : Tim Maddog
Subject : Re: Semantic bovine excrement

Dear Tim,

The title of the column--"Do Countries Really 'Point' Missiles At Each Other?"--describes the goal of the piece: We were not taking any position about whether China is actually threatening Taiwan with the 725 missiles it has deployed abutting the Taiwan Strait. Nor could any serious reader possibly interpret the column to make that case.

We were answering the (perhaps silly), but somewhat interesting) question of whether missiles literally get "pointed" at countries in any context.

If the piece were entitled "Is China Really Threatening Taiwan With DF-11 Missiles?", the content would have been quite different.


From : Tim Maddog
To : Explainer
Subject : Re: Semantic bovine excrement


I'm impressed by your quick reply, but my suspicions about your semantic games were verified. Instead of responding directly, you took the Ann Coulter "I'm-a-linear-thinker-but-you're-not" (Yeah, right!) approach and played the game of "If the title were blah blah blah, you'd have a point, but you don't, so I'm right, and you're wrong." That's not what I was expecting from an "explainer."

Taiwan is bullied by China and in the international community because of the attitudes created by a constant barrage of memes such as "renegade province" and "Chen Shui-bian is a 'troublemaker' for 'moving toward' independence."

I was here during the SARS crisis when the WHO -- supposedly a non-political organization -- didn't send any assistance to Taiwan for a month or so after the crisis began due to political pressure from China. You probably can't even imagine the sense of paranoia that came out of that situation. [More info on SARS and the missile threat: http://indiac.blogspot.com/2003_12_01_indiac_archive.html#107107077944212697]

Your article may be just a "drop in the bucket," but by using semantics to mock the fact that China is threatening Taiwan with hundreds of missiles, you most surely haven't done anything to help the situation. *This* is the interpretation of a "serious" reader.

If you do reply to this mail, I would actually prefer a slower, more carefully considered reply that might indicate you read some of the info I sent along (in both this and my previous mail) to help you understand the situation more clearly.


From : Explainer
To : Tim Maddog
Subject : Re: Semantic bovine excrement


Perhaps I shouldn't even reply, since I don't actually have time to read all the material you sent along and produce the careful reply you're hoping for. But in a sense that's the point I want to make: The Explainer column goes up every single day on a wildly different topic. In general, we focus on one small (sometimes tiny) element of a news story and try to explain it. For the "Missiles" column we really wanted to answer the question of whether countries really point missiles at one another. This is a phrase you hear in the news a lot--and not just regarding China and Taiwan. I think some folks are curious about this phrasing, and whether it's literally true.

It gets dicey when we use the column to address a tiny element of an important issue. I did a column on how much it costs to buy a monkey following news reports that the Arizona police were planning to buy a capuchin), but I didn't really go into too much detail on the fact that keeping a monkey as a pet is a bad idea, and (in my opinion) morally wrong. Still, I did give a through explanation of the pricing scheme used in the monkey trade.

anyway, it helps to hear it when readers have a problem with the tone of the column, so thanks for sending in your comments. (But didja have to say "bovine excrement"?


From : Tim Maddog
To : Explainer
Subject : Re: Semantic bovine excrement


You crack me up, avoiding the issue at every turn! "Perhaps I shouldn't reply," "I don't have time," "It gets dicey," and eventually shifting to the moral correctness of "keeping a monkey"!

There was no specific "careful reply [I'm] hoping for," but you've given me an answer anyway: You aren't at all interested in the "truth," hence, my unfortunate allusion to "bullshit."

Perhaps I *was* hoping for some statement of regret or even an admission of your ignorance toward the subject matter. However, 4 out of the 5 paragraphs in your article were about China and Taiwan. Go back and count 'em for yourself, if you have the time. Is this by accident? I think not.

In fact, let's do some simple research, shall we?

On the first page of results, 10 out of 10 items are about... Taiwan! On the second page, it's 9 out of 10 which are about Taiwan. Page 3: 10 out of 10 about Taiwan. Page 4: 9 out of 10. Page 5: 10 out of 10. On the 6th and final page, 4 out of 5 mention Taiwan.

That's 52 out of 55, or over 94%.

In your latest reply, you wrote:
>This is a phrase you hear in the news a
>lot--and not just regarding China and Taiwan.

My retort: Bullshit! You're playing word games again.

Anyway, would you have any objections if I posted some -- or all -- of our discussion on my blog? It might be interesting to see what other "serious" readers think about this.

Still as serious as a heart attack,
Tim Maddog, BS Detector

From : Explainer
Sent : Saturday, May 7, 2005 9:10 PM
To : Tim Maddog
Subject : Re: Semantic bovine excrement

knock yourself out

[Emphasis added]
I think Daniel's employers might do well to heed his advice about "keeping a monkey as a pet." He does have a good point there.

Serious readers? I'd like your feedback. Click on my name below if you've got something to say about this.

Crooks and Liars posted a video of Ann Coulter making the absurd statement on Hannity & Colmes that "I think we gotta get College Republicans to start putting up their best debater against you [Alan Colmes] on college campuses to show liberals -- to y'know introduce them -- to the process of linear thinking and logical thought," as if A) she knows what either of those things are; B) she is able to do either; C) her own conversation wasn't illogical and Moebius-like. (The line comes up at about the 2'36" mark.)
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