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Sep 13, 2004 8:11 am


Misreading the Documents ...



The recent flap over the authenticity of the Killian Memos has important lessons in it for historians. Most of us would claim that we don't need to be taught to be skeptical, but one of the most common sources of embarrassment for us is misreading the documents. In the case of the Hitler Diaries, it was historians who exposed the fraud, but only after Der Stern had thrown away 9.9 million marks on them. The case of Edward A. Pearson's misreading of authentic documents in the trial of Denmark Vesey is more complicated. As yet, I'm not certain whether the instance of the Killian Memos is more like the case of the Hitler Diaries or the Vesey transcripts, but I'm definitely leaning in Hitler's direction.*

At Liberty and Power, Steve Horwitz has a characteristically thoughtful essay about the implications of the Killian Memos flap for communications in society. He further elaborates on that here. I don't know that I share all his enthusiasm for the free market's challenge to major media. It will inevitably mean that more rumor will float among us, to be passed on and challenged as may be. But I think some of the most important commentary on the whole matter builds on the experience of art historians. Both David Nishimura at Cronaca and, in the commentary on Horowitz's essay, Evan Lowell Maxwell, a reporter on the west coast, make the point that forgeries in art are most likely to be accepted when they both fill a gap in an artist's oeuvre and conform to expectations. That may mean that we have to be skeptical, especially when a document tends to confirm what we already believe. Nishimura goes on to point out that, often, a fraud can be detected from a second hand copy of it, but a work of art or, by implication, a document can not be certified as authentic except from the original of it. To my knowledge, CBS has not claimed to have had the original documents in hand.

*Josh Levin at Slate has the best summary of questions regarding the authenticity of the Killian Memos.

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Alastair Mackay - 9/14/2004

D'oh, I just posted this in the wrong place. Sorry. So, again:

----------

Dr. Luker,

I don't know you, except through a couple of amiable emails and your posts here. I've seen enough sorrow in this world not to wish misfortune on anyone, much less a stranger. Having tenure denied is a wrenching experience, I doff my hat to you for picking yourself up and giving it another go. Being blacklisted and unemployed are honors that anyone would gladly forgo.

As for me, I have a job that I enjoy and that feeds my family, and that, with some considerable luck, I may be able to keep. So I count myself fortunate.

Thanks for asking.


Alastair Mackay - 9/14/2004

Dr. Luker,

I don't know you, except through a couple of amiable emails and your posts here. I've seen enough sorrow in this world not to wish misfortune on anyone, much less a stranger. Having tenure denied is a wrenching experience, I doff my hat to you for picking yourself up and giving it another go. Being blacklisted and unemployed are honors that anyone would gladly forgo.

As for me, I have a job that I enjoy and that feeds my family, and that, with some considerable luck, I may be able to keep. So I count myself fortunate.

Thanks for asking.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/14/2004

Mr. Mackay,
If you knew me, you wouldn't beat the status drum. I've been twice denied tenure, blacklisted, and unemployed for the last ten years. And how are you doing?


Alastair Mackay - 9/14/2004

Prof. Luker,

--This is your printing press and you say what you will; I'm only a guest here. Nonetheless, thank you for sparing me one of your rants.

--For clarity, I bolded a remark of yours (post #41810, immediately above) that I took to be indicative of condescension. And I regret the brief tenure (post #41803, above) of my promotion here to Professor Mackay. Surely you bestowed that honorific with joshing good humor, not as a delicate reminder of the gap in prestige between our respective stations.

--As far as choice and attitude, I now understand your perspective. I trust that other readers will form their own opinions, based, as always, on the merits of the arguments as presented.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/14/2004

Mr. Mackay, I spared you one of my rants and you take it as condescension. It's your choice, not my attitude.


Alastair Mackay - 9/14/2004

In a response to a different Cliopatria blogger on a different thread here ("Methodislamofascism"), I wrote:

"Regarding the limitations of what I realize, please consider that a post focused on subject A does not imply the absence of reflection on subject B. Perhaps open-ended queries would better serve your curiosity in such cases."

Prof. Luker, since you have not asked my opinion regarding Bush’s National Guard service, it is unlikely that you know what it is. It is possible, even likely, that you are incurious as to what I think, which is fine. After all, Prof. Dresner started this thread on the subject of the forged memos, not on the subject of Bush’s service record.

Returning us to your statement, immediately above:

[That my (RL’s)] conclusion about GWB's guilt is based entirely on ... evidence [you (AM) would] just as soon I not review because you don't want to hear it.

If you should become interested in my opinions on this matter, I might suggest once more that open-ended queries would better serve your curiosity in such cases. Invite me to guest-blog if you want a lengthy explanation.

One staple of the historical fiction on the Raj is the attitude of East India Company officials to their Native subordinates. "Condescension", unhappily, played a large role there. Interested readers will draw their own conclusions as to whether or not this thread exhibits any parallel.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/14/2004

Since I have been, nudge, nudge, the guilty party in passing on the offensive meme to which Professor Mackay refers, I should point out that my conclusion about GWB's guilt is based entirely on evidence available to us all, evidence about his record as president rather than his history of personal shortcomings in his youth, and evidence you'd just as soon I not review because you don't want to hear it.


Richard Henry Morgan - 9/14/2004

The NY Post is reporting in today's paper that CBS' document expert, who now says he authenticated only one signature on one document (and not the document itself), in 1989 published a work called "Spirituality in Handwriting", wherein he claimed the ability to assess, through handwriting samples, a woman's "libidinal energy". If I get a sample of Halle Berry's handwriting, will CBS let me know what my chances are?


Alastair Mackay - 9/14/2004

"Hunter's" "Daily Kos" posts are the strongest and most technically-literate compilation that I have seen in favor of the authenticity of the "60 Minutes" and "USA Today" Killian Memos. He has been diligent about updating them over the past few days (at least through 9/12), and comments on many of the strong anti-authenticity posts as well.

The Wednesday 9/14 Washington Post has an article in the A section that evaluates the current state of the evidence(online here).

Wretchard of The Belmont Club paraphrases Stanley Kurtz' explanation of why CBS continues to stand by the forged memos: the "market segment of liberals now make up the bulk of CBS's audience, and it must please them at any price."

Wretchard continues, "If Kurtz's theory is correct, then outlets like CBS are in the process of offering liberalism a cup of poison. The function of news is to provide its readership with reliable information about their own society and the events that effect [sic] it. It gives readers a way of determining effects so they can alter causes. But any information system which throws data quality checks overboard or worse, inserts fraudulent data into its stores, is creating a catastrophe for its consumers."

A theme that's made multiple appearances on Cliopatria, usually accompanied by a knowing nudge-nudge-wink-wink, is that this instance of "framing a guilty man" isn't altogether regrettable.

Perhaps Wretchard's comment could offer a correction to this drift towards viewing Emmanuel Goldstein -- sorry, I mean George Bush -- through the lens of the Two Minute Hate.


Richard Henry Morgan - 9/14/2004

There's a funny bit over at Power Line. Seems that CBS' new expert, an "information technology consultant", had his first incarnation at the Daily Kos as a poster, and is a retired typewriter repairman. Yikes.


Richard Henry Morgan - 9/13/2004

I guess what I was trying to say in my longwinded and roundabout way is that the document doesn't establish that he was active duty Air Force for 120 days (or duration of training), but the fact that did get his wings implied that he did do the 120 days, as they were merely admimnistrative for pilot training.

I wouldn't put such training "active duty" on my resume any more than I'd take a Purple Heart for a 3mm shrapnel wound, not fully embedded -- but then politicians as a group are susceptible to resume inflation.


Richard Henry Morgan - 9/13/2004

It is a memorandum of understanding concerning his enlistment obligations. It says (and I quote):

"In connection with my enlistment this date as a Reserve of the Air Force for service in the Air National Guard of the United States, I understand and agree that:

I will enter on active duty for training for 120 days or until I have satisfactorily completed the training courses which I have elected."

That seems pretty straightforward to me. I suspect it is an administrative thing. For instance in the regular Army when I served, there were limits on TDY away from a unit (though still a member of your current unit), such that if your schooling demands more than that, it involves what we call a PCS to another unit (that limit was 90 days when I was in). For Reserves or National Guard, it may involve administrative transfer to active duty, as there may be similar limits on assignment to units other than your own without such a transfer.

Some of his training apparently required 120 days. He was, I gather, administratively assigned to regular duty Air Force for 120 days or the duration of his training (to make allowance for illness, or recycling). It certainly wouldn't surprise me that there were aspects of his training as a pilot that required more than 90 days, and that required assignment to a regular duty Air Force slot. To me it looks like, in all probability, he was later assigned (as all pilots would be, presumably) to regular Air Force duty for the duration of that training.

That's how I read it. If there's an Air Force admin type out there who has a grip on this, speak up.



Ralph E. Luker - 9/13/2004

Richard,
If you call up the pdf document that Drudge links to, you will find that it is only a conditional statement of understanding that Bush will serve 120 days. There is nothing there that certifies, as Drudge claims, that Bush _did_ serve those 120 days. About what the document says, you can dismiss your doubts.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/13/2004

There is a surprisingly good roundup of the arguments in favor of authenticity at Daily Kos (via Orcinus):

http://dailykos.com/story/2004/9/10/34914/1603

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2004/9/10/213416/348

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2004/9/12/131946/512


Richard Henry Morgan - 9/13/2004

Could this be the revenge of the Demos? Or is it legit? I certainly don't have the expertise to know. But Drudgereport is posting a document purporting to show that Bush was active duty Air Force for 120 days. If true, that's more days active duty than Kerry spent in the Mekong on Swift boats. It also contradicts the DNC position (also cited by Drudge) that Bush has lied about active duty Air Force service. Wish I knew the truth.


Richard Henry Morgan - 9/13/2004

Stranger things have happened.


Van L. Hayhow - 9/13/2004

Prof Luker:
Actually it did work. I laughed out loud in my office. Fortunately, I work for myself.


Richard Henry Morgan - 9/13/2004

Documents by themselves are still open to criticism and differing interpretation. For instance, my DD214 says I was awarded an Army Commendation Medal, when in fact I was awarded an Army Achievement Medal. Actually, I wasn't even awarded an Army Achievement Medal, inasmuch as the decoration was so new they didn't have it in stock, and Army never did get it to me. So I am in possession of two authentic documents, both of which testify falsely to matters of fact. I have a medal citation, saying I was awarded a medal that I never received (the Army Achievement Award). And I have a DD214 that says I was awarded an Army Commendation Award, for which i have no accompanying citation. Documents may be primary sources, but not to be taken at face value.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/13/2004

It's just this sort of reasoning, Richard, which causes some people to think that the fine hand of Karl Rove _is_ behind the fabrication, if that's what it is.


Richard Henry Morgan - 9/13/2004

As I understand it, the White House got the documents (I'm sorry, photocopies) from CBS, and the White House was already under a FOIA request. To deny the authenticity by the White House, is to give the story more legs than it deserves. Why deny when the NY Times and the WaPo have already beat up on CBS? And it they're from some secret cache of Lt. Col. Killian, how could Bush know whether they are genuine or not, as opposed to whether thay truthfullu relate matters?

They don't cover Bush in honor, just the critics of Bush who fabricated them in dishonor -- and raises a question convenient to Bush: what else has been fabricated against him? The answer is probably next to nothing, but the question is more valuable to Bush than the answer.


Alastair Mackay - 9/13/2004

Nathanael Robinson,

Interesting connection of the '60 Minutes' memos with the postmodern view of the meaning of things. Regarding 'meaning,' you wrote:

>The illegitimacy of suspicious documents is established on dubious grounds by partisan amateurs.

Perhaps you could amplify? I think you are comparing the opinion of the non-expert to the authority of the non-partisan and credentialed expert.

Maybe both have roles to play, and they overlap. One distinction might be between "experience" and "logic".

Here is a statement that would mean much more coming from a qualifed expert: "No typewriter sold in the United States in 1973 or before could produce the superscripted "th" on one of the memos."

Other statements are more accessible to direct powers of observation and logic. The expertness or credentials of the speaker might not greatly affect this 'proof by construction': "Here is a match between the memo, and the memo's text typed into Microsoft Word. I know of no-one who has produced a similar match between the memo and text placed by a non-TrueType device, mechanical or electronic."

In this narrow area, 'meaning' would seem to be clear, at least in cases where forgery can be established (cf. the much more difficult instance of not-disproven).


Ralph E. Luker - 9/13/2004

It doesn't help things, of course, that texts are withheld and then suddenly burst on us in the last 60 days of a very heated political campaign. Since enormous power and money are at stake, however, that seems to be the practice to which we've consigned our future.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/13/2004

I do still find it interesting that the White House has made no claim that the documents are fraudulent and that it routinely made copies of them available to the press; and the documents do fit very conveniently into the frame of almost everything else we know about GWB's NG service. So, it isn't as if the fraudulence of the documents, if fraud they are, has suddenly covered those years of service in honor.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/13/2004

Van, I thought that, by now, readers could be fairly sure that I didn't mean that I was getting all Nazi or anything like that. "Leaning to Hitler" was a short form, I admit, and I thought it sounded interesting -- but maybe it doesn't work.


Nathanael D. Robinson - 9/13/2004

Of course, it is important to look at documents with a critical eye. However, it seems that “texts” have taken quite a beating in the last six weeks. Documents whose origins and intentions are clear are considered dubious and partial witnesses. The illegitimacy of suspicious documents is established on dubious grounds by partisan amateurs. Personally, I could care less what two or three memos say: if what Killian was that consumed with people influencing his decisions over Bush, there would be many more texts, all more formal and precise. Even if the Killian memos are genuine, they need to be tied into the larger set of operating procedures and the daily workings of the Texas Air National Guard in order to be truly meaningful.

Regardless of the claims made against Kerry and Bush, I am alarmed by the standards of proof that have been required to prove or disprove any charge. Are bureaucratic records no longer sufficient? Do we need videotape in order to prove our deeds? (Let’s not forget that there are people who claim the Rodney King tape old told part of the story.) In an interview of gossip hack Kitty Kelley, Matt Lauer effectively demanded an audio recording of conversations with Susan Bush. In my own research, am I supposed to assume that Nazis tampered with Adenauer’s records to make him look like a traitor. We can imagine that people will do anything in order to undermine opponents and put themselves on the side of right. But the possibility that someone could do so cannot be taken as proof that they have. If we approach all claims with such skepticism, which would stand? This is moving toward a major postmodern crisis in which the meaning of things can be undermined at will.


Van L. Hayhow - 9/13/2004

Prof. Luker:
I know what you meant when you wrote you were leaning to Hitler, but couldn't you have phrased it just a little bit better?


Richard Henry Morgan - 9/13/2004

That is a broader commonplace of social psychology and cognitive psychology, admitted to (sheepishly, though) by Richard Feynman, and confirmed by studies even in the sciences: we tend to believe and demand less evidence for propositions that accord with what we already believe. In the sciences, findings that contradict previous beliefs are more often accepted when the researcher has a high reputation (in the absence of any other evidence).


Michael C Tinkler - 9/13/2004

Yep, when one has determined ontological guilt it is quite simple to accept any further damning document as authentic. And since one has already identified the guilty side as the source of diabolical conspiracy, when the documents are questioned it's easy to assume that the devils forged them to trip up the righteous.

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