Michael Yon describes the extreme disconnect he sees between the facts in Iraq and perceptions about it. Never the twain shall meet; at least not yet, although he’s doing his bit to change that.
Why has the corrective news of progress had so much difficulty penetrating American consciousness? The summary version of the answer is, “A mind is a difficult thing to change.” The longer version, of course, is much more complex.
Yon touches on one factor, which is that press coverage of violence is almost always far better than coverage of good news, a variant of the old “if it bleeds, it ledes” maxim. In this case, of course, there’s extra motivation for the failure to emphasize progress in Iraq—which is that, for most of the press, it would be the equivalent of saying “I was wrong,” something most human beings are exceedingly reluctant to do. And journalists are certainly all too human.
Yon mentions other factors: errors by the military in its approach to disseminating news, reporters hampered by concerns for their own safety, and lack of funds. But there’s more going on here, which Yon touches on in this passage:
No thinking person would look at last year’s weather reports to judge whether it will rain today, yet we do something similar with Iraq news. The situation in Iraq has drastically changed, but the inertia of bad news leaves many convinced that the mission has failed beyond recovery, that all Iraqis are engaged in sectarian violence, or are waiting for us to leave so they can crush their neighbors.
People generally tend to make up their minds based on early perceptions, which are then naturally resistant to change even when challenged by new information. I’ve written about this phenomenon time and again, most notably in the “A mind is a difficult thing to change” series, found on the right sidebar here (and yes, I still plan to finish it).
This phenomenon is hardly limited to perceptions about politics or world events, of course; it’s a fairly universal phenomenon. Keeping an open mind is far more difficult than one might think. It requires not only a certain mental flexibility, but a concomitant and persistent motivation to learn more, despite thinking one already knows enough to make a judgment.
One of the huge factors in the present stuckness of perceptions about Iraq is a combination of complacency, cynicism, and fatigue. Those who have followed the course of the war have been through initial fears, then seeming success, then a series of crucial setbacks, and now—after many years of this—a supposed improvement. The complacency comes from thinking we know all that’s necessary, and that we’ve known it for some time. The cynicism comes from having seen earlier promise dashed. And the fatigue comes from the obvious fact that this has been going on for quite a while.
So, my guess is that many—perhaps most—people have stopped reading whatever news is coming from Iraq, except perhaps for headlines. If they do read it at all, they take any good news with a hefty (and perhaps fatal) grain of salt. And for the most part the MSM, for its very own reasons (previous biases, agendas, relative lack of “juiciness” to the stories of success, and reluctance to admit its own errors in prediction), tends to downplay the sort of stories Yon would like to see headlined.
The entire situation combines to foster the natural human tendency to hold onto our present opinions. Neither side, of course, is immune to this failing—and, no doubt, many will now hop on board in the comments section here and accuse me of doing exactly the same in overemphasizing the good news Yon and others report.
Changing one’s mind is not only difficult, it’s unusual—and sometimes can be threatening to others. I believe that’s one reason
my “change” story generates a fair amount of anger in some readers on the Left. And not just anger—actual disbelief. I’ve received many comments and emails accusing me of lying about my “change” experience. This initially puzzled me; one can disagree with me, or think I’m stupid or misguided, but lie? Why would I?
No reason, of course. But my accusers concoct the “lie” theory to explain what to them is clearly inexplicable, unheard of, absurd: the phenomenon of looking at new facts, or seeing them in a different way, and changing former perceptions about them. That this is seen as so extraordinary is a testament to how very difficult and unusual the process appears to be.
Now the military is asking the entire country to change its mind on a topic Yon describes as:
…a war of such strategic consequence that it will affect generations yet unborn—whether or not they want it to.
A difficult change to accomplish, indeed. And even if the MSM were to trumpet the news on its front pages, as Yon points out:
…once information is widely circulated, it has such formidable inertia that public opinion seems impervious to the corrective balm of simple and clear facts.
Of course, I’d like to see the MSM give it a try. A mind is a difficult thing to change, but not an impossible one.
[ADDENDUM: As if on cue, the AP decides to give it a try.]