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June 11, 2002

What it takes
Posted by Teresa at 02:39 PM *

I continue to find myself fretting over the sheer amount of information Mr. Bush must not know, given that he was, until recently, unaware that there are blacks in Brazil.

(Quick recap: My earlier post on the subject. The CNN transcript. The article in Der Spiegel.)

Take soccer, for instance: that game variously known as ffatbol, boldspil, voetbal, calcio, Fudfball, sepakbola, fotboll, pilka nozna, fudbal, nogomet, futebol, jalkapallo, fotbalu, knattspyrna, fodbold, labdarfagf3, and football-no-the-other-kind, a.k.a. the most popular sport in the world. As James Carville pointed out, it’s hard to live on this planet without hearing about Pele o rei de futebol, and there’s no mistaking what color he is.

It bothers me. You don’t have to be a fan of football, but there are times — this week, for instance — when the subject is completely unavoidable. Where has GWB been?

Lay that aside for the moment. Let’s go after this question systematically. At minimum, Bush is missing several centuries of the post-Columbus history of the New World. Within that, he’s missing the history of the black Africans’ emigration (kidnapping? diaspora?) to the New World. He can’t know about the triangle trade, which means he has a defective grasp of early North American history, because the triangle trade was a big deal in Colonial times. He doesn’t know anything about the history of Cuba, because if you know even a little about it, you’ll stumble across the fact that there are blacks in Brazil. One somehow feels the Leader of the Free World ought to know something about Cuba, unless the title “Leader of the Free World” is now trading at par with”Holy Roman Emperor.”

Next step: I think this also has to mean that Bush didn’t know there are blacks in all the Latino countries in the Western Hemisphere. Now that he’s been tipped off, he’ll probably claim that he did too know that, but … nope, can’t. If he knew there were blacks in all the other countries, but he didn’t know there were blacks in Brazil, he’d have to have thought Brazil was somehow an exception to the rule. But he can’t have believed that. No sane person could. Brazil has the second-largest black population of any country in the world. (Nigeria’s #1.) So: Bush can’t have known there are black (mulato, actually) populations in every country in the Western Hemisphere. This is depressing when you consider that Latin America is supposedly his area of greatest expertise.

It’s a non-trivial point. Look at Mexico, an afternoon’s drive from his home town. He’s supposed to be really up on Mexico. During Mexico’s Colonial period, there were more Africans living there than Europeans. The second President of Mexico, Vicente Guerrero, was a mulatto. And consider the Alamo, 1836. Race and slavery issues were a lot of what brought on that war. The abolitionist movement got started early in Mexico, and slavery was abolished there in 1829. This irritated Texican settlers, who were doing the cotton-plantation cash-crop thing, so Texans got a temporary exemption from the anti-slavery laws.

If you grew up in the US, you were probably taught in school that the Mexican government imposed irksome restrictions on the Texas settlers. You may not have heard that one of these was a ban on importing any more slaves. (They already made up about a fifth or a sixth of the Texas population.) Then, in 1835, Generalissimo Santa Anna declared all slavery illegal in Mexico. The Texans promptly seceded, and while they were at it banned free blacks from living in Texas, no matter how long they’d been there. (Nice bunch, eh? Damned straight I’ll remember the Alamo.)

Anyway, to repeat a point, Latin America is the area of foreign relations we’re always being told George W. Bush knows the most about. It’s reasonable to infer that his knowledge of the rest of the world is even more superficial. That’s very bad. Not knowing that immigration to the New World was black as well as white is like not knowing that English is derived from both Romance and Germanic languages, or that the Mississippi empties into the Gulf of Mexico: a disturbingly large gap in its own right, made even more disturbing by the larger areas of ignorance it implies.

But I’m going to take one step further, this time into speculation: I know George W. Bush has visited some or all of the Latino countries of the Western Hemisphere. No matter how good his security was, he has to have seen something of their populations, and within those populations there have to have been quite a few blacks (mulatos) (whatever) (this gets complicated). Is it possible that he doesn’t recognize them when he sees them? That he thinks some Latinos just happen to have frizzy hair and darker skin, while others happen to look more like indios, and a few look kind of like Europeans, but that racially they’re all in the same category, that being “mostly-brown people who speak Spanish”?

It would be startlingly advanced of him to understand that racial identity is a social construct, but one would prefer that he hadn’t arrived at that opinion by accidentally backing over it.

Comments on What it takes:
#1 ::: Todd Larason ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2002, 04:08 PM:

It's not entirely clear (to me) that he actually said it. As points out, the report doesn't indicate which meeting this happened at, and in any case it wasn't reported for at least 5 months (and possibly more than a year) after it may-have-happened.

#2 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2002, 05:00 PM:

I have to say, having looked at the sources and checked the site that Todd Larason lists that I too am skeptical. Why doesn't James Carville have one of his press buddies ask W at the next press conference. ?

#3 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2002, 05:18 PM:

My first reaction was to wonder whether the story was true or not. I'm not in a position to prove or disprove it. What decided me to post the story was finding out that James Carville had cited it on Crossfire (28 May 02).

I don't believe everything that gets said on Crossfire. Far from it. But I do believe that James Carville wouldn't make himself an easy target by telling an unsupportable story.

If the report in Der Spiegel was false or distorted, the easiest counter would be for the President of Brazil to say so. He hasn't.

#4 ::: MustangSally ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2002, 08:25 PM:

Which just makes ironic commentary on all the alleged ties GWB has with education. Living in a Bush fiefdom (Florida), I'm not surprised. Two weeks ago it was discovered that something like 60% of the fourth graders *really* didn't complete fourth grade and should, by all rights, repeat the entire year.



#5 ::: Todd Larason ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2002, 09:47 PM:

Carville is at least partially wrong --

The German magazine, "Der Spiegel" reports that during last week's European summit, Mr. Bush asked Brazil's president, "Do you have blacks, too?"

I'm not fluent in German by any means, but I can't find anything in the Spiegel story that gives a date at all. If it was in fact at "last week's European summit", I don't see how to make the dates work at all, though -- Carville was speaking May 28th, the Spiegel story is dated May 19th, The Snopeses trace it back to an April 28th story, well before any "last week's european summit".

As to why Brazil's president hasn't denied it -- dunno. Maybe it's true, maybe it isn't but he doesn't like Bush, maybe nobody's asked him.

I don't find Carville's misquoting of a German magazine's unsourced reporting of a long-after-the-fact Brazilian story convincing, though.

#6 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2002, 10:55 PM:

The story in the German Mirror magazine came out during the week of the EU-Latin American summit in Madrid. On 27 May, George W. Bush had been touring Europe for a week and arrived in Italy for various handshaking opportunities (Berlusconi, the Pope) and for a meeting CNN describes as a NATO Summit.

I was surprised not to see these dates mentioned in the Snopes article, which seems to be trying extra hard to debunk this one. Bringing in the Dan Quayle joke was much more of a stretch than examining the events that actually matched the publication dates.

Seems to me that there's insufficient evidence to either dismiss or embrace this story. Sort of like a lot of things said about former presidents, in an eery way.

#7 ::: Todd Larason ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2002, 11:24 PM:

If the European trip was ~20-27 May, then it *doesn't* match the dates -- even if the Spiegel story (19 May) was predated, that's still weeks after the original Brasilian report. This can't have happened in Europe in May, unless the original reporter wsa psychic.

#8 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 01:04 AM:

Unfortunately, that's no guarantee that he didn't say it during some meeting with the President of Brazil.

A bunch of bloggers have reported the story, which means very little; but Harper's Magazine's online edition also reported it in their "Weekly Review" section dated 04 June 2002, and a piece by Paul Slansky in the latest New Yorker also mentions it.

Most of the blog pieces have nearly-identical phrasing and an unvarying set of infobits. The Harper's Magazine and New Yorker pieces are both written from scratch. The Harper's piece quotes President Cardoso as saying Bush was still in a "learning phase", while the New Yorker piece has him saying Bush is "still learning." It's quite possible that both quotes are real.

There's also a piece about the episode in the Washington Post, but just from its language I can tell it's not straight journalism, and its source is obviously within the White House. It spins the story as best it can, but never actually says Bush didn't say that thing.

The President of Brazil appears to be an intelligent and tactful man--here, try this one: in the past has gone out of his way to say kind things about Mr. Bush.

#9 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 01:17 AM:

The good-faith theory of this would be that the Bushism was emitted at some point in the past, the story first reported by a friend of the president of Brazil at some point in the past, picked up by a German reporter during the EU-Latin America summit (either retailed from the earlier press appearance or remarked upon by someone close to the president of Brazil) and reported that same week in "Der Spiegel", picked up by whoever translated and gave it to Carville the week afterwards and confounded with the NATO summit trip by Carville or somebody on his staff

That seems like the normal amount of fact smudging that a snipe at a sitting president goes through. It's just a factoid, really unremarkable except the (to me) interesting attempts to "debunk" it that seem a bit dishonest.

#10 ::: Todd Larason ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 02:30 AM:

The "learning phase" quote is from the original Brasilian story, but was linked to the Bush quote only by the writer, not by the speaker -- the story's structured something like "Last week, our president said that Bush is still in a learning phase. Actually, it's more than just learning -- he's very ignorant. At a recent meeting, he asked...". It reads to me like a columnist taking a local news item (the "learning phase" quote) and building on it with something he heard somewhere -- and if the Harper's and New Yorker pieces link it ot the same quote (or alternate translations/paraphrases of it), they sound like they're based on the same original source. Does the New Yorker article give any source information, or any other reason to think it's based on something besides a differing translation of the same original column?

So we have lots of people repeating the 5-to-13-month after-the-fact unsourced column, but neither independant confirmation nor good denials from anybody who was there. I remain unconvinced, and rather befuddled that I've somehow become a Bush apologist (and a bit angry that Bob Webber seems to be calling me dishonest).

#11 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 07:19 AM:

Todd, he can speak for himself, but it was my impression that Bob meant the piece in the Washington Post. You are working awfully hard on not believing the story, but from here that feels like honest distress, not innate dishonesty.

#12 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 09:00 AM:

Todd, it was never my intention to say that you were dishonest, and I'm sorry that what I wrote gave you that impression.

#13 ::: Todd Larason ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 11:51 AM:

And reading it again, I obviously overreacted -- my apologies.

It really isn't that I disbelieve the story, or want to, it's just that it still feels wrong. If I get a chance, I'll read the New Yorker piece on it, but until then I'm gonna drop it -- it really isn't that big a big enough deal to me one way or another to let it make me make an ass of myself.

#14 ::: Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 12:30 PM:

Hard to say for sure whether the story's true or not, but using its widespreadedness as evidence of its veracity reminds me uncomfortably of the equally unkillable, and entirely untrue, story that Al Gore said he "invented the Internet."

However! I came down here to say something else.

TNH wrote, "If you grew up in the US, you were probably taught in school that the Mexican government imposed irksome restrictions on the Texas settlers. You may not have heard that one of these was a ban on importing any more slaves."

Yes, and the mighty trek to freedom of the Boer farmers, leaving the Cape for the Transvaal, was for the purpose of maintaining their freedom to own slaves, by leaving the territory of the British empire, after that empire banned slavery in 1832.

Which also explains why the Boers were so pissed a few decades later, when the British empire showed interest in annexing the Transvaal after the big mineral discoveries there.

But, like the ex-slaveholders of the U.S. South, the Boers "worked within the system" and got their revenge for the greater part of the 20th century.

#15 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 01:18 PM:

I'll break this into two separate replies.

I took the story's wide dissemination in weblogs to mean almost nothing. They all had the same information, and many used nearly the same language; i.e., they were picking it up from the same source where they weren't picking it up from each other. Harper's and the New Yorker seemed to have another source, or more than one other source, which is why I singled them out.

The Washington Post definitely had another source, located in or around the White House, that was clearly interested in quashing the story. I read that one with an eye to the literal meaning of its sentences.

It's funny, but just last night I was thinking about the Al Gore/internet story in connection with this one. The Al Gore story was easily refuted, known to be false; but time after time I watched what should have been reputable journalists drag it out again. Some of them I still haven't forgiven.

#16 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 01:21 PM:

I hadn't known that was why the Boers took off for the Transvaal. It does make sense. I'd wondered why they were so opposed to British rule that they were willing to fight a war over it.

Now I'm wondering why I've never seen that mentioned before. Who are we protecting by not talking about it?

#17 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 03:28 PM:

I'd like to address Teresa's initial thought, re: fretting about the sheer amount of info Bush must not know, because it raises a related question: how generally informed should a President have to be in order to be a good (meaning effective) president? It occurs to me that too much information and knowledge can be paralyzing. And a lot of the information Teresa mentions is history, more academic perhaps. In terms of book bright presidents who probably read a lot by nature, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton come to mind, because to me they were definitely more educated and informed than say Reagan, and Bush elder. On the other hand, I also think they dithered over plans of action precisely because of information overload. I know this is over-generalizing, of course. JFK, it seems to me, doesn't fit the category. He was pretty clearly well informed and book bright, and after a few missteps early in his administration, I think was growing into a fairly decisive president before he was killed.

For what it's worth. I'm not excusing Bush if he said the above. But just wondering what anyone else thinks....

#18 ::: Clark Myers ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 08:01 PM:

Personally I am inclined to credit the Spiegel article for what it says while accepting that some of the implications may be false - too bad Pele did not play baseball. On the other hand I am also inclined to believe that Bush passed a first rate American History course at Phillips Academy (Andover), it then being a requirement (may still be, I don't know but I know it was then). Very puzzling.

On the related question of Gore, the internet and the press do you all then believe that the man who said "I heard Gore speak at a AAAS meeting to the effect that he had invented the Internet. Negroponti, Minsky, Joel Moses, and McCarthy were in the audience, and they were quite surprised at this, they having until then believed they had made it happen with the help of funding from DCA in the Pentagon85" is expressly mistaken and coloring the quote with false authority?

Granted that Gore's intention apparently was to claim credit for being an early (by his lights) and strong supporter with no more than typical politician's puffery. For blogs on Gore and the Internet Red Rock Eater is a good start.

#19 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 08:28 PM:

John, I've thought about this. There's no shortage of pundits (I don't mean you) saying Bush has good advisers, so what's the problem?

My basic feeling is that dithering about decisions may take a while, but so does figuring out who to go to for advice, getting the advice, and thinking about what to do with it. The more complex the problem, the longer it takes to assimilate it from scratch.

I'm not sure it's even possible. Think about your own area of greatest professional competence. Now imagine there's a newbie standing next to you, holding a stack of how-to books. Can she match your performance? I'll bet she can't. If I grant her a prompter to stand there and suggest which book to consult next, I'll bet she still can't do it. Theory isn't practice, and advice isn't integrated knowledge.

Look at copyeditors. The real ones dither over points you wouldn't believe, but they're still the best and fastest way to get a competent copyedit. They don't dither over answered questions (say, Deringer vs. derringer) because they already know the answers. They save their dithering for important issues, like when does genre convention shade over into violation of logic and causality. Afterward, it's the dithering they talk about -- but they're still the fastest.

Or publishing in general. It takes four to six months absolute minimum, more likely a year, before newbies get a real sense of what's going on. It's not just the amount of information; it's that it's all interactive and interdependent. Paging, pricing, and packaging alone is the equivalent of having about a book's worth of information in your head, and it's constantly being rewritten.

You wouldn't believe how much expertise Tom Doherty carries in his head. I once saw him do a complete P&L breakdown, hardcover through paperback plus book clubs and other kickshaws, on the back of his name card when he was on a panel. I think it took him about a minute, maybe two. Tom has the kind of profound understanding of his industry that lets him make fine judgements, and act, and know when to wait.

Starting Tor books is a hell of a feat, but given the speed at which it wears people out, being President of the United States has got to be far more complex and demanding.

In theory, everyone knows UNIX who can find and read man pages.

Me, I'm a fan of policy wonks -- Al Smith, James Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt -- a known political species. LBJ had a broad streak of wonkiness in him; in a weird way, so did Teddy Roosevelt. Trudeau was an uber-wonk. Bill Clinton had some significant personal failings, but he was a policy wonk down to his fingertips. His idea of a fun vacation was to get together with other policy wonks. If he'd been given forty-eight hours in a day, he'd have done more politics.

If you've ever wondered why he and Hilary have stuck together, recall that during one committee hearing she delivered hour upon hour of dense technical testimony on health finance reform without consulting her notes. She's a prime wonk. It's why I voted for her. I figure the state will get a lot of work out of her.

I've known a bunch of politicians. My father went into politics after he stopped being a journalist, and wound up as -- the state tax executive secretary, I think it was? At any rate, some ways north of where bureaucracy ends and policy begins. I remember someone saying at his funeral that none of the legislation he drafted ever had to be rewritten. Before I ran away to the glamorous world of publishing I paged for a session of the state legislature, and that was educational too.

I don't know. Maybe my background has made me more apt to see things in terms of a guy doing a job. I find I don't care much for George W. as a politician. I think he'd have made a better Baseball Commissioner. In the office he currently occupies, he reminds me of those song-and-dance production numbers you used to see on variety shows when the person doing the singing didn't happen to be a dancer. You'd get all this expert choreography and professional dancing designed to allow a non-pro to sort of glide through the middle of it in a series of simple, well-rehearsed moves, and look good while doing it. The campaign was more like MTV, which also does that with non-dancers but has the luxury of constant quick cutting.

Since I mentioned Clinton in a favorable tone, someone's bound to show up here any second now and start taking potshots at me. So, for the record: I don't much care about elected officials' private lives. Charismatic politicians have a lot of the same odd tendency to fall as charismatic preachers, and the rest of the crew tends to have the usual vices of men in power. A few don't. I do care when a politician's misdeeds involve money or show a patent disregard for the social contract, but at that point you're not talking about private life.

This is my country. That's my government, and those are my officials. I expect them to keep their hands out of the till, display a respect for the law that when less than spotless is penitent, despise meanness and pettiness, tell the truth whenever practicable, work like dogs, serve the interests of the people as a whole, and love their country and its democratic institutions with a fervor that borders on being sinful; and I require that they understand that we're all citizens of the same republic, and in this thing together.

Sometimes saying this kind of thing gets me called a leftist. That worries me.

#20 ::: Matthew C ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2002, 02:24 AM:

I travelled extensively in Argentina and Chile during the 1990s. If there are are any black residents of those "latino" countries they were well-hidden during my visits.

#21 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2002, 08:48 AM:


I don't argue with any of those points. In fact, I remember a Boskone panel some years back at which Tom Doherty did something very similar (if not the very thing) you described. I was very impressed by him. (Of course, from a novelist's point of view, knowing what he knows is profoundly discouraging...but that's a different thread (sigh)).

Re: what you expect of politicians sounds admirable to me. As for, "Sometimes saying this kind of thing gets me called a leftist. That worries me."

Don't let it worry you. I've heard and read the same thing from several writers I enjoy on the right side of the spectrum.

#22 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2002, 05:47 PM:

If it was a panel on alternate publishing scenarios that also had Eleanor Wood and Mike Resnick on it, then yes, it was that panel.

Right and left get fuzzier all the time.

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#24 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 07:42 AM:

DIANA DUDAS is a spammer. Do not, ever, under any circumstances buy anything from her, sell anything to her, allow her in your home, or offer her sanctuary. She is an outlaw, a wolfshead. She may be hunted down and destroyed without penalty. May she die alone, unshriven, and in despair. May her hands wither, her eyes dim, and her tongue cleave to the roof of her mouth. May God and Satan together forget she ever lived, so that she wanders the world for eternity a homeless ghost, forever seeking that peace which she cannot find.

#25 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 11:07 AM:

Ah. She must have spammed SFF Net.

For those of you who don't know, James D. Macdonald is also Yog Sysop, dealer-out of high and low justice at SFF Net. Before I saw Jim's message, I sent DD a stern letter warning her that if she does that again, I'll complain to her ISP. I'd have saved myself the trouble if I'd known that she's a chronic spammer.

What's funny is how much her writing resembles that of another no-talent crypto-spamming broad with whom I've had several run-ins in the past -- the one whose name is never spoken in rec.arts.sf.fandom, lest it bring her back.

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