Thursday, April 20, 2006

excuses, excuses

I have wanted to write the Great American Novel since I was in elementary school. Over time, I have had far more practice writing papers about optimality theory than about postmodern existentialism. Fiction writing becomes harder when you are consciously trying to avoid cliche. So it appears that I know what not to write about and how not to write it.

The same siutation happens to my blogging at times. I can think of so many things that deserve a more extended comment when they pass through my day. However, time only allows for a full analysis of select things. One thought percolating in my head today was how standard and cliched excuses are, such that we all knw how to quickly verify most of them and most of us can convince ourself to the point of actual belief that they are legitimate when used.

Sure you can think of 'the dog ate my homework' and 'got a flat' as so rote that when they actually occur their usage as an excuse furthers suspicion. But it is because they are such a common and irritating timewasters that they are overused; their utility derives from their believability. OTOH, there is the whole so-unbelievable-and-unique-it-must-be-true factor of original yet plausible excuses. Deception and forming opionions as to the thought processes of others turns out to be an interesting way of looking at how consciousness may have evolved: as a cognitive arms race.

These days, the stunning heights of government incompetence in tandem with a instant media society have shown the limitations of professional apologists like White House Press Secretaries. Andrew Sullivan mentioned this a few weeks ago based on a clip from the BBC show Yes, Minister; in which the senior bureaucrat give the five standard excuses for everything:
  1. The Anthony Blunt excuse: "that there are good reasons for what happened, but national security prevents their public release." Blunt was the most aristocratic member of the Cambridge spy ring recuited by the KGB to spy in the UK. He cut a secret deal for immunity which ended when PM Thatcher was forced into releasing his identity after a public uproar in 1979.
  2. The 'comprehensive schools' excuse: "things went wrong because of cuts to the operating budget and staff which stretched supervisory resources past their limits." Sort of like Head Start or NCLB this was an expanasive and expensive education proposal which was underfunded and failed to meet its goals.
  3. The Concorde excuse: "it was a worthwhile experiment, now abandoned, but not before it had provided much valuable data and considerable employment." The Concorde was a supersonic aircraft which proved to be incredibly expensive and whose abandonment has left faster-than-sound travel in limbo to this day.
  4. The Munich agreement excuse: "it happened before certain facts were known and could never happen again." The Munich agreement was between PM Chamberlain and Hitler and the fact (not known by the Foreign Office) was that Hitler wanted to conquer Europe.
  5. The Charge of the Light Brigade excuse: "It was an unfortunate lapse by an individual which has now been dealt with under internal disciplinary procedures." The CLB was an ill-advised cavalry charge, led by Lord Cardigan, which occurred during the Battle of Balaclava on October 25, 1854 during the Crimean War. It is best remembered as the subject of a famous poem entitled The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose lines "Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die" have made the charge a symbol of warfare at its most reckless.
Note how each of these excuses is part of the toolbox of the modern apologist, but partisan warfare has added so many more arrows to that quiver. Yet they keep firing the same dusty flechettes, hoping that the dull points of at least some will stick.

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