In 2004, ‘progress’ was a relative term

Billboard urging Iraqis to vote is prepared in Baghdad
An Iraqi worker installing a billboard urging Iraqi citizens to vote in upcoming national elections. The sign reads: in "To Give Our Children a Better Country."Ceerwan Aziz / Reuters

What will history judge as worth remembering when it casts its fickle eye back on the year 2004?

Needless to say, no answer to that question exists as yet. In the meantime, the candidates are likely to depend on one's country of origin, state of mind, grasp of reality and countless other variations.

And, of course, the relative newness and personal impact of the past year's events.

For many in Sri Lanka and other nations rimming the Indian Ocean, for instance, everything prior to December 26 will have been swept away with the countless thousands who perished in the tsunami, the 21st century's worst natural disaster to date.

Others will mark it as the year George W. Bush avenged his dad’s one-term election defeat in 1992, or the year the Democrats finally realized that political parties in America cannot survive on coastal states alone. 

In Boston, on the other hand, 2004 will ever be the year they "reversed the curse." (And probably also the last time for decades that the Red Sox will win a World Series. “2004,” however, has the wrong cadence to be a Yankee Stadium taunt for the next 86 years. Look for that to be rectified early next season).

The year statistics died

Given such disparities, it’s a mug’s game, frankly, to try and set things in perspective even before the New Year’s champagne is uncorked. And, let’s face it, most of these year-end lists are pretty redundant. So, in the interest of avoiding repetition, I’ll provide my list of the top five stories of the year separately. I'll use this space to get a bit more personal than I normally do in my column and vamp a bit on what the year did to our perception of the world.

2004 stands out as the year that metrics failed utterly. One-by-one, the various tools we use to measure success, failure, progress and setbacks were discredited or distorted. Call it “The Year of the Failed Metric.”  (And if that sounds more like a Chinese New Year than an American one, so be it — with most of our jobs heading that way, “according to statistics,” we had better prepare.)

In 2004, data failed us miserably, whether measuring the safety of medicine, the speed that certain athletes can cover 400 meters (on drugs, of course), the likelihood that Iraq will be pacified, the number of Kerry voters in Ohio or the dizzying drop in the dollar’s value.

I’m allowing great leeway for the usual bastardization of facts by the Kerry and Bush campaigns during this election year, too. Still, statistics failed across the board to provide useful predictions of things to come, or to put in reasonable context what has already happened. For me, the whole concept of “progress,” in the sense that we could measure distance traveled toward our goals, became nonsense.

From faith in facts to leaps of faith

Let’s start with Iraq. Over the course of the last year, President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and senior American commanders in Iraq have taken several different tacks in an effort to quantify “progress” toward peace and democracy there. 

Back in March, for instance, on the first anniversary of the war, Rumsfeld pointed to things he claimed the media deliberately ignored:

“In one year, the schools are open, with new textbooks. The hospitals are operating," he said. "The 1,200 clinics are functioning. The electricity is back up to roughly where it was. The oil liftings are up to roughly where they were, pre-war."

In the past four months, the books have been harder to cook. As the rate at which American troops are being killed in Iraq has more than doubled (from roughly one every two days to one daily), talk of clinics and electricity has given way to broader, less specific pledges about democracy.

“I'm confident of the result. I'm confident the terrorists will fail, the elections will go forward and Iraq will be a democracy that reflects the values and traditions of its people," President Bush said on Dec. 20.

In other words, as an honest man once said of fine art, the president can’t really define what progress is in Iraq, but he knows it when he sees it.

Similarly,few now believe Bush is being completely genuine when he says that the United States is making progress in its hunt for Osama bin Laden. We quite clearly have no bloody idea where he is. Yet, "polls say" the public rejects as "defeatist" reports in the media that say the trail has gone cold. Why?


Answer: the media, which by and large has abdicated its role as honest broker of such things, and as a result has lost its moral authority to cry “foul” when patently incorrect information is passed off as truth. (Examples from this year’s would fill a book, so I’ll just list a few: Swift Boats, fabricated National Guard records, job-creation, the idea that our health care system actually functions.)

At least Dan Rather was shown the door. But return to the topic of Iraq and the fun-house prism through which information passed in 2004 is mind-boggling.

For instance, 2004 was the year that honest people stopped using the qualifier “yet” when referring to the fact that no WMD has been found in Iraq. Unlike some snarky pundits, I don’t think the Bush administration “sexed up” Iraq’s WMD to drive us to war. They really did believe their statements, and most of the media did, too.

Still, the misuse of statistics in making the WMD case is worth recalling: Remember the detailed specifics on how many tons of sarin gas Saddam had? How many Scuds were secretly hidden at the bottom of the Euphrates River? How many vials of smallpox secreted away in Saddam’s palaces?

This year, the discovery of few a stray artillery shells containing srin is seized upon by some on the Right as evidence that the WMD is still there somewhere. In fact, those shells are remnants of the Iraqi programs of the 1980s, 99 percent of which were destroyed by U.N. inspection teams and later by U.S. Air Force and Navy bombing in 1998 (Desert Fox). Of course there are strays. But no honest broker stands forth to challenge the idea that this is the tip of some still existing ice berg, and so the disinformation disinforms the public -- especially that segment which is choosing media outlets that cater to their specific points of view.

Denying denial

Statistical obfuscation and denial were the evil twins of 2004. We've already mentioned CBS, which made a titanic mistake and then, like Nixon, made it far worse by denying it.

Then there's the Defense Department, which dismissed reports last spring about insufficiently armored Humvees as the work of pro-Kerry agitators, the story soon died — and American troops kept dying, too. (To the media’s shame, it took a National Guardsman from Tennessee nine months later to put the story back in the headlines). Even now, the Pentagon spins the issue, bombarding the public with detailed procurement data on “uparmor kits” in the pipeline and a PowerPoint presentation of how it will all be accomplished by March.

That is not the issue. The real question is why the thin-skinned Humvees wound up patrolling an urban guerrilla war in the first place. Army studies from the mid-1990s showed that Humvees were shot to pieces when operating in similar conditions in Somalia. It happened again in Bosnia. The fact is, Congress and the Pentagon had sexier toys to buy in the intervening years than armor kits. Meanwhile, the only ones paying the price for those bad decisions are coming home in coffins the media is forbidden to photograph.

Of course, the Pentagon is exacting accountability of a kind by putting on trial the prison guards who tortured detainees at Abu Ghraib. However, their main crime — besides exercising their constitutional  right to ignorance, of course — would seem to be a failure to understand the legalistic line between persuasion and torture spelled out by White House Counsel (and soon-to-be Attorney General) Albert Gonzales in his 2002 memo to the president arguing against giving Geneva Convention protections to some detainees. Had these guards had been to law school, perhaps they would have know that they were expected to disobey orders to abuse the prisoners. Now they’ll go to prison instead. Who knows? — some of them may use their time there to become jailhouse lawyers.

Mortal cynics

It is tremendously hard not to become cynical when faced with all of this. I fully admit I lost the battle in 2004, though I’m determined to fight back.

I keep hoping young Americans will rescue me (and the country) from this malaise. Remember all those fired-up young voters, those crazed “Deaniacs,” poised to make mincemeat of polls that showed George W. Bush with a slight lead on the eve of the November election? A surprising number of them turned out to be non-voters. The pollsters managed to miss that group entirely.

Maybe the Deaniacs figured that they were so numerous that it would be safe for them to skip the nuisance of getting up early and going to the polls. Hell, have another Red Bull! Throw down another ecstasy tab! That’ll rock the vote!

Still, I vow to resist this cynical bent. I’m looking forward to 2005. I have kids growing up smart, healthy and happy in a wealthy, free country; a good, rewarding job, and a new wife to point out when I’m veering off the deep end (she’s quite busy these days).

Hope swings eternal

And I have other goals. For instance, I would like to see some asterisks for Barry Bonds and Mark McGuire, the putative #1 and #2 home-run hitters of all time (see Chart on MSNBC's baseball front) who almost certainly accomplished their feats on “performance enhancing drugs.” (And I don’t mean Viagra!)

Maybe a small dose of honesty in baseball could spread to the rest of our society, acting like a pre-emptive strike against further mutilation of the metrics we all need to make life’s important decisions.

Sadly, I suspect their tainted achievements will stand as is. Sadly, the 2004 did for cynicism what steroids did for a lot of athletes. The whole mess of a year reminds me of a cartoon I clipped out of the New Yorker and hung on my wall this summer.

It shows a bartender and customer peering over at a picture of Mickey Mantle, the late, great Yankee slugger of the 1950s. The customer, motioning over, says: “I’m probably in the minority, but I would’ve loved to see Mantle on steroids.”

Much as I would like to say, “God no!” there’s a part of me that agrees.