Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Metrics Won't Save Us

The other day I listened, if only briefly, to a C-SPAN broadcast of a conference. Participants were all in some way linked to an analytical element of the State Department focused on Afghanistan and much concerned with metrics, thus the measurement of how we are achieving desirable goals there, among which participants listed market systems and electoral politics. The discourse was extraordinarily sophisticated, the participants glitteringly bright, young, and strikingly articulate: insiders addressing their own kind, entirely relaxed. Both the staring herd of cattle, the great unwashed, and the howling packs of punditry—were on the screen’s other side.

The intensity of the presentation, the brittleness of abstract concepts applied here to a tribal region where paved roads are rare and animals still serve as transport simply startled me and, breaking away to seek the shade outdoors, I allowed the dark prophetic waves of reaction to wash over me as I watched the bees, deeply rooted nature all about me. The bright disquisition still running faintly on the kitchen’s TV set represented the opposite, an unanchored floating in air on clouds of spent petroleum. It was the balsamic distillate of the same mode of thought that, in coarser form, directs not only the mechanical forces on the ground in Afghanistan but, indeed, our entire civilization. And the thought in my mind was simple: secular societies do not survive a conflict with the organic after a certain stage is reached—however primitive the latter, however rich the former. That stage, I think, is here now. A time of shatter, of disassociation, is clearly upon us now and manifesting everywhere. Nor is it, I would propose, a temporary phenomenon to be set right at the next election. How did Yeats put it? Didn’t he say that the metrics do not hold?

My own metrics would begin with the application of the command, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I’d put myself in the Afghans’ place to start my measurement, and here’s what I would discover. If I were an Afghan—and never mind the category—I would view the invading forces, no matter what kind, American, NATO, wouldn’t matter—as aggressors, and never mind how hard my fate might be or how much I might oppose domestic enemies. Out, out, damned invaders. That’d be my stance. I wouldn’t want their market system, their electoral politics, their ways of doing this, their ways of doing that. I would have no respect whatever for those who, for personal gain, cooperated. I’d bide my time until the foreigners relaxed their hold. And then I’d try to set things right.

This reminds me of something my brother-in-law once said, a saying famous in our family. Rex is a genuine Ozarks farmer, hunter, and fisherman who knows things about woods, rivers, lakes, and land the rest of us can’t even dream of. He once said, “I wouldn’t like bridge—even if I knew how to play it.”

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