Earlier today, Vanity Fair’s Bruce Feirstein pointed out a humorous and somewhat bizarre reader survey conducted by the New York Times last week. The survey, a pop-up on the Times website, solicited feedback from readers on their opinions on the Times, which isn't that unusual. But the poll's references to recent newsroom controversies including Jayson Blair, Judith Miller, MoveOn's "General Betray-Us" ad, and the NSA wiretapping exposé, were downright shocking for Times Kremlinologists, for whom the survey seemed to offer an unlikely window onto the paper’s Id. The list of topics on which readers were polled potentially indicated which incidents insiders considered the most damaging to the paper's reputation. And there are other oddities. The paper's infamous, artfully-worded 2004 Editor's Note-cum-mea culpa explaining the flawed W.M.D coverage didn’t name names. But the online survey bluntly states that Judith Miller’s Iraq stories “turned out to be wrong.” The survey also misspelled Jayson Blair’s name, referring to the Times fabulist as “Jason Blair.”I don't care about Jayson/Jason Blair or Judith Miller, and I don't even really care that much about the Times (which frankly surprises me). What I care about is that there are "Times Kremlinologists" -- expert outsiders who try to study the paper or the company based partly on sources and gossip but largely on careful interpretation of public statements and documents.
You see, I think "Kremlinology" is one of the great metaphors of our times. Google the word and you get the obvious references to Soviet and Russian politics, but also Microsoft Kremlinology, Facebook Kremlinology, Clinton Kremlinology; we could easily add Apple Kremlinology, Supreme Court Kremlinology, Federal Reserve Kremlinology, Papal Kremlinology, Vice-Presidential Kremlinology, and many others.
In fact, the one thing that we're really short on is "Kremlinology" of closed and hostile or semi-hostile states. There's still a residual class of Kremlinologists of China and Russia, but none of it really tells us what we want to know. War hawks now are fundamentally uninterested in the internal workings of states of interest, to the point that John McCain refuses to acknowledge (for example) that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doesn't actually control Iranian nuclear policy. Not only are they uninterested, but they're committed to obfuscating the issues.
In The Fog of War, Robert McNamara compares the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Vietnam War. The difference, McNamara says, is that during the missile crisis and throughout the Cold War, US policy makers were able to empathize with their enemy; they knew them, in some cases personally, and understood their motivations and decision processes. With Vietnam on the other hand, the US was never able to make the same leap of empathy, and fundamentally misunderstood what the Vietnamese wanted and what they were willing to do (including what kind of losses they were willing to accept) in order to do it. My fear is that we continue to make the same mistake.
But hey -- have you seen those pics of the new MacBooks?