Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why I Liked The Filegate Ruling

So, apparently, a while back there was a "scandal" in the Clinton White House about FBI background files being inappropriately taken. I happened to glance at the article, and it made me happy. Not because of the ruling itself (which I don't really care about), but because... well, here's the key paragraph in the ruling (via Politico)
After years of litigation, endless depositions, the fictionalized portrayal of this lawsuit and its litigants on television, and innumerable histrionics, this Court is left to conclude that with this lawsuit, to quote Gertrude Stein, 'there's no there there.' While this Court seriously entertained the plaintiffs' allegations that their privacy had been violated--and indeed it was, even if not in the sense contemplated by the Privacy Act--after ample opportunity, they have not produced any evidence of the far-reaching conspiracy that sought to use intimate details from FBI files for political assassinations that they alleged. The only thing that they have demonstrated is that this unfortunate episode--about which they do have cause to complain--was exactly what the defendants claimed: a bureaucratic snafu.
Emphasis mine. Alright, fine, so I get needlessly excited whenever someone puts a damn good quotation in an official text. After all, why not take a moment to quote some artistic work that touches the subject?

For instance, one of the great moments of arts in public documents is described in this CBO blog post from a while back by now-OMB director Peter Orszag:
In addition, attentive readers will note that in what I believe to be a first for CBO, the testimony includes a few lines of poetry (see footnote 47). These lines appear in response to a comment from David Brooks of the New York Times at a public forum that CBO reports don’t have enough “romance” in them; when I asked him what he possibly meant by that comment, he suggested that CBO documents could include some poetry. Footnote 47 was the best we could do for now.
If you don't want to read the report, the footnote reads:
The longer a capital asset is assumed to last, the lower the depreciation cost that would be included in the budget in any given year. Besides the assumed lifetimes, the depreciation schedules for such assets would also reflect assumptions about how quickly or gradually the assets’ performance declined over time. The extreme case would be what economists have sometimes called "one-hoss shay" performance. The phrase derives from Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poem "The Deacon’s Masterpiece or, the Wonderful ‘One-hoss Shay,’" which depicts a vehicle that worked perfectly throughout its lifetime but then "went to pieces all at once,/ All at once, and nothing first,/ Just as bubbles do when they burst."
That's right, everyone. If you want to understand the depreciation of infrastructure's value over time, read a poem.

(UPDATE: Commenter Dinah alerts me to the following use of Lewis Carroll by the Supreme Court in a GitMo case. Here's a recap via WSJ:
As for the reliability of the evidence, the court writes, “The government insists that the statements made in the documents are reliable because the State and Defense Departments would not have put them in intelligence documents were that not the case,” the court wrote. “This comes perilously close to suggesting that whatever the government says must be treated as true.”

The judges compared the argument to the Bellman’s nonsense in “The Hunting of the Snark,” in which a crew hunts for a creature that is never defined. The Bellman, the ship’s leader, led his men across the ocean, guided by a map that was just a blank piece of paper. He rallied and reassured his crew simply by repeating himself. “I have said it thrice: What I tell you three times is true,” the Bellman says.

“Lewis Carroll notwithstanding,” the court wrote, “the fact that the government has ’said it thrice’ does not make an allegation true.”

Beautiful! If anyone knows of any others, send them in.)


dinah said...

There was a great SCOTUS ruling on Gitmo about a year ago that quoted a Lewis Carroll nonsense poem: "I have said it thrice: What I tell you three times is true."

Nice to remember that the Justices are all around wise folks, and well-read. The democratic appointees, anyway :)

CultureFuture said...

Perfect perfect perfect. Comparing a lawyer's argument to nonsense poetry is the single most cutting use of an college degree I can imagine.