October 5, 2004

From Larry Bowa's Clubhouse to the Streets of Fallujah

The Phillies fired Larry Bowa just before the end of the season.


This being Philly, of course there are some fans whining that Bowa’s not at fault, presumably because they think Bowa’s a genuine South Philly kind of guy and he couldn’t possibly be responsible for the players failing to play up to their abilities or the front office making the wrong trades or deals. Not me. I’ve been sure Bowa was the big problem pretty much from the moment that the Phillies hired him, and I would think that anybody who had followed his career as a manager would recognize that as well.

Then I asked myself when he got fired, “Why am I so sure? What’s my opinion based on?” I’m not in that clubhouse. I’m not a baseball player or a baseball manager or an ESPN anchor. I just watch the game and read the box scores. I don’t even play rotisserie any more—I just couldn’t spare the time in April and May in an ordinary academic year to do the dealing and preparation required.

So how do I know, or think I know? The same way most of us know what we know: a combination of information, theory and intuition. I’ve read a decent number of press reports and interviews about Bowa and the Phillies (and about Bowa’s work with previous teams). There’s a diversity of opinion out there, and some of it comes from obvious axe-grinders like Tyler Houston. But it’s hard to miss the patterns that emerge in that informational architecture. Even someone like John Kruk, who has gone out of his way not to slam Bowa, ends up confirming some of the basics. Bowa has persistently treated professionals like a bunch of kids while running the clubhouse like a caricature of boot camp. I’m sure it’s not that way all the time, or even most of it, but obviously often enough for it to emerge as Bowa’s signature style.

That’s not enough to come to a conclusion, however. Because it’s one thing to feel some confidence that this is the way things were on the inside of Bowa’s tenure, despite the fact that I’m sure Bowa himself and some of his players don’t see it quite that way, and another thing to see this pattern as explanatory. That involves not just information, but a theory of human relationships and even a kind of intuitive emotional intelligence about them. You don’t just have to know that this is how Bowa acted, you have to assume that the way he acted is a primary cause of the team’s underperformance. (Which, by the way, involves another complicated assumption, that the Phillies did indeed underperform, that they plausibly could have been much better than they were.) Here you can’t point to anything concrete. There’s no information that will factually confirm this argument. You can only say, “This is how I think human beings in general work, and how a bunch of male athletes between 18 and 40 in particular work”, to argue that Bowa’s style was very much the wrong kind of leadership. That either resonates with you or it doesn’t, and there’s not that much I can do to convince you if it doesn’t.

I’m going on at length about this because it seems to me this is how a lot of what we know comes into being. There is really very little we know from direct or eyewitness experience. Nor is it clear that being a direct participant yields information or knowledge that absolutely trumps all other kinds of knowledge. We know very well from recent research, for example, that witnesses to crimes frequently get some very basic details of their experience wrong. Eyewitnessing is important, and there are things you can’t know if you’re not directly there. We have to make a lot of judgments every day, some of them of critical importance, based on indirect, reported information and intuition.

Iraq is one of those judgments. I keep being struck in many conversations online and off not by the selectivity that different reasonable individuals exhibit in the information they gather about Iraq—we’re all selective, we have to be—but by the global statements about the nature of information about Iraq that they subsequently make, and how they use these global statements to categorically disregard other arguments or representations of the situation. I’ve seen a number of defenders of the war attack its critics for relying on press reports, or attack the press reports themselves for exhibiting false selectivity, sometimes both. But where are the defenders of the war getting their information, then?

It’s the same problem I have with many of Noam Chomsky’s arguments: he operates from a fundamental presumption that the press is firmly and structurally enmeshed in hegemonic defense of imperialism, but then uses press reports to document many things about the state of the world in general. If you don’t have an explanation for why a given report or fact or document has escaped what you regard as a global problem, you shouldn’t be able to use it to buttress your own understanding of the world. Chomsky either has to develop a much more nuanced view of hegemony or has to restrict himself to sources that are structurally counter-hegemonic. Defenders of the war have to find channels of information that are entirely free of what they claim is a global taint with both the information and with the use of that information, or they have to deal with the total plurality of the infosphere that surrounds the war—and not just shrug it off as if that information is self-evidently untrustworthy by the very fact of it being reportage.

This has been a very large-scale issue with a lot of postmodernist or poststructuralist writing in the humanities and social sciences. Much of it, taken for what it seems to say, ought to make it impossible to make what passes for normal evidentiary use of texts and documents. But I’ve read so many manuscripts now where the author theoretically kicks out the legs of the chair he’s standing on and then tries to float immaculately on air. It might surprise some conservatives and skeptics who probably could uncork a rant about “postmodernist academics” in a moment’s notice, but I think this particular rhetorical gambit has become even more profoundly characteristic of conservative thought and writing than any form of consciously “postmodern” writing.

If I want to say Larry Bowa’s the problem, and good riddance, I’m honor-bound to listen to Bowa’s own publicly expressed views (though so far he hasn't had much to say post-firing) and run them through the same intuitive and rational machinery that I use to process the rest of the information I’ve got. I can say why I think someone who weights pro-Bowa information more heavily than the rest of the information is wrong, but if I were to say, “Eh, it’s all bullshit, none of us are in that clubhouse”, then I’ve deep-sixed my own views and all other views as well.

Not to mention the fact that this is the first step on the road to solipsism: it’s a natural start towards saying that no one knows anything but their own experience, and perhaps not even that. Everyone, from George Bush down to Joe Six-Pack, ought to have the most pluralistic sources of information possible about anything they’re interested in or care about. Everyone ought to specifically look for and solicit information that dissents from or contradicts their own preferred conclusion. You can’t diss someone else for relying on sources of information that you yourself also make use of. You can diss them for coming to different conclusions, but even there you have to have a degree of humility if the other person seems to be making a good faith effort to explore the same ecology of information that you’ve traversed.