I usually find myself in the second camp—the "let sleeping dogs lie" camp. Walking back the cat has its practical benefits, and often it's essential. But there's something unsettling about the process. For one thing, the walk backward can theoretically go on forever. A reductionist pursuit of explanation quickly leads from proximate causes to antecedent factors and then to the tiniest capillaries of contingency. It leads to "recovered memory" and the "Twinkie defense." And, in general, it encourages an unhealthy confidence in human analytical powers.
The forward-looking effort to spot trouble on the horizon has a counterpart in the backward-looking effort to figure out what went wrong after trouble has in fact arrived. Intelligence analysts, who often have to second-guess themselves after defections and other failures, have a phrase to describe this kind of diagnostic deconstruction: "walking back the cat." A lot of walking back the cat is being done right now, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. But the basic procedure extends into every aspect of our lives. I won't hazard an estimate as to what percentage of GNP is allocated to walking back the cat; it clearly consumes a growing share. The study of history and cosmology is devoted to it, as is the great bulk of legal practice, much of medicine and market research, about half of geology, theology, and literature, all of psychoanalysis. Walking back the cat is what congressional investigations do. It informs the case-study approach to business-school education and lies behind the idea of the "financial autopsy." It's the whole point of watching videos of yourself at golf or tennis clinics.
: : ["Walking back the cat" doesn't mean what Ms Dowd seems to think. She uses it as if it meant "turning back the clock," or wishing something undone that has been done. There are plenty of vivid phrases already to say that; but nothing else, as far as I know, expresses as well what "walking back the cat" means - attempting to trace the beginning steps of a situation that had been arrived at slowly, erratically, and unpredictably. It would be a (minor but real) shame if this invaluable expression were to get blurred and lost by Dowd's handling. -Baceseras.]