1 – The Plight of Warped Knowledge (Dec 08)

    I want to start this website on what I believe to be a noncontroversial premise: that to deal with the world effectively we first must understand it. Who could disagree with the assertion that knowledge is needed for effectiveness? But then who could deny another, urgent, conclusion, that there is reason for alarm, because our means for seeing things clearly in a world more confusing than it was decades ago have diminished, vanished or become corrupted. That last line almost inevitably gains a controversial edge because this dire situation has not been much commented upon. It has crept up on us. It has much worsened after the Cold War disappeared, and is closely connected with political-economic changes that followed its end.
     But this plight of warped knowledge is suddenly made concrete when you bring to mind the anticipation of things to come when the Cold War ended and realize how far removed our current situation is from that expected future. Does the reality of the world today resemble what was expected from it, around twenty years ago, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist? I imagine that visitors to this new site who have lived a bit and have politically sensitive memories will say no. Who could disagree with the observation that we live in a world less promising, less secure, less hopeful and with more uncertainty, than the world was in the final decade of the twentieth century?
     Democracy was going to be the wave of the future. But the notion of a properly represented citizenry has become so pale in the putative democracies that it is almost non-existent among the generation now coming of age politically. The notion of a “peace dividend” became a popular political slogan with which especially the then American president and British prime minister speculated about new economic benefits of money left over from reduced defense budgets. Instead we now see a metastasizing American military-industrial complex, which gained an extra “security” component with a dramatic rise in civil surveillance.
     There is greater job uncertainty in the countries that once comprised the Cold-War Atlantic Alliance, and in several we may note a considerable shrinking of the middle class. Then there have been the two wars against Islamic countries, and their continued occupation by “coalitions” of countries that after World War II denounced the very idea of new foreign occupations, but now engage in large-scale state-condoned murder.
     The seduction by false populism of citizens throughout Europe, as shown by opinion polls and electoral results, can hardly be read other than as a measure of frustrated expectations. These European trends, as much as the electoral success of the American Democratic Party in 2008, indicate a pervasive sense that we have not been properly represented by incumbent officeholders – the politicians who are believed to share responsibility for the continuation of an undesirable state of affairs.
     Chalk it all up to political (including economic) mismanagement on a monumental scale. But there exists an intellectual environment which failed to stop such dire developments. Had we all understood better what was happening between then and now, and given ourselves opportunities seriously to consider predictable consequences, we would have attempted to stop what can only be seen as a slide downward. If the routine acceptance of torture, the international financial turmoil threatening the well-being of ordinary people, the so-called democratic deficit, the coarsening of social life, and especially the wanton wars and new belligerencies that are with us now had been revealed to us in the early 1990s we would have strenuously objected to such a future and have endeavoured to make it less likely.
     What hindered and still hinders recognition of our predicament? Let me try a summing up. This should begin with the flaws in how the world is interpreted, systemic flaws, begin with what is popularly known as “the first draft of history”: The journalism that gives shape to the history that we are part of at any moment. It continues with the frames of reference with which our situation is understood in terms of broader significance. Those blend in with the theories that underlie such frames of reference, and create new ones. Two of those theories are very relevant for two themes I want to dwell on – mainstream economics, and realist international relations theory. These two place a heavy conceptual burden on the editors, analysts, commentators, and reporters who work on that first draft of history. They predetermine many of the frames of reference of these craftsmen.
     Mainstream economics is inadvertently, and to most of its practitioners invisibly, highly ideological; it actually prevents discovery of pertinent aspects of political reality. “Realism” in IR (International Relations Theory) conceives of the world as a huge set of weighing scales, with if we are Europeans on the one side ourselves clinging to the United States for dear life, and on the other side: well, The Other Side, whomever fits the bill.
     The base metaphors these theories rely on, of balancing power and conservation of energy, are rarely examined for their relevance. Both theories exclude much political knowledge derived from actual experience, and start from the premise that we know what we are doing and that, therefore, things are under control. We could say that at the back of it all we find an unacceptable degree of historical ignorance. Too little is remembered, and there exists too little apprehension about that deficiency.
    But we should begin with that first draft. It routinely informs us about the world’s happenings and most immediately shapes a community’s sense of what is real. Among my former colleagues in Europe or the United States, retired or still writing, I do not know a single one who disagrees with the contention that contemporary journalism is in poor shape and deteriorating. Against the counter contention that this only reveals the prejudice of grumpy old farts, one may simply count and compare with earlier times the number of articles on world affairs informed by direct reporting in supposedly quality newspapers, the length of such articles, the displayed depth of historical understanding in them, and the selection of relevant points to be made. It has been widely observed that quality newspapers are dying. With them the best means for citizens to talk with each other about what is politically desirable also diappears. It means that the language we use to tackle our economic and political reality deteriorates, and most things that I want to return to in these jottings.