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Welcome to Eurasia Strategy & Communications (ESC) and our site www.explaining-eurasia.com.
Although previously focused mostly on Eurasia, we are expanding coverage to take into account the rise of populism across the West and “unexpected” events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
Like millions of people across the West, at ESC we are deeply worried by the direction politics has been taking across the West in recent years, but we have also become appalled at amateur academics, businessmen behaving badly, juvenile journalists and puerile politicians – adjectival alliterations that highlight how each of these “elite” groups has contributed to our present state of Denmark.
We are even more shocked by the quality of “analysis” purporting to explain the rise of populism and “unexpected” events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, a phenomenon long familiar elsewhere:
Analysis increasingly, I’m sorry to say, takes second place to assertion of the world as the observer “knows” it to be.
Mark Galeotti, Clinical Professor in Global Affairs at the Center for Global Affairs, NYU School of Professional Studies, New York University.
2 March 2015
Our 2016 series Before Fake News, with occasional updates, therefore drills down into trends which in some cases go back decades or even centuries to the very beginning of European modernisation to provide more insight.
We have also added a new rubric on Junk Education as an occasional critique of the staggering amount of bad thinking, emotion and often appalling general knowledge now regularly offered up by even “respectable” and “reputable” organisations and publications:
The discussion is the barest introduction to issues that deserve and have received innumerable longer and more detailed discussions — as well as brief and terrifying uninformed and opinionated ones in the mass media.” (our emphasis)
Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present, 2012, pp. 978-9.
- Professor of Politics, Princeton University, 1988-1996 & 2010-2014
- Professor of Political Theory, Oxford University, 1996-2009
- Visiting Professor, Stanford University, 2014-15
- Elected Fellow of the British Academy, 1986
The time-honoured principle of mastering the subject from all sides rarely applies nowadays:
He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859
You do not possess “perfect knowledge,” until you are able to answer, with unfaltering promptitude and consistency, all the questions of a Sokratic cross-examiner — and to administer effectively the like cross-examination yourself, for the purpose of testing others.
George Grote, Plato, And The Other Companions Of Sokrates, Vol 1. A New Edition, 1885
The Oxford debating tradition does possess one great strength, drawn indirectly from the Symposium. You are supposed to be able to give an honest account of an opposing or different worldview, and even as an exercise to be able to present it as if you believed it yourself.
Christopher Hitchens, Moderation or Death, London Review of Books, Vol. 20 No. 23, 26 November 1998
A spectacular example came at Harvard in March 2017:
[The Chinese have] read The Art of the Deal! Has anybody here? Put your hand up if you’ve read Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal? So it’s like… what are you people doing? Do you have no interest in the way this man thinks – he’s the most powerful man in the world!
Niall Ferguson, speaking at a presentation and discussion of the book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? by Graham Allison at the Harvard Institute of Politics, Harvard Kennedy School.
Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Visiting Professor at the New College of the Humanities, London, William Ziegler Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and contributing editor to the Financial Times
Streamed live on 22 March 2017, available from 1:00:00 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yghOc-lMIM
This is precisely what Mill warned against in On Liberty – it is worth quoting at length:
But when we turn to subjects infinitely more complicated, to morals, religion, politics, social relations, and the business of life, three-fourths of the arguments for every disputed opinion consist in dispelling the appearances which favour some opinion different from it. The greatest orator, save one, of antiquity, has left it on record that he always studied his adversary’s case with as great, if not with still greater, intensity than even his own. What Cicero practised as the means of forensic success, requires to be imitated by all who study any subject in order to arrive at the truth. He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination. Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of; else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty.
Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition; even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess. They do not know those parts of it which explain and justify the remainder; the considerations which show that a fact which seemingly conflicts with another is reconcilable with it, or that, of two apparently strong reasons, one and not the other ought to be preferred. All that part of the truth which turns the scale, and decides the judgment of a completely informed mind, they are strangers to; nor is it ever really known, but to those who have attended equally and impartially to both sides, and endeavoured to see the reasons of both in the strongest light. So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects, that if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil’s advocate can conjure up. To abate the force of these considerations, an enemy of free discussion may be supposed to say, that there is no necessity for mankind in general to know and understand all that can be said against or for their opinions by philosophers and theologians. That it is not needful for common men to be able to expose all the misstatements or fallacies of an ingenious opponent. That it is enough if there is always somebody capable of answering them, so that nothing likely to mislead uninstructed persons remains unrefuted. That simple minds, having been taught the obvious grounds of the truths inculcated on them, may trust to authority for the rest, and being aware that they have neither knowledge nor talent to resolve every difficulty which can be raised, may repose in the assurance that all those which have been raised have been or can be answered, by those who are specially trained to the task.
To be fair, people have always pontificated above their pay grade. In his famous exchange with the social historian E.P. Thompson in the early 1970s, the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski asked rhetorically:
… did you notice that if you meet a Westerner who learnt Russian, you have at least a 90% chance of meeting a bloody reactionary? Progressive people do not enjoy this painful effort of learning Russian, they know better anyway.
Leszek Kołakowski, ‘My Correct Views on Everything. A Rejoinder to Edward Thompson’s “Open Letter to Leszek Kołakowski”‘, The Socialist Register, 1974.
Such attitudes of talking when knowing nothing about the subject have long been institutionalised:
Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more extensive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled – whether by their own propensities or by the demands of the others – to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of the citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehensions of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it is his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.
Harry G. Frankfurt, ‘On Bullshit’ in The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays, Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 132-3. ‘On Bullshit’ was originally published in 1986.
Available at http://www.csudh.edu/ccauthen/576f12/frankfurt__harry_-_on_bullshit.pdf
Frankfurt is professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, where he taught from 1990 until 2002. He previously taught at Yale University, Rockefeller University, and Ohio State University.
Such amateur opponents are of course easily disarmed by the well-known putdown which, mutatis mutandis, can be applied to virtually everywhere:
Yes, but not in the south
See the discussion on the origin of the phrase at https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Stephen_Potter
Frankfurt goes on to point out another major problem across the West:
The contemporary proliferation of bullshit has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are.
These “anti-realist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself.
The result is of course the facile scepticism and cynicism so widespread today. Disastrously, emotion combined with Junk Education and “babble” have become part and parcel of the wider political and social “discourse” and conspired to vitiate understanding and solutions.
If the above caveats apply to Western domestic politics, they apply a fortiori to the rest of the world, and especially to Islam and Islamism. Nearly two decades after 9/11, Western ignorance of Islam and the Muslim world does indeed remain astonishing, but is often wrapped in pronouncements of near papal infallibility by people lacking the slightest expertise.
As Germany’s leading expert on Islamism points out,
… These regional and specific political and cultural processes [in the Muslim World] remain fully closed to Europeans and Americans, who think in globalized categories; some of them persistently refuse to understand them.
Bassam Tibi, Die fundamentalistische Herausforderung. Der Islam und die Weltpolitik, 3rd Edition, 2002, pp. 43-4.
Bassam Tibi is a Syrian-German scholar, Emeritus Professor, International Relations, Göttingen University and has been Visiting Professor at Harvard, Yale, UC Berkeley, Princeton and Cornell. He is Germany’s leading expert on Islamic fundamentalism and as a hafez has memorised the Koran.
Several ESC experts have lived and worked for years in various Muslim-majority countries in the Arab Middle East, Central Asia and Turkey and written on their politics and development based on practical experience rather than armchair expertise. Dominic Rubin’s study Russia’s Muslim Heartlands. Islam in the Putin Era appeared in 2017.