Pundits and why you can’t believe them

You listen to who?

(Sorry about Wednesday. Had to get into Singapore for something. Back to normal programming now. Er, maybe.)

I’m going through an Umberto Eco kick at the moment. I finished his “How to Travel With a Salmon” and have delved back to re-discover “Travels in Hyper Reality“. I think I’ll write on that volume sometime in the future, but what struck me was a congruity between the introduction of Hyper Reality (written in the original Italian back in the early 70s) and Immanuel Wallerstein’s latest commentary (this week).

(ASIDE: Immanuel Wallerstein is an American sociologist who’s interested in world systems. He’s Senior Research Scholar at Yale. I subscribe to his Commentaries so get them via email, but the one I’m alluding to (Number 275), can be found here.)

Eco mentions that, on a visit to the USA, he was asked by a reporter how he reconciled his work as a scholar with that of a columnist with one of Italy’s most widely-read newspapers. It’s interesting that Eco sees no conflict between the roles but that the US journalist does.

And in reading Wallerstein’s latest commentary, I was struck by the following paragraphs:

At this point [of great governmental impossible choices] enters that greatest of world pundits, Thomas I. Friedman, to write a column entitled “Never heard that before.” What had he never heard before? He heard non-Americans talking at Davos about “political instability” in the United States. He says that in his past experience such a phrase had been used only about countries like Russia or Iran or Honduras. Imagine that. People actually think the United States is politically unpredictable. And Thomas Friedman never heard it before.

There have been some people who have been writing this, and explaining this, for some forty years at least, but Thomas Friedman never heard it before. That’s because he has been living in a self-constructed cocoon, that of the political Establishment in the United States and its acolytes elsewhere. Things must be really bad for them to recognize this basic reality. The United States is politically unstable – and likely to become more so, not less so, in the coming decade.

While the USA makes a wonderful target for this specific post, I would like to posit that the point I wish to make is broader. See if it applies to your country.

The line between Thomas Friedman and Umberto Eco begins and ends with politics. In Country X (again, is it yours?), the major political newspaper columns are written by people with little knowledge of the subject upon which they’re pontificating. Of course, you get the normal self-serving guest spots by politicians attempting to show how they were more ethical and rational about a particular issue but, in general, the calls to explain — or change — domestic or foreign policy are usually doled out by people in, as Wallerstein put it, “a self-constructed cocoon”.

Thus, an escalation of the war in Afghanistan is usually trumpeted by people with little knowledge of history but their own vested interests. A desire to have a war with Iran is written by people with little knowledge of geo-politics but their own vested interests. And the war with Iraq was prompted by people with little knowledge of UN resolutions … and little moral fibre. But with their own vested interests. As a result, the catastrophic breakdown of the wall between investment and commercial banks was pushed through by financial lobbyists … with nary a word of publicised protest. The anything-but-not-a-public-option medical “reform” was/is touted highly by insurance companies … with nary a word of publicised protest. And the mushrooming of the USA defence budget has been encouraged by arms manufacturers .. with nary a word of publicised protest. None of the above parties are uninterested bystanders looking at the big picture, but very interested players looking at the bottom line.

That’s not to say there isn’t any protest. The apoplexy, disbelief and refutations from certain sectors of the country are strident and never-ending. But, by and large, they are the academics, the intellectuals, and so are beneath the notice of the general population. (When did you last read Gore Vidal or Noam Chomsky? No no, they’re still alive. And still commenting. Just not anywhere the average citizen is likely to read about it.)

What Wallerstein says is correct. The idea of the United States as a politically unstable house of cards is not a new one, but the people who know this, who are aware of this, are not heard because … they’re academics. And Country X is very very firm about drawing a line between its intellectuals/academics and its columnists.

To a degree, it’s also a self-censoring situation. For a non-political reference, just recall how shabbily Carl Sagan, an eminent scientist, was treated by his peers. The derogatory label levelled at him was that he was “a populist”, as if making complex ideas accessible to the general population is a bad thing.

The problem is, of course, it is. Because if you understand things, then you may start questioning things. And if you start questioning things then — oh, I don’t know — you may actually start to behave like a citizen in a democracy and demand answers of those people you’ve elected to their positions. And we can’t have that.

I’m attending a series of Customer Experience seminars at work at the moment and among the many fallacies that the instructor has regurgitated was one particular case study. She detailed a conference where two speakers were giving talks on the economic situation. The first speaker got up and told people that they weren’t out of the woods yet and that things may even get worse. He backed this up with various charts, showing the decline of several indicators. The mood in the conference hall when the first speaker was done, the instructor said, was sombre. The second speaker got up and told people that things were looking up! That the stock market has rebounded. And that major countries are facing solid growth.

“I much preferred the second speaker,” the instructor said. “He was optimistic and he raised the spirits of all in the conference hall. And that’s how you should operate because nobody likes listening to depressing news.”

Really? Is that what people would prefer? Pretty lies over ugly truth? Is that what you prefer? Because, if you do, then you’ve created your own problem. If all you’re after are the happy-happy-joy-joy moments, then you’ve set up a situation where you don’t want to hear from academics about the tortured, ancient morass of history that is the Middle East. And you don’t want to hear from academics why the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act under Bill Clinton was the baddest economic idea of modern times. And you don’t want to hear from academics why a country that condones, and even glorifies, torture (the cosy arrangement between the Bush government and the writers of “24″ being a case in point) is doomed to descend to brutality itself. And guess what happens? You wade into a region you know nothing about, you interfere with the checks and balances of the financial system (such as they are) and you end up dehumanising your entire society. And all because someone with a loud mouth and vested interests told you so, and you didn’t know any better and — perhaps — you didn’t want to know any better.

In the chaotic situation that we all now find ourselves in, cut loose from the tether of any kind of knowledge of how any part of the world works, we are tossed from one giant wave to another, clinging to the authoritative pronouncements of editors, pundits and columnists in our media, all of whom seem to change their opinions at the drop of a hat. One moment, the situation we’re facing is the direst in the world; the next week, everything’s looking up; the following week, it’s all doom and gloom again; and so on.

This is the time when we need, above all, some deeper analysis to understand the big picture and chart a way forward. Every society needs its intellectuals and academics, if only to present something to argue cogently against, if nothing else! What we don’t need, and are getting far too much of, is the kind of ten-second, gimmick-ridden, permanently fickle punditry of the Jim Cramer types. Don’t you deserve better? I certainly do.

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