Category Archives: Communication and Conflict Resolution
Hezbollah (“the Party of God”) continues to cast its extremist rhetoric in Israel’s direction but we are at a confluence of events that make war possible. Typically, Hezbollah devotes much of its time to overheated rhetoric directed toward Israel and the Zionist enterprise. It is possible to ignore or at least pay little attention to Hezbollah’s bloated rhetoric. But some differences are morphing into a political environment that just might ignite violence from Hezbollah or perhaps Israel.
First, Hezbollah has been a powerful and overwhelming presence in Lebanon such that Israel is convinced that there is little difference between Lebanon and Hezbollah. The political and government structures of Lebanon have been thoroughly penetrated by Hezbollah. Consequently, Israel is threatening violence against Lebanon on the assumption that there is no difference between the two and attacking Lebanon is by definition attacking Hezbollah.
Furthermore, Hezbollah poses a number of genuine threats to Israel some of which Israel has not taken seriously enough yet. Hezbollah, for example, has built up a weapons cache that can inflict considerable pain and damage on Israel. Hezbollah keeps claiming that damage to Israel in the next war will be greater than ever and they are potentially right.
Hezbollah’s agenda has been reinforced by its victories or gains in Syria and Lebanon and they just might be “feeling their oats.” Still, Israel does not respond to Hezbollah with overwhelming force with the goal of defeating it thoroughly. Critics in Israel keep turning their attention to the military and saying, ”what are you waiting for?” The time to deal a final blow to Hezbollah is now and Israel should not wait until Hezbollah damages cities and destroys infrastructure. It appears that Israel has already conceded the first strike option – at least that’s what Netanyahu wants you to think.
There are, however, good reasons for avoiding war with Hezbollah and that has to do with the fact that this would essentially mean a war with Iran also. For starters, Hezbollah does not need a war with Israel while it is making progress in places like Syria and Iraq. Moreover, Hezbollah is spread out over large geographic areas and in no coherent position to deploy militarily against Israel. And Israel might know it has to engage Hezbollah one day but also knows that such engagement has a high cost attached to it. Hezbollah has an increasingly large arsenal of rockets and they will do plenty of damage. Additionally, Hezbollah has been working with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard to form Shiite militias which can be called upon to join forces with the core Hezbollah military units.
The average Hezbollah or Quds recruit grew up on “divine victory” and the “glorious battles” in the name of Allah. Given the interpenetration of religion and the state in Iran fighting battles and dying is a religious experience. But even the most compliant Hezbollah recruit knows that he sees more blood, loss of livelihood, and dim future than any “divine victories.” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy reports that many members of Hezbollah are disillusioned and there is discontent.
In the end, both Hezbollah and Israel have serious issues to consider. Neither wants to initiate a first strike but neither side wants to be the recipient of a first strike. Both sides will inflict considerable damage on the other but also suffer it. And both sides, with the use of violence, will initiate a sequence of events that have implications for other countries and unknown consequences. This is all to say, I suppose, that nothing has changed.
You know you’re under the jackboot of second-rate leadership when that leader invokes the cartoonish and overheated rhetoric of Armageddon or the Apocalypse. Trump’s threat to hit North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” is ignorant, unhelpful, potentially dangerous, and represents little talent and sophistication with respect to international affairs. He has done nothing more than put himself on the same plane as pathetic terrorists who mistake their rhetorical fury for reality. I suggest the readers of this blog get together with a few friends for drinks and see how many of these puerile hyped-up platitudes they can come up with. Here, I will get you started.
“Allah will unleash the fires of hell to consume the infidel in Allah’s glory.”
“The Jewish trickster conspires to mongrelize White America by pumping black blood of Africa into his veins.”
“The coming race wars will scorch and then cleanse the earth as it awaits the rebirth of the white race.”
You get the picture. Even these exaggerated for humor sayings can’t seem to avoid some common themes: typically, something is “contaminated” and it is “cleansed” by fire. For the racist it’s the nonwhite race that is contaminated and fire will wipe it away until the new dawn of White supremacy awakens. For the Muslim extremist the “fires” consume the enemy rather than cleanse the earth, as the terrorists see the destruction of the world. Jews are not typically associated with fire but they are with blood given the historic blood libels. And the Jew is a “trickster.” He is clever and manipulative and not to be trusted.
Trump, of course, has no more to offer than the standard apocalyptic refrain of “fire and fury.” He has probably seen too many movies. But his discourse is consistent. It’s the rhetoric of nativism and certainly aligned with slogans to “make America great again” or “America first”.
This nativist discourse is relatively standard and on par with the profiles of intergroup conflict. That is, there is (a) a clear ingroup-outgroup distinction where the ingroup is favored and the outgroup as disfavored along with all of the exaggerations and distortions that accompany an ingroup-outgroup distinction;(b) the outgroup is demonized; and (c) the outgroup is rhetorically conquered. There is nothing wrong with trying to rhetorically control the outgroup – that is essentially what campaigns and social movements do but within the confines of normative democratic discourse.
Trump is frighteningly irresponsible. For the President of the United States, not some tin can leader, to engage in this brinkmanship with his shallow knowledge of the target culture, and the fact that fire will be returned with near certainty, can only be explained by the President’s personal macho and certainly not by any coherent policy of international relations.
And the childishness of it all. There is not even what anyone would consider to be even a remotely justifiable reason. This is just name-calling. Of all the sophisticated conflict resolution work and research, the answer in this case is simply to shut up and stand down.
Sure, it’s early to pass much reliable judgment on Obama’s presidency but I’m going to do it anyway. Obama was a young and relatively inexperienced political leader who, on balance, had a more successful presidency than not. A few books are already beginning to appear (Peter Baker’s Obama, Jonathan Chait’s Audacity) and many of the judgments coming from seasoned journalists and observers are positive. Obama made some mistakes and had his share of failures like any president.
But he was a gifted campaigner who promised hope and change through moderate political ideology. Obama was the darling of the liberal left and the bane of the conservative right. His most notable success was the Affordable Care Act which originated in conservative think tanks. It should have been a first-rate piece of social policy providing medical coverage for people who couldn’t afford it. But the rank polarization and competitive hate between the two parties meant that the nature of the Affordable Care Act would be distorted (calling it “socialized medicine”) and it would be subject to extreme ideological clashes.
The Affordable Care Act was flawed and needed fixing but it was fixable. Currently 20 million people have health insurance who would not have had it without the Affordable Care Act. Continued progress needs to be made on cost containment, financial incentives for health exchanges, and coverage that’s more attractive to young people but none of these represents a fatal blow and the acrimony and contentiousness surrounding them is testimony to the level of disgust each side as for the other.
Opponents of the Affordable Care Act have convinced the public (mostly by the incessant use of the term Obamacare) that the legislation is more extreme and damaging than it actually is. The fact that most polls show that the public approves of the Affordable Care Act, and the absolute failure of the Republicans to repeal and replace it, is testimony to the quality of the legislation.
Obama made progress in early childhood education programs, seeking sources of alternative energy, and helped make climate change an issue for serious consideration.
When it comes to foreign policy Obama looked around and saw messes everywhere. The Middle East, Israel-Palestine, radical Salafists, unstable countries with nuclear weapons (Pakistan, North Korea), religious extremist countries who wanted nuclear weapons (Iran), al Qaeda, ISIS, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are all potentially dangerous. There is something to be said for his cool demeanor and conclusion that an armed United States meddling in these problems would probably make matters worse. He used special operations and limited warfare strategically. He was not afraid to use the military (bin Laden) when necessary and clearly appropriate.
Obama did make a mistake with Bashar Assad. His statement about a “redline” was naïve and foolish and he stood on the sidelines while hundreds of thousands of Syrians were killed in the Civil War.
In the end, Obama was a diligent and elegant political leader who was knowledgeable and informed. He could be “cool” and therefore thought to be aloof but I prefer that to Trump’s exaggeration of threat. And we should not forget that his political enemies (e.g. Mitch McConnell) made it their life’s work to see the President of the United States failed. Mitch McConnell was so quick to announce that he was going to guarantee Obama’s failure, regardless of the issues, that I figured something other than policy had to be motivating McConnell. I’m just sayin’.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the Kurds and their quest for independence and the establishment of a Kurdish state. That piece was published in the Jerusalem Post and you can access it here. On September 25, 2017 the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) will vote on a referendum on independence. Support for the referendum – and nobody expects it to fail – fulfills a Kurdish dream. The proposed Kurdish state would be in the Iraqi Kurdish region which has begun to establish some state institutions and has enough resources to sustain the new state.
But the interesting question is how the Kurds proceed after the referendum vote. The Iraqis are assuming that support for the referendum would simply open up conversations and negotiations concerning outside issues. In fact, the referendum will not change much on the ground but will send a message to the Iraqis and the rest of the world that Kurdish independence should be respected.
The referendum is actually a rhetorical device that expresses Kurdish recognition and their commitment to a democratic process that indicates serious intent. The Kurds have been slow to develop their own cultural and political institutions (not entirely their fault) and in the past have been more interested in concessions from Baghdad such as the Federalist structure that now governs the relationship between the Kurds and the Iraqis.
There remains opposition to Kurdish independence, even on the part of the United States, when the broader array of complex international relations is taken into account. Most notably, the United States always has to consider its relationship with Turkey. The Turks have had a contentious relationship with the Kurds for a long time and view some Kurdish political groups as a threat to the stability of Turkey. One goal for Kurdish leaders is to convince Turkey that they are no threat. Moreover, the US while supportive of the Kurds in many ways still uses them to manage the US relationship with Iraq. So the US has told the Kurds that they can do nothing toward independence or changing their status that threatens a stable relationship with Iraq.
In an interview with Bilal Wahab, a Fellow at the Washington Institute, he makes the case that the Kurds remain unready for independence and there are still many questions for the multi-ethnic state to answer. There are religious minorities (Yazidis, Zoroastrians) and ethnic minorities (Arabs, Turkmen) all of which must be integrated into some semblance of a democratic society. Is it going to be a true liberal democracy where all groups are equal in the eyes of the law, or is one group, namely Kurds, going to be privileged. Moreover, what about the question of those Kurds in other countries such as Turkey and Syria? Will they be welcome?
The Kurds have been promised a homeland and independence since World War I. There referendum for independence is a good start and I support it all of its rhetorical and practical deficiencies notwithstanding. But the journey from a discriminated against ethnic group to an independent state is a long and twisted one. Still, the Kurds are in line to start this journey with an initial “Declaration of Independence.”
The legal status of the West Bank has been a thorny issue wrapped in confusion, historical change, as well as ideological motivations at the expense of legal clarity. Below is a brief treatment of the issues pertaining to the legal status of the West Bank and it is designed to be an introductory overview. I would direct the reader who seeks additional information to another brief synopsis published recently in the Jerusalem Post Magazine titled: “50 Years of Law Versus Reality” (www.jpost.com May 26, 2017). Also listen to and read the work of Eugene Kontorovich at: http://insct.syr.edu/legal-case-israels-settlements/ a legal expert who devotes scholarly attention to the issue. Below is my own distillation of the issues, based on the above sources, designed to establish some foundation for discussion.
Israel never imagined there would be 400,000 Jews living in the West Bank in a complex and politically charged project called the “settlements.” The land mass that includes the West Bank has been of questionable and debatable legal status for the last 50 years for sure but even before that. What is currently referred to as the West Bank was the outskirts of the Ottoman Empire who were defeated in World War I. The land became part of the British mandate and slipped into additional confusion about who had legal rights. When Israel took control of the land after Israel was attacked in 1967 (the Six-Day War) it fell into the category of “belligerent occupation.” This is a category of international law that requires the conquering force to adhere to a few rules of occupation. Under belligerent occupation the occupying force maintains the rights of the local people, agrees not to change the face of the land, and means that it cannot annex the land but is holding it temporarily. When land is acquired through force or war belligerent occupation is a mechanism for maintaining citizen rights and allowing political decisions to develop.
One of the controversies and difficulties about the legal status of the West Bank is whether or not to apply the principles of The Hague Regulations or the Geneva Convention. Belligerent occupation is a principal from The Hague regulations. The Geneva Convention requires more humanitarian rule even including returning conquered land. But the Israelis argued that Jordan was not a legitimate owner because they had only recently annexed the West Bank in the 1948 war. So Israel argued that it took disputed land from a wartime situation and did not conquer it from a sovereign nation, that is, they did not conquer the land from a legitimate state namely Jordan.
This is a key legal issue: did Israel acquire the West Bank from a legitimately recognized state that had sovereign power, which means according to the Geneva Accords Israel has obligations for peace negotiations, or was the West Bank genuinely disputed property.
The argument by Israel that all of the West Bank was negotiable provided justification for the ballooning settlements. As the settlements have developed, historical and legal arguments about the rights of the Jewish people – supported by a variety of historical documents ranging from the Bible to the Balfour declaration – have become more pronounced. The preponderance of evidence supports the notion that acquiring land by building settlements is illegal. But, on the other hand, Israel argues that it is still engaged in belligerent occupation and protecting the rights of the local inhabitants, that is, the Palestinians.
The legal status of the land acquired in 1967 is clearly debatable such that there are legal principles under which Israel is culpable according to international law, or principles that support Israel’s presence. In either case, the current situation is not sustainable.
Any peace deal signed by Trump will, by definition, be tainted and suspicious. It will lack credibility and be untrustworthy from the start. Even when he steps forward and espouses generalities about progress the public will be very skeptical. His word is one of the last things most people trust. Trump is a hustler and he will sell you whatever he thinks can turn a profit. Remember Trump vodka, steaks, marriages and my favorite–Trump University. A Trump peace proposal will be to peace proposals what Trump University was to education, a quickly constructed pseudo-product designed for the self-aggrandizement of Trump more than anything else.
Trump has no fire in his belly to solve the problem; it is not something he has struggled with for years and been committed to. Trump’s history is one of bungled deals, exaggerated claims, manipulations, lies and hyperbolic assertions. He is insufficiently knowledgeable about Jewish history and the State of Israel and he has cleansed his trip to Israel of most anything “Jewish”. He will speak at the airport, the Israel Museum, the King David Hotel, and the Prime Minister’s residence (directly across the street from my apartment). He will go to the Western Wall but not without somebody on the staff foolishly claiming it’s not part of Israel. He reduced his time at Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial) to 15 minutes. That’s 2½ minutes per million.
Trump is in no position to make progress on anything related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sure, he has to report some success so expect something like the following during a post-trip interview:
“We really made tremendous progress with the Israelis and Palestinians. It’s really going to be terrific, everybody says so. We are going to work out a deal and it’s going to be great for both sides. We have the best people working on and it is going to be great.”
Trump is all wrong for the nuances necessary to manage the conflict. Trump is better mano-a-mano and much more comfortable speaking bluntly and broadly. This is all one reason he won’t make much progress. There will be confidence building activity such as slowdowns on settlements and expressions of agreement about borders and concessions but that will be about it. But if Trump is serious about making progress here are three suggestions for him. And since Trump is quite concerned about “not being Obama” increased incorporation of these principles will be helpful with that.
- In particular, Abbas must answer to the larger Arab world as well as his own community. He cannot just give away what is considered by many Muslims to be holy land. Thus, Trump should increase the involvement of countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt in order to provide increased legitimization for the process and the Palestinian position in particular.
- Trump should insist on the improvement of infrastructure and internal politics of the Palestinians. The PLA have not sufficiently used their worldwide support to build civil society and services for the population. They need to stop practices such as paying terrorist families.
- And Israel must be required to cease and control settlement development. The settlements are perhaps the major obstacle to progress and nothing will happen if settlement expansion continues.
Even though, as I said above, that any deal with Trump would be immediately suspect he will be moving in the right direction if he focuses on the three suggestions above. Then he will have made a terrific deal and everybody will say so.
It will be interesting to see how Trump does with Abbas and the scheduled discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Given Trump’s gargantuan ego I suppose it was to be expected that he would head right for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and claim that he can solve the world’s most formidable intractable conflict. After all, it is just another real estate deal isn’t it? Unless he is more informed that I think he is, Trump’s about to get his head handed to him. Trump is a clear supporter of Israel and that will work against him during the conversations. The Palestinians may calculate that Trump will be effective at getting the Israelis to concede and moderate, but it will take more than Trump’s ideological compatibilities with Israel to get anything more than token changes that Israel is prepared to give up in negotiations anyway.
Remember, Abbas is not such a free agent. He doesn’t really have the authority or leadership power to all-by-himself bargain away the West Bank and Gaza. And Abbas may have an avuncular presence about him that seems benign but he really is a pretty fierce opponent of Israel. He is associated with a certain amount of anti-Semitism and according to most reports continues to glorify terrorist activity including incentivizing terrorists by providing money for their families. Trump will ignore these things at his peril. Actually, he will not be able to ignore the possibility that US funds to the Palestinian Authority will be cut off because of the Taylor Force Act, which is a piece of legislation in process that makes it a crime to fund payments of any type to terrorists and their families.
One of the internal paradoxes of this difficult conflict is that, at this point anyway, it remains the case that any agreement that would be acceptable to the Palestinians would probably be a threat to Israel; that is, the two sides are not at a point yet where they will accept something that is both advantageous to themselves and the other.
Trump keeps confronting dictators and autocrats –Kim Jong-un, Duterte, Abbas, Chinese leadership – because he thinks the magic words of “The Art of the Deal” combined with his particular appeal is all it takes to solve any problem. Trump brings no background, context, and historical framework to these discussions. True enough that he has advisors but they seem to add little to the solutions.
The US is even losing some interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A coalition of states and clear policy about Iranian nuclear weapons is more in line with US foreign policy in the Middle East. Iran is a predatory nation that has a triumphalist mentality and the potential nuclear weapon to do serious damage. This is not to mention Iran’s proxy group (Hezbollah) to whom they would most likely release a nuclear weapon. This gives them deniability.
The Palestinian Authority will be pretty tough negotiators because they have much to lose if they do not get everything they want. The PA has made progress in its criticism and international condemnation of Israel. And even if the PA were a potential partner to genuine negotiations there remains the matter of Hamas. Israel is not going to give up anything, as it should not, without recognition of its existence and the state of Israel.
Even in the face of Hamas’s supposed revised statement, I can’t imagine them recognizing Israel anytime in the near future.
Don’t expect much from Trump. Normally I would give him credit for trying but I’m not sure that this time he might not do more harm than good.
Early in the campaign I thought Trump was displaying some linguistic and behavior patterns that were troublesome. I don’t mean this to be snide as if I were calling him “crazy” just because I didn’t vote for him. I generally thought he exhibited a linguistic word salad that was indicative of certain cognitive disorders. It looks more and more like this might be an accurate assessment. But my concerns are not clinical as much as they are worried about the stability of the government. At one time a citizen could feel confident that there are enough people around the president to handle any problems and make a smooth transition to someone else if necessary. Or, the advisory staff was capable and competent.
But in Trump’s case we have people like Steve Bannon who are enamored and believe in crackpot theories of how the world is going to unfold. Bannon is a self-styled intellectual in the tradition of Trump’s exaggerations, lack of evidence, and the belief that anything he says must bring it into reality.
Bannon is a devotee of a book titled “The Fourth Turning” by William Strauss and Neil Howe. According to a number of newspaper reports he has read it numerous times and keeps a copy handy. Now, Strauss and Howe are interesting fellows in their own right but we will let that be for the moment in order to take a look at their generational theories, alarmist prophecies, and catastrophic outlook that will reorganize the global order according to Bannon. The man who sits next to the President of the United States, the man who President Trump believes to be prescient and forward thinking believes that the history of the world is divided up into predictable cycles that repeat themselves, and United States is just short of entering a cycle that will be catastrophic or revolutionary.
The book reads like an end-of-days warning about an apocalyptic end. I read the book because I wanted to know what Bannon and others saw in this vision. The book turns out to be rather shallow and repetitive, constantly looking for any chance it can find to organize something into four phases, or see some cyclical relationship. There are qualified and respected historians that are called “cyclical theorists” meaning they believe in cycles of history (e.g. Marx, Toynbee). But there are scholars who have the credentials to make such statements and sound arguments in support of repetitive phases of a culture. Strauss and Howe are reaching to make interpretations that are less than justifiable and in some cases don’t even make any sense. I would also add that “cycle” theorists in history such as Karl Marx and Toynbee have little standing in contemporary scholarship.
According to The Fourth Turning history proceeds in cycles of about 80 years and can be divided into four phases. So, in the US the four phases are like the seasons of the year: a spring-like “high” (postwar America), the summer awakening and spirituality (the 1960s), autumnal alienation (the Reagan era), and finally the wintery crisis that is a transformational event that sweeps out the old order. There is more to the theory along with other cycles but I think you get the point. Strauss and Howe are still chasing the dream of finding a complete scientific theory of history when, in fact, modern historians are more micro then they are macro with respect to the artifacts of history and what they mean.
The sense of determinism is one of the most disturbing things about Strauss and Howe. If they would’ve noted some repetitive patterns in history and simply argued for their presence they might have presented us with a relatively interesting volume. But the notion that these cycles are godlike in their surety and ability to predict the future is a little unsettling. There is nothing wrong with the notion that some cycles or patterns exist but they are subject to the influences of multiple natural and historical forces that make them unpredictable.
Bannon may believe some apocalyptic ending is near – and his proximity to power is what makes that dangerous – but my advice to you is below:
Remember, that true believers tend to fall in love uncritically with some seductive idea. Get to know the idea before you are influenced by perfumed thoughts and alluring possibilities.
It’s pretty easy for most Americans to pay little attention to Turkey. It seems to be a faraway exotic place that has little effect on their lives. But the truth is otherwise. Turkey has been a partner to the United States and Israel and informed a set of relationships with these two countries that help stabilize that area of the world. But more important than that, Turkey has been a model for Islamic democracy.
Ataturk established modern Turkey as a secular, European, Westernized state. He used the government to establish educational and political policies to shape the nation into a political culture that was close to gaining entry into the European Union. Ataturk literally outlawed many symbols of Islam and tried to relegate it more to the private sphere.
But there was a referendum last week on constitutional changes and Erdogan and his political supporters won a narrow victory. Now the country is about to be shaped in Erdogan’s image rather than Ataturk’s. Erdogan will move Turkey more toward centralized power supported by Islamic parties. None of this bodes well for Turkey. Moreover, and even more dangerously, Turkey is divided. Erdogan won a narrow victory. Just about half the population voted for him and the other half dislikes him intensely. These are the conditions for future contentious political behavior.
It appears that Erdogan knows how to distribute rewards making important constituents happy; a fairly large number of people have benefited from Erdogan’s largess. But these benefits are not merit-based or the result of significant contributions to economic, commercial, or political policies in Turkey. They are the result of payoffs to those who are more supportive of Erdogan and constitutional changes. And now the AKP (Erdogan’s political party) can continue its program of returning to Islamizing the state. Yet, there are some hopeful signs.
Turkey it is now quite diverse demographically, and too big economically to be easily redefined on the basis of one person. And despite Erdogan’s cronies, who always rear their ugly heads from the system of political payoffs, the real economic power in the country is dependent on secular, democratic, pro-Western liberal values. So if Turkey stays Democratic much of its progress will be maintained. But the worisome part is that Erdogan may realize full well that democracy is his primary enemy and therefore become more autocratic.
So why should the average American care about any of this? Well a couple of reasons. First of all the only way we are going to make some stable peace with Islamic nations is through elements, minimum as they need to be, of shared Democratic processes. If Erdogan becomes less democratic then the state becomes more Islamic and increases its distance and alienation from Western states and Israel. Turkey could have been a model for future Islamic democracy. Secondly, the Kurds have been a very supportive culture for the United States and we owe them our best efforts to establish a Kurdish state. This is of course very complex and an intractable issue but moves no closer to some sort of resolution if Turkey retreats into conservatism and religiosity. Third, Turkey demonstrated to the Arab world that some decent relationship with Israel was possible. Given the combustible relationship with our ally Israel, any indicator of stability is welcome.
Go ahead, click on the video and enjoy the music before reading below. Sam Cooke predicted in 1960 an attitude that is gaining momentum.
A diminished expectation of ability or preparation is one under discussed consequence of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency; in short, we now believe anybody can do the job. But this is thoroughly consistent with the recent death of respect for ability or expertise. The February 2017 edition of Foreign Affairs has an article on the loss of respect for expertise and superior levels of knowledge in America. The basic argument, which was well defended, is that Americans have increasingly lost their respect for achievement and the sense that somebody actually knows something more than others and should be listened to. The article can be found here. Moreover, those confronted with their ignorance are fierce in defense of their own opinions.
The article reports an interesting, and depressing, experiment where subjects were asked if the United States should intervene militarily in the Ukraine. Only one in six of the respondents could actually identify the Ukraine on a map and most of them were off by about 1,800 miles. But the real news value of the study was the correlation between the strength of one’s intensity for intervention and how far off they were from being able to identify the location of the Ukraine. In other words, those who are most ignorant about the geographic location of the Ukraine and perhaps thought it was in South America were also the most enthusiastic about military force. In another study Democrats and Republicans were asked whether or not they would support the bombing of the country of Agrabah. About 1/3 of Republicans said they would and 36% of Democrats were opposed. There is no such country as Agrabah.
Again, the issue is not so much that people are ignorant of geography or foreign relations. That’s another issue. The bigger problem is that many people don’t respect established knowledge and are sometimes even proud of rejecting the advice of an actual expert. There is an increasing belief that all information is manipulated and perceptual (note “fake news” or the Trump campaign’s use of “alternative facts”). In this era of post-truth everyone figures that language is unstable so every person’s knowledge or meanings are as good as the next.
There are more than a few reasons for this loss of faith in expertise. The disrespect for experts is one of the more insidious. There is now a segment of the population that takes pleasure in challenging expertise not on the basis of superior knowledge or argument but because they see elites as evil and cannot tolerate being told anything. I grant you that sometimes elites can be insufferable and arrogant but that doesn’t detract from their better knowledge. Journalists, pundits, opinion writers, and professors have lost favor over the decades with the population and are now seen as antagonists rather than sources of reliable information.
It is also true that the world of information is complex and it is easy to feel insecure about one’s control of information. Nobody could be in command of everything and we are all relianton experts and those who know more than we do. One of the skills of the educated – and should be even more emphasized in schools – is the ability to identify reliable sources of information; the ability to judge and evaluate and make educated decisions about the quality of information.
It’s okay if Sam Cooke’s love struck friend “doesn’t know much about history, or biology” as long as somebody does and we as a society recognize that expertise.