Where Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

Wednesday, January 30, 2002

The War at Home

Part of the shock that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11 was the surprise, the unexpectedness. America’s citizens were almost totally unprepared, in their minds, for the terrible reality.

There’s much to be said in this context. But if we go deeper we see that there was something missing in the public understanding of the possibilities. Above all, there was little knowledge about the mental world of those outside the American, or Western, experience and, in particular, about the mental world of the enemies of the democratic way of life. One result was the assumption that the enemies of Western culture can be won over by goodwill and that the West is to blame if such approaches do not work.

This was not just the natural parochialism of an apathetic population. It pervaded the media and the educated strata in general. Is there, or was there, some specific fault in the general presentation here of the outside world in our books, our schools, our debates? Clearly, the answer is yes.

For many years, there have been two main faults in the presentation to the American mind of major elements in the world. First, too little information about those alien cultures and attitudes was inculcated. Second, much of what was inculcated was erroneous.

The man in the street, with less access to study, is still often better served by his common sense than the expert is by his expertise. Yet the general atmosphere is pervaded by assumptions or preoccupations with little empirical basis.

We need more history and better history. We need less formula and less anti-Americanism.

How can a citizen be called educated if she or he has been trained to misunderstand the world?

Let me specify. Our educational system, which, Thomas Jefferson said, should be "chiefly historical" for an adult citizenry, was—to put it mildly—not so. If we look at schools and universities we must surely admit that. As a result, a large section of our supposedly educated class is only so described if we omit what Jefferson thought to be the most vital point.

On the one hand this affected our whole culture; on the other, it resulted—even in "higher" education—in the substitution of various theorizings that diverted attention from the real world. In his inaugural lecture as Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, Sir Michael Howard remarked of the "real lessons of history" that these apply to "people often of masterful intelligence, trained usually in law or economics or perhaps political science, who have led their governments into disastrous miscalculations because they have no awareness whatever of the historical background, the cultural universe of the foreign societies with which they have to deal. It is an awareness for which no amount of strategic or economic analysis, no techniques of crisis management or conflict resolution can provide a substitute."

And if that is often so among the foreign policy elite, how much more so in the academic circles where intrusive facts can be even more easily kept out of the mind?

It is also the case that even in the restricted area where "history" was practiced, the academic (and other) understanding of the earlier, Stalinist, Maoist, Ho-ist anti-Americanism was fatally distorted in the late 1960s, probably as a result, or partly so, of the anti–Vietnam War atmosphere, so that—even to this day—there is much "denial" about Stalinism and its unappeasable hatred of the West. It seems in part due to the fact that young Viet Cong groupies who went into academe are now in high positions. But one should not neglect the other academic trope—the idea of being nonjudgmental, the intrusion of suitable mind-blocking theory. All this, moreover, still infects the glossy media, as with the grotesquely falsified CNN series on the Cold War.

It is now clear that Americans have had an insufficient knowledge about the mental world of those outside the American, or Western, experience and, in particular, about the mental world of the enemies of the democratic way of life.

So? First, back to Jefferson. We cannot understand the world without the study and understanding of real history and real politics and beliefs. A supposedly educated or academic output that misses this is unreal. The specialists, or theoreticians, who have no such background are, in effect, uneducated; much more academic attention should go to general realities. Academics already established in these fields need a good deal of reeducation. Not that they are uninstructed, but they were instructed in often-sophisticated theory and formula, rather than in the empirical realities—a double problem for us in fact. We need more history and better history. We need less formula and less anti-Americanism.