»  National Review Online

March 9th, 2006

  You Don't Know Jack

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Back in the days of Mao Tse-tung's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when China was very nearly a closed country, there came up a phenomenon called "the three-week sinologist." This was a person, usually a showbiz, journalistic, or political celebrity, who had somehow wangled a Chinese visa and done a three-week tour of the country (model factory, model collective farm, Great Wall, revolutionary ballet performance, …) under the close supervision of "interpreters" and "guides" who were in fact, of course, secret police personnel. Then the "three week sinologist" went back to Europe or America and wrote a book about how great things were in China.

(Not every Westerner played the game exactly as scripted. One of the "guides" in charge of British TV journalist Clement Freud was incautious enough to open the day's program with: "What would you like to see today, Mr. Freud?" — meaning, the model commune, or the model factory? Freud took it at face value, though: "Well, since you ask, I would really like to see a labor camp …" The wish was not granted.)

Most of these visitors were thoroughly gulled, though, and some of the dimmer ones stayed gulled for years. The movie actress Shirley Maclaine, a typical China gull of that time, was actually permitted to make a movie in China — a documentary concentrating on the equality of the sexes in the Maoist paradise. Some years later, when Mao was dead and the plain-spoken Deng Xiaoping was in charge, Ms. Maclaine went back to China and was given a banquet, at which Deng mentioned that the Cultural Revolution had been a disaster for ordinary people. "But they said they were so happy!" expostulated Shirley. "Of course that's what they said," observed Deng drily. "That's what they were told to say."

I mention this only to point out the fact that, in the matter of getting information about a foreign place, actually being there is overrated. China is a very big country. You will not see much of it in three weeks, and what you see will depend on some factors other than your own visual acuity. It will depend, for example, on what you are permitted to see.

Homo sap. being a fallible creature to whom objectivity does not come naturally, what you see will also depend to some degree on what you want to see.

The train puffed slowly across the Ukrainian steppe. It stopped frequently. At every station there was a crowd of beggars in rags, offering ikons and linen in exchange against a loaf of bread. The women were lifting up their infants to the compartment windows — infants pitiful and terrifying with limbs like sticks, puffed bellies, big cadaverous heads lolling on thin necks. I had arrived, unsuspecting, at the peak of the famine of 1932-33 which had depopulated entire districts and claimed several million victims. Its ravages are now officially admitted, but at the time they were kept secret from the world … My Russian traveling companions took pains to explain to me that these wretched crowds were kulaks, rich peasants who had resisted the collectivization of the land and whom it had therefore been necessary to evict from their farms … I reacted to the brutal impact of reality on illusion in a manner typical of the true believer. I was surprised and bewildered — but the elastic shock-absorbers of my Party training began to operate at once … This "inner censor" is more reliable and effective than any official censorship.
                    — Arthur Koestler, The Invisible Writing.

Ralph Peters' recent reporting from Iraq, which I have expressed skepticism about in The Corner, illustrates both problems. Peters travels with the US military, so he is seeing places the military takes him to. How much of Iraq can they take him to? He does not tell us. And then, Peters is an old Military Intelligence war-horse himself, with a deep and strong attachment to the U.S. armed forces, and a powerful desire to identify with whatever mission the military has been given. Nothing wrong with that. To the contrary, that's the kind of spirit we should want in our military and ex-military people — God bless the man. Whether or not those powerful bonds help make for good and objective reporting, is another matter.

The issue here is: What do we know about Iraq? About the people, their desires, their prospects, their capabilities? I have got into trouble with some readers, and even some colleagues, for aligning myself with George Will and Bill Buckley in a faction that believes the democratization of Iraq to be a hopeless enterprise, and a waste of America's attention and resources. A quick trip through my archived columns will show that this was not any great reversal on my part. (Not that there is anything wrong with changing your mind when new facts appear.) I have never been on board with the project to democratize the Middle East, except to the extent of thinking that perhaps if we smack them around enough, they might see some sense at last — that an exercise in "attitude adjustment" might bear some fruit. And plenty of readers agree with me that we are on a fool's errand in Iraq — but it is those others that I want to take on here.

Most particularly, I want to take on a common opinion among the anti-Derbs: That I don't know jack about Iraq, because I have never been there. This opinion took one reader with such force that he has launched a campaign to get NR/NRO to send me to Iraq. I am entirely agreeable to this — I haven't had an expensed trip abroad for ages, and still have my youthful curiosity about foreign places — and I shall certainly go if my costs can be covered. My reader thinks that $6,000 should do it, so that if just 60 NRO readers pony up $100 each, I could be winging my way to Baghdad. I'd include the reader's email address to assist in organization of the Derb Iraq Trip, but that will bring him a lot of spam, which seems unkind to someone trying to do me a favor. NRO has the details, anyway.

While perfectly happy to go have a look at Iraq, though, I am, unlike my kind would-be sponsor, under no illusion that I shall be much the wiser for it. Plenty of Iraq seems to be safe for a Westerner to wander around in freelance; but of course the parts that aren't, are precisely the parts where one would most like to know what is happening.

In any case, a nation is an awfully difficult thing to fathom. Forgive me for repeating the following example, but it seems to me a telling one. I grew up from infancy bathed in American culture: American movies, American music, American TV shows, American books. In due course I came to live in America and stayed five years, 1973-78. I came back in 1985 and stayed another five years, 1985-90. I came back in 1991 and have been here ever since. Do I understand America? No, I don't, as frequent un-American bloopers in my columns and postings illustrate. That's after a lifetime of immersion, including a quarter-century of total immersion, and a near-fluent grasp of the language! (One day I shall figure out how to use "gotten.") Three-week sinologist? Iraq expert? Please.

Any knowledge is better than no knowledge, and we should of course try to inform ourselves as best we can about places in the news. Still, a major part of the foundation for our judgments will be, must be, our own large and general understandings about human nature. Will Rogers observed that it isn't what you don't know that hurts you, it's the things you know that aren't true. If your judgments about human beings and human affairs are grounded in false propositions about human nature, no amount of knowledge will rescue you from folly.

I do believe that over the past generation or so, we in the West have sunk into some seriously false beliefs about human nature. This is perhaps truer in the USA than elsewhere in the West. Our national fondness for high-flown rhetoric about liberty, rights, and the brotherhood of Man, which we have inherited from our Founding Fathers, and which we have been applying with special diligence to our domestic affairs since the 1960s, has worked on us like a spell, enchanting us into folly. It has left us blind to some of the coarser, meatier realities of human nature, to the passions stirred by family, tribe, faith, race, and charisma, by the contemplation of imagined honor, glory, and transcendence. Having lost touch with those things, or having willfully blinded ourselves to them, a great deal of what goes on in the world is difficult for us to understand, and easy for us to misunderstand. If "all human beings desire liberty," how is it that unfree societies ever arise and persist? (Nor do these comments apply only to the world beyond our borders. If "all human beings desire good government," why do the people of Washington DC keep electing Marion Barry?)

In his 1958 novel Three's Company, Alfred Duggan told the story of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, who was the third man in the Second Triumvirate that followed the death of Julius Caesar, the other members being Mark Antony and Octavian Caesar (who later became the emperor Augustus). Lepidus, a wealthy citizen from a good family, does what the other two are doing: he raises an army, so that he can take part in the great power struggle that followed Julius Caesar's death. An intelligent and capable man, Lepidus does this very well, taking great pains to see his troops are properly equipped, housed, trained, and fed. To these ends, Lepidus is a little can-do America, performing prodigies of administration and organization, and conscientiously making a credible military man of himself.

Lepidus could make out the encampment of his own seven legions. Even at this distance their huts showed better built and better aligned than the ramshackle bivouac of the slacker Plancus, or the flimsy shelters of improvident Antonians. Yes, his seven legions were the flower of the army, as brave and well-trained as their comrades and more efficiently administered. There was an advantage to being led by an industrious, conscientious man of business, too wealthy and too honourable to be tempted by the bribes of contractors.

Unfortunately Octavian shows up at Lepidus' camp. There is a confrontation, and Octavian is slightly wounded by a javelin hurled by one of Lepidus' men. Seeing this, the main body of Lepidus' troops are dismayed.

"We have shed the blood of Caesar," they screamed in a frenzy of self-accusation. Someone reopened the gate and they streamed out after [Octavian's] retreating cavalry … Lepidus thrust himself into the gateway, trying to stem the tide of hysterical desertion. Looming above the helmets he saw the towering staff of an Eagle, unescorted, clutched precariously by a solitary Aquilifer. To see this sacred image thus desecrated was almost as painful to him as the desertion of his soldiers. As the Eagle came up with him he strove to wrest it from its bearer. "Out of the way, fatty. All the Eagles of Rome follow Caesar, and shall until the ending of the world," shouted the Aquilifer …

All Lepidus' wealth, capability, courage, and managerial prowess counted for nothing when Octavian showed up. Plainly there was something about the mood of his troops Lepidus had failed to understand; something about Octavian that, when it touched Lepidus' noble intentions and splendid qualities, turned them instantly to dust. What was it, I wonder?