Some of us chide the Tea Party congressmen for their ignorance, real or feigned, in such realms as economics and science. But those of us who know more, maybe a lot more, still don’t know everything; and most of us are like the Tea Partiers in not wanting to know so much that we end up doubting. Doubt is crippling.
If you’ve watched Ted Cruz speak you know the power of an idee fixe in the mouth of a man who might even believe it, regardless of the facts. If you read the New York Times‘s Paul Krugman on the slow death of common sense or the Tribune‘s John Kass on the slow death of freedom, you know how hard it is to resist a writer who can effortlessly sort the good from the bad. Last week Kass found a metaphor for the slow death of freedom in the social skills of spiders, an insight that would have escaped anyone without his brand of focus.
“Now we can manipulate the factors that can drive extinction . . . in a way that only math could do before,” a biologist who has spent years studying spider colonies told Kass. “Now we can do it with a real animal.”
To which Kass responded: “Like those two-legged creatures who once lived free but have taken to printing cash to pay for their gorging and now want to extend the debt ceiling?”
Kass runs on page two, the flagship position in the Tribune‘s pundit armada. Way back on 23, the op-ed page of the same edition, Steve Chapman mused about the conservative mind-set. A libertarian, Chapman is firmly on the side of living free, but he’s a cool customer who doesn’t share Kass’s view that all is nearly lost. “Somewhere along the way, many conservatives became addicted to the fear of apocalypse,” Chapman wrote. “So even when their dire predictions fail to come true, they keep forecasting the worst possible outcome if they don’t get their way. . . . Cruz and his audience are in the grip of a mania that tells them we are hurtling toward catastrophe. There is no evidence that we’re about to go over a cliff, even if some people have gone around the bend.”
But it wasn’t anyone in the Tribune who prompted me to write about the human need to keep a lid on knowledge. Akbar Ahmed is not a name you’re likely to know (I didn’t); he’s an anthropologist expert in tribal societies who has written a book called The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, which was explored at length by Malise Ruthven in the October 24 New York Review of Books.
Ahmed’s risky proposition—applauded by Ruthven—is to understand what he’s writing about at a level a lot of readers simply won’t put up with. Since this deep understanding is focused on targets of America’s war on terror, we can be confident Ahmed will never bring a whooping American audience to its feet the way Ted Cruz can.
“The fundamental error, according to Ahmed,” Ruthven tells us, “is that US leaders believe they are facing a threat from enemies whose motivation is primarily ideological.” We are content to believe that such threats stem from—in President Obama’s words—”the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings,” Ruthven writes.
What nation at war can afford to see in its enemies’ hearts anything less than pure evil? Yet Ahmed puts in a sympathetic word for some of America’s enemies, telling us they are tribal cultures on the periphery of the Muslim world that Ruthven describes as “facing destruction from the forces of modern society.” For instance, 18 of the 19 9/11 hijackers hailed from tribes in or near Yemen, tribes bloodily suppressed after World War I (when modern Saudi Arabia was founded). Ruthven: “In short, says Ahmed, while Western countries were appeasing the Saudis in order to secure their oil supplies, the Saudis were systematically destroying the Yemeni-Asiri culture.” But if, in that sense, chickens were coming home to roost on 9/11, what American can find in that history even a microgram of mitigation? As for the drone warfare by which the war on terror continues today, Ahmed says in his book: “For a Muslim tribesman, this manner of combat not only was dishonorable but also smacked of sacrilege. By appropriating the powers of God through the drone, in its capacity to see and not be seen and deliver death without warning, trial, or judgment, Americans were by definition blasphemous.”
All this makes melancholy reading because . . . well, because what does it matter? They attacked us. We responded. Their threat continues. Can I write with a straight face that all Americans must read Ahmed’s important book? Those Americans who do will come away from it thinking that the world is a more subtle and complicated place than it’s typically depicted as—but in many cases that’s what they already thought and are always pleased to be reminded of. The book will make little difference. “Ahmed’s belief . . . is that tribal peoples must be negotiated with,” Ruthven writes, “rather than cowed into submission by targeting their leadership.” But Ahmed understands how unlikely it is that this prescription will be followed. He concludes: “Hearing the voices of people from the periphery, one gets the impression of utterly normal and decent human beings bearing witness to the slow but inexorable destruction of their communities.”
Our ignorance, to the degree the American public is willing to acknowledge its own in the aftermath of 9/11, is limited to our not knowing that weapons of mass destruction were nonexistent in Iraq, and that Iraq had nothing to do with the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. The deeper ignorance Ahmed addresses, our lack of understanding of the enemy we fight, will keep no one awake at night. As Donald Rumsfeld might have put it, “We go to war against the enemy we know, not the enemy we ought to know.”
Ruthven’s review reminded me of two books that appeared late in the Vietnam War: David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, which blamed the war on the illusions, miscalculations, and machismo of powerful men in Washington, and Frances Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake, which minutely examined Vietnamese society and accused America of mucking about in a culture it didn’t begin to understand. I devoured the former like catnip (everyone did), but I wasn’t so sure at the time about the latter.
“Under different circumstances this invincible ignorance might not have affected the outcome of the war,” Fitzgerald wrote. “The fiction that the United States was defending ‘freedom and democracy’ might have continued to exist in a sphere undisturbed by reality.” But this was a war where it really was necessary to know your enemy, to understand that the U.S. was intervening just at the time that the Vietnamese, having finally ended 70 years of French colonial rule, were “engaged in a struggle to create a nation and to adapt a largely traditional society to the modern world.”
This seemed overly precious to me at the time, on the grounds that sociologists don’t win wars, armies do. Today it seems right as rain. We lost the war and went home, and the point we’d been trying to make in fighting it for ten years became senseless almost overnight. The Vietnamese went ahead and created their nation, and today our Vietnam vets go back in droves on sentimental vacations.
There’s a level of wisdom at which fine books are written; but to fight a war or write a newspaper column or understand the world well enough to get by in it, it’s not necessary or even advisable to come anywhere close to that level. “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” wrote Alexander Pope. “Shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” It’s more fun to stay tipsy.