Experts

In the Fall, I am hoping to teach a class on Experts as a category of Knowledge Brokers in the colonial and postcolonial world. Thinking a riff from Richard F. Burton to TE Lawrence to Rory Stewart by way of Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami. Plus databases and spying drones. Here is somewhat of a programmatic preview in The National:

Flying blind: US foreign policy’s lack of expertise

Both Stewart and Mortenson illustrate one particular configuration of the relationship between knowledge and the American empire – the “non-expert” insider who can traverse that unknown terrain and, hence, become an “expert”.

Even a cursory examination of the archive dealing with the American efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan demonstrates that there has been no related growth in specific scholarly knowledge about those sites of conflict. The knowledge of Arabic, Urdu or Pashto remains at extremely low levels in official corridors. There is, one can surmise simply from reading the back and forth sway of military and political policy in Afghanistan, very little advancement in understanding of either the text or context of that nation.

In America’s imperial theatre, Stewart and Mortenson exemplify a singular notion of “expert”. We can build, based on the profiles of other specimens – Robert D Kaplan, Fareed Zakaria, Robert Kagan – a picture of what the ideal type looks like from the official point of view. Such an “expert” is usually one who has not studied the region, and especially not in any academic capacity. As a result, they do not possess any significant knowledge of its languages, histories or cultures. They are often vetted by the market, having produced a bestselling book or secured a job as a journalist with a major newspaper. They are not necessarily tied to the “official” narratives or understandings, and can even be portrayed as being “a critic” of the official policy. In other words, this profile fits one who doesn’t know enough.

At the same time there are greater claims, and greater efforts, towards satellite cameras and listening devices; drones which can hover for days; databases which can track all good Taliban and all bad Taliban. Yet who can decipher this data? When one considers the rise of “experts” such as Stewart or Mortenson against the growth of digitised data which remains elusive and overwhelming, one is left with a rather stark observation – that the American war effort prefers its human knowledge circumspect or circumscribed and its technical knowledge crudely totalised.

Do read the whole thing and let me know here (I would be SERIOUSLY GRATEFUL for syllabus recs). Also the print version has nice pictures [pdf].

Also, I should note that this piece is a continuation of two earlier efforts at the National, and should be read as such:

  • September 3, 2010. Failures of Imagination: The cultural damage of the ‘war on terror’. The Review, The National UAE.
  • December 17, 2010. “Recall America’s Imperial Past: A Review of Robert D. Kaplan’s Monsoon“. The National UAE.
  • 21 Replies to “Experts”

    1. @jakob, I meant to look at 7 jahre in tibet but got sidetracked – you are absolutely right that it is a crucial text. will look at spinne as well. Thanks!

    2. … on the ‘walking experts’ (and since you are with thesiger now), newby of course but heinrich harrer ‘7 jahre in tibet’. He shaped the way the way tibet (and all it’s political/historical mess) is is seen in the german speaking world. and today (apart from his nazi affiliations) receives little criticism for that. his better book is ‘die weisse spinne’, on the eiger nordwand.

    3. Wonderful! I will certainly try to make a pilgrimage to the Bust. I tried to talk the StaaBi folks into doing an exhibit on his collection but they mostly just stared at me. Oh well. If you do make a visit to Berlin, do look me up.

    4. wow. i plan to get to him since some years in detail, he is from my village in Tirol/Austria and like me has close ties to Lahore. He never returned to his home village and to this day there is still regarded an outlaw (strictly roman catholic farmers village – well, he is far too bhains for them if you will, although we are mainly bakra famers). nevertheless, there is a memorial bust placed just in front of the church, the only arabic inscripture we have in tirol.

    5. The breathtaking insouciance of jejune publicists who speak in the name of foreign policy and who have no live notion (or any knowledge at all) of the language of what real people actually speak has fabricated an arid landscape ready for American power to construct there an ersatz model of free market “democracy,” without even a trace of doubt that such projects don’t exist outside of Swift’s Academy of Lagado.

      EWS’s 2003 preface to Orientalism.

      In case your students are German readers, Ilija Trojanow’s book on Burton (Der Weltensammler) is good, maybe his India books as well. In a bit a different direction, this guy’s works all lie Unter den Linden … : http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aloys_Sprenger .

    6. I think this is a fascinating subject and would love to see the syllabus, in the future, once it’s taken shape. I tend to think, however, that it’s not really incompetence or a lack of expertise, and I seriously doubt the extent to which someone Greg Mortenson affects critical policy issues (“diplomatic” or military). I don’t think it’s surprising, either, that these celebrities (authors, do-goodniks and politicians alike) lack area expertise. The “real” experts are there, even commissioned to provide information, but are usually silenced or ignored. On that note, this episode, particularly the first act, is worth a listen (and could perhaps qualify for inclusion in your course, if you want to go multimedia): http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/333/the-center-for-lessons-learned

      (On the other hand, here’s “citizen diplomacy”: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/337/man-vs-history/)

      Lastly, you might want to explore something with which you and other CM readers are no doubt familiar — that is, the so-called Human Terrain Systems program. I would say this is something of a catch-22. As academics, we believe in what might be called editorial independence, but we also want the government and military to be well-informed and sensitive to the local cultures in which they work. At the same time, we typically oppose the very efforts which could benefit from specialized help. Anyway, this might be something worth investigating, along with programs like Boren, which provide funding to young scholars (usually master’s students, I believe) in national security with the expectation that they’ll wind up in public service. This all seems like an interesting update of Orientalism, though I’m sure there are vast differences.

    7. Thank you so much for writing the article in The National. As a graduate of an area studies program (Harvard – Asia) I was completely mesmerized. At a reunion last year, there were a few retired professors talking about the McCarthy era, and its aftermath, and about the efforts to make area studies less of a second class citizen compared to other disciplines in the academic world. Your piece really brings up all sorts of fascinating issues.

    8. I’m still thinking about this. Thought about it all throughout my afternoon Fusswanderung. Anyways: the photo exhibit, at one point, mentioned in passing that the act of taking photographs of people and artefacts was an act of “taking possession.” That characterization has stayed with me all day: acts of ethnography as acts of empire. Hadn’t thought of it that way before. Point 2: Oppenheim wasn’t the only guy doing this stuff. One of my absolute favorites is Heinrich Schliemann, plunderer of Troy. Ok, I’m done now. Really.

    9. This is a great piece. I think one additional factor that could help explain the particularities of how the US has produced (or failed to produce) expert knowledge about the world lies in the emergence of a modern national-security state unlike what, for example, the British had in the 19th century.

      The national-security state spurred a concomitant rise of regimes of secrecy that fetishize documents marked “secret” and require an elaborate bureaucracy of vetting and background checks to control access to them. There are several million people in the US who hold a security clearance permitting access to some form of classified information, each of whom had to undergo a background investigation in order to obtain a personalized privilege that can travel with an individual as they switch jobs, even as they leave government and become contractors.

      My guess is that the requirements of this secrecy apparatus — driven in large part by paranoia from Great Power competition and fears of espionage — would undermine the cultivation of ‘expert’ cultural knowledge inside the state. In these background checks, “foreign” ties are regarded with suspicion in ways that would probably have made much less sense in 19th century imperial or settler-colonial contexts. Foreign travel or having immediate family from other parts of the world are regarded as potential sources of influence and contagion that must be accounted for and can result in months or years of delay, or denial of clearances altogether. So yes, the US govt laments its lack of people with “cultural knowledge,” but due to its vetting system it really helps if you happen to be white and have never spent time outside the US. The available labor pool shrinks accordingly and reliance on outside sources such as think tanks grows. Empirically, this is probably why certain white American expatriate communities — especially missionaries — end up providing much of the expert labor for the US foreign policy apparatus. Missionaries have the exposure that gives them the requisite cultural skills but their ideological loyalty is seen as more secure.

      Syllabus recos: Priya Satia’s “Spies in Arabia”

    10. There’s a small literature on Japan and China experts in the US depts of State and Defense during/after WW2…. Robert Newman’s “Owen Lattimore and the ‘loss’ of China” is the only title coming to mind…. oh, and Tuchman’s book on Stilwell.

    11. I’ve now seen both of the Oppenheim/Tell Halaf exhibits in Berlin, and per your syllabus request, aspects of the photography exhibit struck me, especially the claim that Wilhelm II considered Oppenheim an “Orientexpert.” I gather the basis for Oppenheim’s expertise was that he wandered about the near east plundering archaeological sites, photographing Bedouins, and dressing up like one. (Apparently he was also in the intelligence service, and helped plot some sort of rebellion against the British in India during WWI? I don’t know much about that.) The photographs themselves are about categorizing people, forming a “database” of sorts for “arabische Typen.” It’s seriously interesting stuff, and there might be space on your syllabus for some examination of these German diplomat/collectors, especially since you’re right here in Berlin with all these resources.

    12. Given his academic credentials and linguistic baggage, do you really think it’s fair to put Fareed Zakaria in the same basket as Friedman and Stewart?

      Also, I’m sure you’ve already thought of it, but Tim Mitchell’s Rule of Experts might be helpful in such a class, especially the stuff on inventing the Egyptian peasant.

    13. This isn’t precisely what you’re asking for, but I was inspired by the example you give of the BAE. DC’s inability (or was it lazy disinterest?) to figure out what to do about the remaining Native-Americans in the West (as well as the “californios”) has been a persistent feature of their policy for well over a century. The inspiring qualitative gesture of the establishment of the BAE is followed within 10 years by the Dawes Act, a sort of nuclear option to try and bring the locals into the fold as Americans. When that *still* didn’t help, in 1924 the US just gave them blanket citizenship.

      Step 1: try to understand them anthropologically (?)
      Step 2: turn them into capitalists
      Step 3: turn them into citizens

      Fail after fail after fail. So if your class circles around American examples, you could do well to expand the brief description you give in the National piece. There are also extra-political examples, like the sentimental call to arms that is the novel “Ramona” (great fun, but terribly long).

      BTW (and FWIW), I’m working on my chapter on “For Whom the Bell Tolls” now, a novel that is, among other things, about an “expert” in the sense that you mean. Robert Jordan’s professed expertise on Spain (language and customs)–he’s a prof at Montana!–becomes, I’m starting to think, just an endless black joke Hemingway makes at his protagonist’s expense.

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