Sunday, April 26, 2009

How to Be A Good Political Analyst and Not a Propagandist


The rise of Internet has brought new challenges both for writers and readers. Supposedly, a fine [sarcasm alert] publication like the New York Times or Guardian has sharp veteran reporters and great editors (“gatekeepers”). Thus, they filter out nonsense—well at least they once did long ago--and tell you what’s most important to know about events. If you are reading these words, however, you know the system isn’t working too well nowadays.

Enter the Internet. On the positive side, it liberates the creativity of thousands of people and provides a huge diversity of information. On the negative side, how do you know what’s more likely to be true, whether you are a reader or a blogger?

This is, by the way, the kind of thing they are supposed to teach you in graduate school: how to evaluate sources, how to provide a scholarly balance, how to make it clear when you’re unsure about something, how to throw out really good stuff that you doubt is accurate, and how not to say something is fact just because it agrees with your analysis or political preferences.

Alas, a lot of these skills or ethical principles have been tossed out the window and thrown under the bus. Large numbers of academics and journalists now believe there is no such thing as truth (or at least the most accurate possible representation of it possible) and that people should be told what’s good for them rather than what’s accurate.

For them, the purpose of universities is not to pursue truth and beauty but to “fight the man,” wage revolution, or bring in the new Politically Correct, culturally diverse, post-national utopia. Here’s a good example of a very bad example.

A propagandist is not someone who merely has a point of view but rather someone who slants the facts to fit it that point of view rather than taking account of them by either explaining how they fit into the picture or modifying one's viewpoint. In short, they try to make all aspects of reality line up like a magnetic field. Naturally, this kind of simple explanation suits many people.

One aspect of this is to define who are the "good guys" and the "bad guys" and then assume that all their actions fall into these categories. This reverses the logical process. For example, many assume Israel is a bad guy. Bad guys do bad things. Bad guys commit war crimes. Therefore, Israel commits war crimes. Evidence becomes irrelevant.

Obviously, this process can be the same if one identifies Iran as the bad guy. Yet that country and its regime must be analyzed, especially because there are many choices for the government to make. There are also different factions which differ in strategy and tactics. And even then, the choices available may be the exact opposites.

For example, given the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq what will Iran's regime do? It could: A. Try to keep things quiet in Iraq thus encouraging the United State sto speed up its withdrawal or B. Heat up the violence to "show" that the United States is running away in defeat.

Even more important is to look at the interests which underlay actions. For instance, can Syria be split away from Iran? No one is qualified to discuss this issue unless they first take into account the interests of the Syrian regime and the benefits it would derive from either maintaining or abandoning the alliance. I happen to believe that the benefits of keeping the alliance far outweigh the advantages of breaking it, and note that the former are virtually never discussed in analyses assuming that the latter is obviously preferable.

In evaluating sources of information one must consider:

--Their past performance, have they been accurate before or not? By this measure, the use of such sources as the world's three most inaccurate journalists--Robert Fisk, Akiva Eldar, and Seymour Hersh--make a story very questionable. The same applies to institutional sources, like Debka.

--Is the source in a position to know what is going on? I frequently see small Gulf newspapers or even recently a publication called China Confidential as privy to the inner workings of U.S. foreign policy when even well-connected people in Washington don't know such things.

--Is the story credible on the face ot it must also be asked, but that is never sufficient alone to make something believable.

--It doesn't matter if a story coincides precisely with what you believe or is just a wonderful anecdote, the question is whether you can really put your reputation behind its being true.

--Look at the primary source material. If you are writing about U.S. foreign policy, read what Obama and Clinton actually say, not the spin put on it by those who are ignorant or have a line they want to push.

--Don't forget that not everything, especially in the Middle East, is said in English. Arabic and other regional languages are all important. Often, what is said in English is for foreign consumption. A Hamas leader speaking to a Western audience is going to pretend to be moderate but will give the real line to his own constituency. In this regard, if in no other, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a breath of fresh air.

-- Don't take words out of context. Try honestly to understand what the intention of the person is in making a statement.

--Don't forget that there are real people in the Middle East and they might not think the way you do. Anyone who says, for example, that Ahmadinejad made a big mistake by going to Durban-2 and making a radical speech forgets about the reality of appealing to an Iranian, Muslim, and Arab audience, which is more important for him.

--Examine history. Is something really a change from past patterns?

Most important of all, two final things:

First, be self-critical and ready to change your views or analysis if you see they don't accurately reflect facts or events. If you're wrong, don't try to twist the realities. Change your position and be right.

And finally, really believe in your heart of hearts that if you lie or shade the truth it will do you and your cause no good.

As Polonius wisely told Hamlet: "This above all: to thine own self be true/nd it must follow, as the night the day/Thou canst not then be false to any man."

Don't tell people what they "should know for their own good" (I've heard people say that they cannot talk honestly about Iran or Islamism because "that would give Bush an excuse to..."), or what you want them to think in order to reach your preferred goal, or what fits with your preconceived ideology, or what you would like to have happen, or wish life was like....

But what you honestly believe--after careful and honest consideration--is the most accurate possible reflection of the real world.

Now if I can just convince the New York Times, Reuters, the Guardian, Independent, AP, Reuters, all those ideologues who have done so much harm to Western academia, and a few million people in the Middle East of these points, there's hope.

But at least I hope I can convince you.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.