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The Writing on the Wall

by M. G. PIETY

“Why Didn’t the U.S. Foresee the Arab Revolts?” was the title of an article in Friday’s New York Times. Six scholars, academics, political appointees and think tankers debate the issue in The Times online. They all appear to believe it is very complicated.

Jennifer E. Sims, a professor and director of intelligence studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, thinks the problem is our over reliance on foreign assistance.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer, thinks it’s that we were captured by “group think.”

Vicki Divoll, a professor of U.S. government and constitutional development at the United States Naval Academy, the former general counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and assistant general counsel to the C.I.A., thinks the president is at fault for failing to allocate sufficient resources to the CIA. But then, on the other hand, she says “no amount of resources can predict the unknowable. Sometimes no one is to blame.”

Richard K. Betts, the Arnold A. Saltzman Professor of War and Peace Studies, director of the International Security Policy program at Columbia University and the author of Enemies of Intelligence: Knowledge and Power in American National Security, thinks the problem is that “it is impossible to know exactly what will catalyze a chain of events producing change.”

Celeste Ward Gventer associate director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, thinks the problem is that we’re too preoccupied with “foreign policy minutiae.”

Peter Bergen, the director of the national security studies program at the New America Foundation and is the author of “The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda,” thinks the explanation is as simple as that revolutions are unpredictable.

There is probably some small grain of truth in each of these rationalizations. I’m only a professor of philosophy, not a professor of political science, let alone a former governmental bureaucrat, political appointee, or think-tank fat cat. It seems pretty clear to me, however, that despite all the theories offered above, the real reason we didn’t see the revolts coming was good old-fashioned stupidity. That’s our strong suit in the U.S.–stupidity. We’re the most fiercely anti-intellectual of all the economically developed nations, and proud of it! We go on gut feelings. Oh yes, our elected officials even proudly proclaim this. We don’t think too much, and on those few occasions when we do, we’re really bad at it for lack of practice.

One of the things I like most about Americans is that they are one of the least nationalistic peoples in the world. Oh yeah, they trot out the flag on the fourth of July and for the Super Bowl, but that’s about it. A few crazy fascists brandish it throughout the year, but most people, except for a brief period after September 11th, pay no attention to them. Danes, in contrast, about whom I know a little because I lived there for eight years, plaster Danish flags all over everything. Stores put them in their windows when they have sales, they are standard decorations for almost every holiday and a must, in their small toothpick versions, for birthday cakes. This isn’t because they suffer from some sort of aesthetic deficiency that compels them to turn to this national symbol for want of any better idea of how to create a festive atmosphere. No, Danes throw Danish flags all over everything because they are incredibly nationalistic, as is about every other European and almost everyone else in the rest of the world who’s had to fight off the encroachment of foreign powers onto their national sovereignty. We’ve seldom, OK, really never, had to do that. Still, if we, you know, seriously studied European history, we would have something of an appreciation for how basic is nationalism to the psyches of most people in the world and we could use this as our point of departure for understanding the dynamics of international relations, as well as for appreciating the obstacles to our understanding of the internal dynamics of other countries.

Years ago, when I had just returned to the U.S. after having spent the previous eight years living in Denmark, I accompanied one of my former professors to a Phi Beta Kappa dinner in Philadelphia (he was the member, not I). The speaker that evening, was the former editor of the one-time illustrious Philadelphia Inquirer. His talk, apart from one offhand comment, was eminently forgettable. That one comment, however, left an indelible impression on me. This editor, whom I think was Robert Rosenthal, mentioned, at one point, that he did not think it was important for foreign correspondents to know the language of the country from which they were reporting because, as he explained, “you can always find someone who speaks English.”

How do you begin to challenge a statement of such colossal stupidity? It’s true, of course, that you can always, or at least nearly always, find a person who speaks English. I don’t mean to suggest that that’s not true. The problem is, if you don’t know the indigenous language, to use an expression from anthropology, then you really have no idea whether you are being told the whole story. And the thing is, if you ever do become fluent in a second language, and more or less assimilated into a culture into which you were not born, you will know that foreigners are never given the whole story. This was clear to me as a result of my having lived in Denmark, Denmark, a country with which we are on friendly terms, a country that in many ways is strikingly similar to the U.S. How much clearer ought it to be with respect to countries with which we are not on friendly terms, countries we know are either deeply ambivalent about us or outright hate us?

You will always get a story in English, certainly, from a native about what is going on in some other country, but if you don’t know the language of the people, then you aren’t really in a position to assess whether the story might be biased. You might have some idea of the social class of the person who is your source, but how are you going to know what the people as a whole think of this class, or of this individual? How are you going to know whether this person has some sort of personal or political agenda, or whether he is simply attempting to whitewash was is going on out of national pride, or a fear of being perceived by foreigners as powerless, or provincial, or intolerant?

This seems a fairly straightforward point, yet it is one that nearly all Americans miss. We generalize from our own experience. We assume everyone is just like we are, or just like we are taught to be, which usually means that we assume pretty much everyone in the world is motivated primarily by the objective of personal, material enrichment. We don’t really understand things such as cultural pride or what is, for so much of the rest of the world, the fierce desire for self-determination, so we are pretty much always taken by surprise when such things seems to motivate people. That’s the real meaning of “American exceptionalism,” an expression that is used in an increasing number of disciplines from law, to political science, to history with varying shades of meaning in each. That is, the real meaning is that our difference from the rest of the world is that we are dumber. Yes, that’s right, we are the dumbest f#*@!ing people on the face of the earth and just now, when we need so desperately to understand what is going on in other parts of the world, we are reducing, and in some instances even completely eliminating, the foreign language programs in our schools and universities.

It’s no great mystery why we didn’t foresee the Arab revolts. The mystery is why we seem incapable of learning from either history or our own experience. It doesn’t help for the writing to be on the wall if you can’t read the language.

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at:


M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: 

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