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The Problem is War, Not Twitter: Knowledge for Peace in a Populist Moment

Monday, February 13, 2017TOPICS: Faculty and StaffHuman Rights and Security

Ev Meade
begin quoteThe other culprit here, the internet’s silent partner in fostering a bunker mentality and demonizing expert knowledge about America’s role in the world is war – more precisely, the permanent state of war that has prevailed in the United States.

Everard Meade is Director of the Kroc School’s Trans-Border Institute.

In a recent Op-Ed in the Washington Post, Professor Tom Nichols of the Naval War College argues that many critics of the Trump Administration have overstated the purge of State Department officials, to the detriment of a wider policy critique. 

He’s right about the routine character of the resignations, executive orders, and many other preliminary gestures by President Trump that affect foreign policy – Presidents Bush and Obama presided over similar turnovers in political appointees, each passed a raft of sweeping executive orders, and each tried to cement new patriotic rituals to give permanence and global visibility to the movements that made them, all in the first days in office.  The substance of the policies should be the focus, not the fact that Trump took these actions.

Nichols is also probably right that an overreaction to the little things – every tweet, insult, or violation of protocol garnering indignant headlines and breathless outrage – actually feeds the beast, reinforcing the embattled, us-against-them persona that Trump tirelessly cultivated during his campaign.  

But this relentless and divisive political style is also qualitatively different than that of any president in living memory.  Neither Bush nor Obama pursued anything equivalent to the “build-that-wall” campaign, nor did they actively foment the racism and white rage on display at Trump rallies across the country, nor did they threaten to silence and/or fire hundreds of career public servants for dissenting on policy issues.  This style is substantive, and it merits a substantive critique.

Trump’s rhetorical assault on “experts” has accelerated a long-term decline in the value of un-biased, evidence-based knowledge and the structures that attempt to produce it, whether they are government agencies, newspapers, public media outlets, or universities.  Indeed, Nichols has a terrific book that chronicles the decline of expertise with the ascendance of the Internet.  Just as a slew of aggregators, porn sites, and identity thieves clogged up the open forums and clouded the idealism of the early Internet pioneers, Breitbart and company turned the participatory optimism of Joe Trippi and early online political organizers into an echo chamber for character assassination, fake news, and apocalyptic clannishness.     

Blaming the Internet alone, of course, would be about as precise and effective as Trump blaming the media.  The other culprit here, the Internet’s silent partner in fostering a bunker mentality and demonizing expert knowledge about America’s role in the world is war – more precisely, the permanent state of war that has prevailed in the United States since 2001. 

It might seem obvious or even silly to recite all of the various ways that war reinforces stereotypes and clannishness.  Perhaps technology, distance, and lower U.S. causalities have separated us enough from the daily realities of war that we’re more able or prone to abstraction about its broader significance than during previous conflicts.  But, can we really expect multi-culturalism to flourish when we are at war with a significant chunk of the world that at least on the surface appears to look, speak, and worship differently from most Americans?  Isn’t the reality of an ever-expanding war the real problem?  Hasn’t war been the foundational excuse for executive overreach since the founding of the Republic? 

I’m well aware of the distinctions between the various combatants and the brutal ironies involved in conflating erstwhile rivals into facile constructions such as “Islamic extremism.”  But, I’m not sure that making that distinction is a reasonable expectation for any wartime public, especially in the age of the meme and the tweet.  For every meticulous historical and cultural analysis adding complexity and context to the conflicts abroad, there are multiple raids, drone strikes, and bombings blasting through the cyber-sphere that feed confirmation bias the other way.  The historical examples are not encouraging, either.  After a review of U.S. war news from WWI, WWII, Korea, etc. it’s amazing that the ideal of multi-culturalism has survived the present war at all.   

A permanent state of war has also involved a shift in the people who conduct diplomacy and peacebuilding operations away from civilian experts at long-standing institutions and towards military officers and contractors at an ever-shifting alphabet soup of task forces and start-ups.  As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned in a series of exit interviews, the entire United States diplomatic corps would fit on one aircraft carrier.  

Former Pentagon official Rosa Brooks explores this phenomenon in-depth in her terrific new book How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.  The military does an amazing job, but it’s mission has also become increasingly diffuse, and policymakers turn to the military to do jobs traditionally done by other agencies more out of convenience and political cover than expertise or merit. 

For those of us engaged in Applied Peace Education, the message seems clear enough.  We need to continue to counter fake news and hysterical propaganda with informed analysis, but we also shouldn’t take our eyes off of the big picture.  The longer we are at war and the broader and more indeterminate that war is, the more difficult it will be to sustain any kind of peace and justice perspective here or anywhere else. 

At the most practical level, we need to teach the most important cautionary tales to the next generation. While they mimic the kind of rumor, gossip, and mob mentality that has empowered online trolls, most of them predate the internet. 

At the height of the McCarthy era, when the specter of nuclear war fueled a particular brand of American isolationism, the Eisenhower administration fired most of our best experts on China for being “soft on Communism.”  Led by John Paton Davies, the “China Hands” predicted that the Communist Revolution would succeed in China, and recommended that U.S. policymakers negotiate with Mao as a hedge against Soviet influence.  The core of their argument held that not all Communist regimes were alike, and that the nationalist character these movements was very strong, especially in places that were breaking free from colonial rule and/or military occupation during WWII.

They were right, of course, McCarthy was censured, and the movement died.  But, the foreign policy consequences of the purges were only just beginning to emerge in the 1950s.

Fast forward a decade, when the escalating crisis in Vietnam confronted the Kennedy Administration.  Kennedy and his team depended upon a stiff, risk-averse Asia Desk at the State Department that had been purged of its best area experts – people who knew local histories, languages, cultures, and politics.  Afraid they might be accused of being soft on Communism, they flattened the differences between Communist movements in Asia, ignored their nationalist character, and told three presidential administration what they thought they wanted to hear.  The result was the worst foreign policy disaster in U.S. history, the loss of millions of lives, and a refugee crisis of epic proportions. 

In the aftermath of the crisis, the State Department created various mechanisms to avoid the “stove-piping” of information – the idea that one only got promoted by providing good news or news favorable to the administration.  One of those mechanisms produced the complaint letter about President Trump’s recent travel ban, signed by more than 1,000 foreign service personnel (whom the president implicitly threatened to fire as a result).      

There are many other examples – think of the way the purge of homosexuals from government agencies in the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s exiled prominent scientists and hampered the space race, or how the prejudice against Americans with Middle-Eastern roots led to a dearth of Arabic-language interpreters at the FBI and a backlog of un-translated warnings on the eve of 9/11.

The lesson here is not that the experts should make policy or run the government – most PhDs couldn’t run a lemonade stand.  Academic training puts a premium on depth of knowledge, rather than the breadth of knowledge necessary to lead in most situations. 

But, you can’t be influential in the world without cultivating expertise about the world, and real expertise doesn’t fit into 142 characters nor does it always find an immediate market niche – the best expertise is often inconvenient.  The real value of expertise, of knowledge for peace, comes across not in petty squabbles with the demagogue of the moment, but in its undermining of war and all of the injustices that make it possible.   Let’s keep our eyes on the prize.    


Ev Meade
(619) 218-5946

Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies


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