Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Hey, I was there. So what?

When the film "Saving Private Ryan" came out I discussed the possibility of going to see it. In the end I decided that half an hour of Omaha Beach was more than I could take. "Huh," - came the grumpy reply. - "Then there are two and a half hours of Tom Hanks." Well, that settled it. I have not seen the film but I do recall one or two interesting comments about it.

The more astute critics pointed out that the battle scenes at the beginning were not precisely "realistic" because no participant sees that much of a battle. In other words, if I should want tales told of what happened when people landed on Normandy beach and which houses they saw I would ask one of the participants (well, I should have done some time ago as not many of them are still around).

If, on the other hand, I want to know more about Omaha Beach or other landings, I would turn to a participant if I can be certain that he has not let the "I was there" mantra stand in his way of finding out more about what happened, how and why. But then, somebody who was not there is as likely to have found all that out and much more likely to have made sense of it because his understanding would not be clouded by that mantra.

There have been so many cases of people talking nonsense and trying to trump all arguments with those three words. Let me recall another incident. I went to a conference at which there were several talks about Northern Ireland. This was around the time of the Belfast Agreement. Many sessions were about the Agreement and what might come out of it.

One talk was given by a chap who had been in the army in Northern Ireland, then went on to the security services, then became disenchanted with the whole endeavour and spent a good deal of time criticizing those services. (I cannot recall his name but the story will stand for several. People with long memories will remember those recanters.)

This particular chap refused to acknowledge that there was any Soviet involvement in financing and arming the IRA or some section of it. First or all, he did not think the USSR was the "evil empire" and secondly he had not witnessed any arms from that source being supplied to the terrorists.

When people in the audience pointed out that several consignments of arms from Czechoslovakia had been intercepted he became peevish. "I was there and I saw nothing of the kind."

It is possible that we are talking about a particularly silly person here but I don't think so. There are three problems with the "I was there" meme.

The first is the obvious fact that the people who "were there" did not see much more beyond their own immediate surroundings. If it was a battle, the famous fog of war would have prevented all participants at whatever level from knowing exactly what was going on. If wherever it was they were, was a country, a political system or a society that was not immediately familiar, the chances of understanding what it is they saw are near to zero.

Not so long ago (but before the financial crisis hit us all but some of us more than others) I had a discussion with a very eminent economist, who shall remain nameless as one cannot tell who might be reading this blog. (Hey, one can dream.) We talked about China.

His point was that China was powering ahead, everyone could achieve what they wanted and go where they wanted to, including abroad. He wasn't saying that many people in China can go abroad to study and to work but that pretty well anyone who wanted to could do so. And no, he did not think there were any serious internal tensions in the country. He had been there and he could see none. Nor was he told about anything like that though he was allowed to travel anywhere he wanted to and talk to anyone he met.

I expressed some cautious scepticism, which was based on my reading of the news and some knowledge of the way Communist countries operate. For one thing, I doubted that he really could go anywhere he wanted since his trips had to be arranged by the authorities. For another, I wondered whether he really could have talked to anyone he wanted not being able to speak any form of Chinese. The people he talked to were either those very few who could speak English well enough to be able to express complex information or those chosen by his interpreter.

Which brings me to the second problem with the "I was there" meme. Though there is no particular reason why people who were there should not use that experience as part of a process of acquiring knowledge (and many do), there is all too often a resistance to being told something or anything about the place where you have been.

Once again, let me bring up another example, this time to prove that I am not completely arrogant and narrow-minded as some broad-minded and very liberal members of the forum have said. A few days ago I listened to a talk about recent developments in Indonesia. These are rather frightening and I shall blog about them very soon. After all, Indonesia must be one of the countries that the likes of Justin Webb are exhorting to "give America another chance". But I digress.

This time I am not going to tell who the speaker was because the meeting was conducted strictly under Chatham House rule (which means I can use the material). Suffice it to say that we were listening to a man who had studied Islam and Islamism in South-East Asia (as well as some other countries), spoke several of the languages and had followed developments in Indonesia very closely. Oh and he had also just come back from the country.

His talk, however, was about what he knew rather than what he had experienced when he "was there", so the interspersed tales of what happened to him and to people he knew were merely illustrations. "I was there" was not the main reason why people listened to him.

The third problem with the meme is that those who go there and stay there often see what they want to see and, even more often see what others want them to see. Let us not forget the role of the media in the Vietnam debacle, still not fully acknowledged. That, of course, leads us to the perennial problem of understanding the role of the media and its peculiar agenda, topic for another posting.

However, it is worth recalling yet again the descriptions people "who were there" gave of various Communist countries, starting with the Soviet Union, continuing with China, North Vietnam, Cuba and assorted others. The best known of those "who were there" was the Pulitzer Prize winner journalist, Walter Duranty. (S. J. Taylor wrote and excellent biography, entitled "Stalin's Apologist".) He lied, probably quite deliberately for reasons of his own, about the Soviet Collectivization, the show trials and the purges.

When challenged, he responded with those famous words: "I was there. I know." Several determined journalists' careers were destroyed by Mr Duranty who had been there and, therefore, "knew". His Pulitzer Prize still stands.

He was not alone. Others lied deliberately for political and ideological reasons. Paul Robeson made it quite clear when he was in Moscow during the second big purge, in 1949, which was also gearing to be the second holocaust of the Jews on Soviet territory, that he knew what was going on. But he refused to speak about it on his return to the States. In fact, he denied that anything untoward was happening. He had been there and he "knew".

Owen Lattimore, an influential scholar went, together with US Vice-President and well-known Soviet sympathizer, Henry Wallace, on a trip organized by Lauchlin Currie, one of the heads of the Foreign Economic Administration and Soviet spy, to China and Mongolia.

Their stop-over in Siberia and inspection of the Kolyma concentration camp network has entered the myths of history, largely because of their description in National Geographic "as a combination of the Hudson's Bay Company and the TVA, remarking on how strong and well-fed the inmates were and ascribing to camp commandant Feliks Nikishov 'a trained and sensitive interest in art and music and also a deep sense of civic responsibility'".

Subsequently, Professor Lattimore defended himself by explaining that he could not really snoop on his hosts and, anyway, the camps could not have been that bad as some people did survive. By then he had become a supporter of Mao in China and wrote extensively in justification of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Who could argue with him? He had been there.

Was Professor Lattimore a knave or a fool? Which one was Vice-President Wallace? What of the numerous British and American journalists, politicians, important visitors, diplomats who wrote utter tosh about various Communist countries? Did they see what they wanted to see or were they simply content to let their hosts do the showing?

It really did not matter. They had been there and, unlike those who had left or fled from those countries, they could go back and report again the same old rubbish. They had to be believed.

Where do we go from here? Can one really not believe anybody who had been there? Obviously, that is nonsense, though I tend to ignore heavily financed, heavily guarded special war correspondents flown in by the BBC, CNN, what have you, to report back about a situation they encountered for the first time on landing at the airport.

It seems reasonable that one must discard "I was there" as an argument. "This is what I saw and experienced" can be of interest as long as it does not transcend into some kind of an irrefutable argument. But "I know because" has to be followed by such words as "I have read", "I have studied the language" or "I understand the system/society/technology". Without any of that, the answer to "I was there" is inevitably "So what?".