Saturday, January 01, 2005

If only I ever read any novels...

The problem with bourgeois societies is a lack of imagination. A person raised in a middle or upper-middle class suburban environment, a place ruled by rationalism in the service of material progress, has difficulty imagining the psychological state of affairs in a society where there is little or no memory of hard work achieving its just reward, and where life inside a gang or a drafty army barracks constitutes an improvement in material and emotional security. Even to encounter first-hand such a society - whose instincts have yet to be refined by several generations of middle class existence - is not enough in the way of an education, since the visitor tends to see it as a laboratory for his or her middle class ideals, and thus immediately begins to find "evidence" for "pragmatic" solutions.

The problem is further compounded by the separation of literature from history and of both from political science in this age of academic specialization, creating policymakers ignorant of the very books that explain places like Haiti and Somalia far better than any social science "methodology." While the usefulness of history is accepted and needs no elaboration, the usefulness of literature is less so among the policy elite, even as Marco Diani, a senior researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, writes that, "The anguish of any society can be found in its literature, often earlier and more clearly revealed than in its social sciences."(1) That is because the future lies inside the silences, inside the very uncomfortably sensitive issues that people are afraid to discuss at dinner parties for fear of what others might think of them. And yet it is a principle function of social science to accumulate information precisely on what people are not afraid to talk about in front of a researcher's tape recorder (which is also why conventional journalism is often the most deceptive form of reporting on a society).

Who could stand back and analyse how we understand other societies like Robert Kaplan can? Where else would something like this appear than the National Interest, the intellectual home of foreign policy realism in America? The pronounced right-wing slant makes it different from Foreign Affairs or Foreign Policy and the quality of the articles can be uneven, but at its best, this quarterly journal produces some of the sharpest debate available in its field and a cockpit for the contending visions of nationalists, cosmopolitans, neoconservatives and realists.

Its archives, along with those of the New Statesman and other magazines, are available free through