You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Confessions of an Epistemological Skeptic

I’m struck by how quickly some of my fellow Entanglers have brought up the mother of all epistemological quandaries: How can we, the not very well informed, know what is the case in a far-off land of which we know, well, not very much?

The difficulty in knowing what is true on the ground in Afghanistan, for example, is massive. And the reason is not that “the liberal media” blight the national climate with pessimism because they’re of a wimpish or Qaeda-loving disposition. Nor is it that “the establishment media” are covering up Afghan anti-Americanism stemming from drone attacks that kill civilians. Rather, first, it’s because the journalists on whom we rely—if we are interested in relying on them at all—are few, far between, and not so well equipped in the several languages that are spoken there; second, because access is hard and all searchlights are partial; and third, moreover, because terms like “winning” and “losing” trip off the tongue more easily than they can be justified.

What Walter Lippmann famously wrote was the mission of journalism—“to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act”—seems a glorious fantasy even in those balmy times when news organizations weren’t trimming budgets by shutting bureaus and decimating newsrooms. Reporters, thin on the ground to begin with, may well have good reason for disagreement about which are the important “hidden facts” or how “to set them into relation with each other.” For a democracy to fancy that it is making life-and-death decisions on the basis of certain knowledge derived from the public press is delusional chutzpah on stilts. Even if Americans were paying more attention to Afghanistan in the first place, their “picture of reality” would likely remain blurred.

A good reason to remain skeptical is that, even if one pays attention, there is a dimension of Afghan (or any other) reality that does not meet the eye. Afghanistan exists not only in space but in time. History happens. When reporters are plunged into a land that is nearby but of which they still know little history, their accounts of the bang-bang, however thoroughly they are embedded in American units, do not illuminate much. Thus, it was not helpful when many reporters in Vietnam seemed to know little of the history of the country whose “democracy,” they had been led to believe, was crucial to the permanent uprightness of dominoes. The Shah’s Iran was not crawling with American reporters who knew how and by whom he had been installed in 1953 and why American intentions were still regarded with suspicion in 1979. Whatever Walter Cronkite’s exemplary skepticism about post-Tet Vietnam, his closure of the CBS Evening News with a nightly count of the number of days Americans were being held hostage in Teheran was not awfully instructive. He was not alone, moreover, in network television’s knife-edge approach to history: The original name of ABC’s “Nightline” was “America Held Hostage.”

These reflections are stirred to mind by a New York Times piece last Sunday, June 27, wherein the exceptional war correspondent Dexter Filkins broke the usual mold of unrepentant present-mindedness under the headline “Overture to Taliban Jolts Afghan Minorities.” Filkins wrote (and the italicized emphasis is mine): 

The drive by President Hamid Karzai to strike a deal with Taliban leaders and their Pakistani backers is causing deep unease in Afghanistan’s minority communities, who fought the Taliban the longest and suffered the most during their rule.
The leaders of the country’s Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara communities, which make up close to half of Afghanistan’s population, are vowing to resist—and if necessary, fight—any deal that involves bringing members of the Taliban insurgency into a power-sharing arrangement with the government.
Alienated by discussions between President Karzai and the Pakistani military and intelligence officials, minority leaders are taking their first steps toward organizing against what they fear is Mr. Karzai’s long-held desire to restore the dominance of ethnic Pashtuns, who ruled the country for generations.
The dispute is breaking along lines nearly identical to those that formed during the final years of the Afghan civil war, which began after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989 and ended only with the American invasion following the Sept. 11 attacks. More than 100,000 Afghans died, mostly civilians; the Taliban, during their five-year reign in the capital, Kabul, carried out several large-scale massacres of Hazara civilians.
“Karzai is giving Afghanistan back to the Taliban, and he is opening up the old schisms,” said Rehman Oghly, an Uzbek member of Parliament and once a member of an anti-Taliban militia. “If he wants to bring in the Taliban, and they begin to use force, then we will go back to civil war and Afghanistan will be split.”
The deepening estrangement of Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun communities presents a paradox for the Americans and their NATO partners. American commanders have concluded that only a political settlement can end the war. But in helping Mr. Karzai to make a deal, they risk reigniting Afghanistan’s ethnic strife. …
The leaders of these minority communities say that President Karzai appears determined to hand Taliban leaders a share of power—and Pakistan a large degree of influence inside the country. The Americans, desperate to end their involvement here, are helping Mr. Karzai along and shunning the Afghan opposition, they say. … There are growing indications of ethnic fissures inside the army.

Now, I do not pretend to know any more about Afghan ethnicities than Filkins reports. What I do know is that this report stands out. When he observes the scene, he brings history to bear. His Afghanis were not born yesterday, and neither was he. The patterns he discerns matter—more, I daresay, than the latest Pentagon theories. I do not know what Filkins thinks the U.S. ought to do about Afghanistan. I do know that his approach complicates any kneejerk sentiments about the stability of the country under President Karzai. And that reporters who know something of the country’s history and tell their readers about it are rare.

I don’t want to pretend that any bird’s-eye view of Afghanistan—or its prospects, whatever the United States does—exists for the asking. If for no other reason than the paucity of foreign correspondents filing from there, it’s no wonder that, even if Americans were following the news closely, they would—and are entitled to—feel bewildered about what to think is going on there. So there is more than sufficient reason why an ABC News/Washington Post poll of June 3-6 showed 42 percent thinking that the U.S. was “winning,” as against 39 percent thinking that the U.S. was “losing,” while three weeks later, on June 23-24, a poll conducted for Newsweek by Princeton Survey Research Associates International found 26 percent thinking that the U.S. was “winning” and 46 percent thinking that it was “losing.” (In both cases, the pollsters pitched the side fighting the Taliban as entirely American, but let’s leave that problem aside.)

Under the best circumstances, it would be hard to make sense of a country so utterly alien from this one. But it would help control our quick fix-it mentality if we could count on a journalism that wasn’t born yesterday.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph. D. program in Communications at Columbia. His next book, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election(written with Liel Leibovitz), will be out in September.