A Rant on Orientalism & Western “Experts”

I’ve recently had a debate with… let’s call him Marcus Stein, about whether you have to be proficient in a relevant language to hold really deep and insightful views about a region, culture or civilization, or whether, to put it in Averkoese, “translation, acquired knowledge (of the subject matters), good contacts (to interact with) and a good intuition (on the involved topics) are factors which successfully refute the above claim”. What do you think?

AK Edit: All old polls are gone because of this.

For what my opinion is worth (which is probably very little – hey, this post is a rant), I think it’s ridiculous to label anyone not fluent in his or her region’s language an expert. Can a neocon blowhard in the WSJ, who never studied Arabic or even read the Koran, whose only area of real expertise are the catechisms of American political science, really be considered an expert on the Middle East? Or is he just a risible Orientalist whose only area of expertise is the WESTERN CHAUVINIST view of the Muslim Other?

But what if said neocon politruk respected scholar is really, really knowledgeable on the estimable Western scholarship on his region? OK, let’s inverse the situation. Can an Islamist, fluent in Arabic and Farsi – and BTW, that’s better than our neocon who only knows English! – who has diligently studied the writings of Sayyid Qutb, Khomeini or bin Laden on the nature of America, be considered an expert on it? After all, through Islamist eyes, the US is a depraved beast that occupies the Muslim lands, aids the Israeli crusader state and supports corrupt, anti-Muslim elites in return for their petro-dollars. (I think this comparison is apt, because both neocons and Islamists constitute the nuttier elements of their respective societies).

The same applies to Western “experts” on other regions, such as China and Russia. I’ve written lots and lots on Western views of Muscovy, and will not rehash them at length: suffice to say, 90% of Western “expert” commentary on it, most of it from folks who don’t know Russian, can be dispelled by a quick trawl through a broad range of Russian newspapers and opinion polls that are readily available just a few minutes and mouseclicks away (and Google Translate, if necessary, in our technocommunist times – h/t @catfitz!).

I strongly suspect a similar situation exists in relation to China. I’ve become fairly interested in it China in the past few months, and having trolled through blogs like China Smack and China Hush, I was struck by the contrast between the rich diversity of life (and virtual life) in 中国, and the monolithic / Manichean interpretations of the Chicoms in the US media. Especially China Smack, which only translates Chinese netizen reactions – and this is a fair cross-section of Chinese society, since 28% of them are now online – to topics such as How Guns Are Sold In American Wal-Marts and Strip Shows In Rural Villages… It shows just how varied, cynical, patriotastic, critical, moralistic, trollish, etc Chinese netizens are, despite the тьмы, и тьмы, и тьмы of cyber-censoring “armies” that they are (purported) to have.

Now if it’s possible to find out that much – and that is much more than any two-bit unilingual neocon blowhard on the WSJ editorials page can manage – then imagine the sheer chasm between them and those who go further beyond the catechism. For the very metaphysical coordinates of a civilization’s worldview are organically formed and defined by its language; as a Russian (self-loathing) Westerner, I can attest to that. For the unilingual cultural “expert” is the most delusional of all people: Marcus Stein actually thinks he understands, without understanding. He lives in a Matrix and thinks he’s free. At least those who study foreign cultures and care to learn their language realize that that there are multiple Matrices, and can choose which one they are a slave to…

That’s the end of the rant. If you enjoyed it, great. If you want to nitpick or bitch about you, I plead insanity now, so don’t bother.


  1. All true. Steyn’s goal isn’t understanding, however, but selling books. In this, understanding and pandering to Western prejudiced views of the Other are infinitely more important than any actual knowledge of said Other.

    • Which brings us to another interesting question – do guys like Steyn, Bret Stephens, Fred Hiatt, etc, actually realize that they are fantasists? Or are they doped-up slaves unaware of the Kool Aid they’re imbibing by the barrel? Or is Adomanis correct in thinking that they might have worn their mask long enough to forget what’s underneath it?

  2. Scowspi says:

    While agreeing with the substance of the rant, I believe you failed to point out one important factor: cynicism.

    The purpose of these various “regional experts” isn’t to be actual experts. It’s to sell a policy, promote themselves (or their clique), climb the greasy pole, grab the resources, etc. Having a few contacts in the world of think-tankery, I can testify that many of them know this and, in unguarded moments, are quite open about it.

  3. I think that the neocon world view, which, by the way, disgusts me, results more from ethnic and political biases than from ignorance. I mean, sure, most of them are ignorant of the details, but if tomorrow they could magically learn all the languages and cultures of all the countries they write about, they’d still be hostile to those cultures and countries. The hatred works on a simple, tribalist level and all their writings are just justifications for it. If they knew Arabic, Farsi, Russian, Chinese, etc., then maybe their justifications would become a little more sophisticated than they are now. But they’d still be trying to justify aggression or hostility against those countries. When all is said and done, I don’t think it matters much how anyone justifies anything. In politics people choose sides intuitively more often than through reasoned arguments anyway.

    And since humans are tribal by nature, two people who possess perfect information and understanding about a topic can still easily have opposite views on it. This wouldn’t work for a topic like mathematics, but it certainly works in politics.

    “This is mine”. “No, it’s mine”. “No, mine”. Or “no, YOU should go to hell.” I think politics is mostly about simple things like that and most of the talk about freedom, democracy, social justice, etc. on all sides constitutes fig leaves for what’s really happening. More info would simply lead to a newer, more complicated fig leaf arrangement.

  4. I voted for the “perhaps”. A lot of this comes down to what your definition of “cultural expert” happens to be. Could one be an expert on the Russian political system without knowing Russian? I think it is possible, if the person was extremely well read on the subject, had an acute knowledge of the system’s history and all the players, major and minor, and had a wide range of English speaking contacts to mine. It would be difficult to do without knowing Russian, but I think it could be done.

    Now, becoming an expert on the Brazilian political system strikes me as much, much more difficult task for the average English-only analyst. The reason is simple: English language resources on Brazilian politics are near non-existent. It is for the same reason I think your average Japanese China-hand has any easier time of it than your average American China-hand. The amount of Chinese material monolingual Japanese have available to them is larger than the amount of material monolingual English speakers have at their disposal. It is thus a lot easier for the Japanese guy to get away with not learning Chinese.

  5. You can definitely gain a lot of knowledge by reading Western writings on a certain area. Not all knowledge generated by Westerners is garbage. So perhaps you can become an expert on an area by reading valuable Western works.

    But you will most likely never be able to compete with the producers of these works, unless you learn the language. So learning a language of the area, really serves as a gateway to becoming a respectable producer. I’m currently thinking of doing lessons in Ukrainian, since I understand the language to an extent and rely heavily on Russian language sources.

  6. inertial says:

    What an amazing argument. Let’s turn it around a bit.

    Do Chechen jihadists present a threat? According to you, only those who speak Chechen can tell that. So unless you do you are disqualified from commenting on that.

    And how about #4 in your “Related posts”? Do you speak Georgian? No? Then you are disqualified from talking about Georgian elections or anything else related to Georgia.

    Argue with neocons on the merits of their case. Telling them that they can’t have opinion on X because they don’t know the X language is not only stupid, it applies to you as well.

    (And “monolithic / Manichean interpretations of the Chicoms in the US media.” What planet are you from? On my planet, US media has people like for instance Tom Friedman, who has a huge China-envy. And there are many others like him.

  7. georgesdelatour says:


    I can’t resist playing devil’s advocate with you on this one. Please note, I’m not arguing in favour of ignorance. But there can be occasions where detailed expert knowledge gets in the way of seeing the obvious.

    I remember the closing stages of the Cold War, where a whole range of western “Kremlinologists” would be on TV expressing their opinions after each state funeral (Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko etc). I couldn’t help notice that experts who had devoted a large part of their lives to reading the complete works of Lenin in Russian always thought Marxist theology was absolutely central in determining the actions of the Soviet leadership. And I didn’t think it was, not by the 1980s! No one wants to admit that all that studying gives them no greater insight than someone who’s read Machiavelli’s “The Prince” in a bad English translation. Experts have an inbuilt prejudice to overstate the importance of the particular expertise they have.

    I don’t know if you saw a recent BBC documentary about the massive influence the Beatles had on the culture of the USSR – there’s a cut down audio version here (http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/documentaries/2009/02/090204_beatles_ussr.shtml). It may be that Lennon had a greater influence on the postwar USSR than Lenin did!

    It may be worth studying the Qu’ran in 7th century Arabic for all kinds of reasons. But, again, I could imagine that experts who know every tiny detail of Islamic theology might get Iran completely wrong, precisely because they overstate this factor.

    • You’re correct, of course, in that excessive attention to specialized knowledge (at the expense of general knowledge) leads down blind alleys. Including understanding Iran, of course: its own relations with Arabs and even Islam is complex, and one would, arguably, be better served by experience in Farsi (Turkish wouldn’t hurt either) and factional politics than by reading the “Qu’ran in 7th century Arabic”. (That said I know nothing about any of this, so my opinion is quite useless).

      That said, today’s political scientists (and to an extent all social scientists) are converging in on the worst of all worlds, IMO. Not only are they lacking in detailed cultural and linguistic knowledge, they are also becoming increasingly specialized in their own fields of study, which are becoming divorced from real life and transforming into arcane dogmas. Two excellent examples: mainstream economists; Kremlinologists.

    • Bill Everett says:

      Actually, I think Vysotsky had a much greater influence than Lennon and the Beatles did.

  8. Yalensis says:

    I voted “perhaps”, but only because I am a pointy-headed pseudo-intellectual with useless academic degrees in Linguistics and Russian Literature.
    Speaking as a former linguistics student: Noam Chomsky has shown that human language of whatever flavor is basically innate (genetically speaking, and related to a particular chromosome called FoxP2 on our DNA), hence all languages and dialects have similar features and underlying them all is an innate grammar (who is doing what to whom…) From this it follows that any concept that can be expressed in any language could be expressed in any other language (maybe not as elegantly…)
    Furthermore, I recommend the works of American scholar John McWhorter, who writes very good popular books explaining linguistics to the layperson. For example, in “Our magnificent bastard tongue: The Untold History of English”, chapter 4 (“Does our grammar channel our thought?”), McWhorter discusses, and dismisses, the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis whcih claims that “language shapes culture”, and “language shapes thoughts”.
    On the other hand… Of course you are not going to be able to understand a foreign culture and politics if you are unable to read the basic source documents …. duh!

    • “Noam Chomsky has shown that human language of whatever flavor is basically innate…”

      People have always known that the human capacity for language is innate. This is why no one has ever thought of attributing parrots’ inability to go beyond mimicry of human language to a cultural peculiarity. It is incredibly arrogant for Chomsky to continue to claim to have “discovered” the innate nature of language. He has a unique talent for self-promotion and for not much else. I’m sure that if I started going around claiming to have discovered the color red, no one would take me seriously, and yet that claim would be about as factual as Chomsky’s. For a flavor of what typical linguists think of Chomsky, you could read this:


      “…hence all languages and dialects have similar features and underlying them all is an innate grammar (who is doing what to whom…) From this it follows that any concept that can be expressed in any language could be expressed in any other language (maybe not as elegantly…)”

      This would be news to Dan Everett, who has spent many years studying a language (Piraha) that doesn’t have any words for numbers beyond “small quantity” and “large quantity”, no recursion, no kinship terms for relationships more distant than that of siblings, no dedicated words for colors, etc., etc.


      While Piraha is rather extreme, lots of other languages spoken by current or recent hunter-gatherers in Australia, the Amazon, Africa, etc. show similar features. For example, the lack of any words for numbers is not unique to Piraha.

      You’re right to bash Sapir-Whorf though. I think that language is a reflection of the mind, not the other way around. If the Piraha knew Portuguese, they probably wouldn’t be able to use its number system anyway. In the anti-Sapir view, the lack of numbers in their language reflects a biologically-determined cognitive limitation. Mr. Everett has written about unsuccessfully trying to teach the Piraha to count. This implies that he tried to introduce Portuguese or English numbers to them, but that he has failed at this.

      Is there anything untranslatable between modern, highly developed languages, languages of high culture? Well, sometimes in order to translate a joke or a cultural reference from one of those into another, you have to talk so much and explain so many implied things that by the time you finish, any humor is long lost.

      The same goes for poetry. Within Russia Pushkin is considered far, far and away the greatest Russian writer who’s ever lived. However, if a foreigner happens to read any Russian authors, they’re far more likely to be Tolstoy, Chekhov or Dostoevsky. This is because Pushkin mostly wrote poetry, which is notoriously difficult to translate, while the others wrote fiction. Charles Murray’s book “Human Accomplishment” puts Pushkin behind many other Russian writers in the big list of prominent Western authors. This is unimaginable to native Russian speakers, but Murray deliberately excluded native sources to keep down nationalistic bias (no French sources were allowed to weigh in on the importance of Victor Hugo, etc.) Anyway, what the Pushkin example shows here is that most of the magical stuff that fills his poetry has failed to make it into translations. Even though dozens of very smart people (up to and including Nabokov) have spent who-knows-how-many man-years toiling away at the task of translating Pushkin’s poetry into other languages, they seem to have failed at it. Foreigners who are interested in Russian literature still hold Pushkin below other Russian authors, and this still seems bizarre to Russians themselves.

      So yes, even among big-time languages some things simply don’t translate very well.