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.