Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Theory and knowledge 

Martin Kramer exposes the cheapness of academia in the attack by Juan Cole on the memory of Steven Vincent. Professor Cole, who of course "knows stuff" about Iraqi sensibilities by dint of his research in Middle Eastern studies, attacks Vincent for being a novice who "did not know anything serious about Middle Eastern culture and was aggressive about criticizing what he could see of it on the surface". Cole has never been to Iraq.

It's worth remembering from the interview NARN had with Vincent that he did not travel at the expense of some Muslim prince, as Cole will soon to Beirut. I have lived in foreign countries for months at a time, including one in Egypt and two in Indonesia. I would not dare to say I had serious knowledge of Islamic culture from those experiences -- I don't know nearly enough about Ukrainian culture after living there for a year. That's because I worked as an advisor, lived in either a secure apartment or a hotel room, and had enough money to simply keep away from any "serious" places when I did not want to be exposed to culture as it is. Cole's guests in Beirut, a country that has seen fit to remove its more fundamentalist masters from Syria, will control his movements. Even if they did not, his haughtiness would be the scales covering his eyes while he seeks confirmation of theories he developed in his armchair.

One of the lessons I learn in my work is that there is no substitute for local knowledge. The difficult part is how to acquire it, and how to fit it with one's hypotheses of how the world works. The world needs both the Steve Vincents and the Juan Coles. For one to assume that the other has nothing to offer, or that one cannot process local knowledge without a theory of, say, post-colonialism firmly rooted in one's mind, is nonsense. And taking pot shots at someone killed trying to gain that knowledge is much worse.

(h/t: Michael Totten guesting at Instapundit)