Harold Wilson coined the phrase, ‘A week is a long time in politics’, so how about thirty years? Our world has changed a lot since 1989 and it’s getting stranger by the week. I sat down with Kenneth Cukier, Senior Editor of The Economist, to talk about the State of the Onion and the ‘Optics of Ignorance’.
Optics in politics, according to the Macmillan Dictionary is, ‘the way a situation is perceived by the general public; how an event, course of action, etc,. ‘looks’ to others’. For example, a question on the minds of many is how does the current situation in Hong Kong look to those outside? It’s a pertinent one, but more on that later. First let’s look at 2019 in general.
In my last article on China’s Catch-22 I touched on the legacy of Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 End of History article: ‘Thirty years on and the world has not become the liberal utopia Fukuyama predicted … it is now more akin to playdough in a child’s play area’. However, I am just one observer of many, so as part of our conversation I asked Cukier what he thought about Fukuyama’s legacy and the impact of 1989:
After 1989 There was a real belief that there was a trajectory, you shoot an arrow then it goes down, one of those classical laws that you don’t need to question. We found it didn’t work that way. We were short-sighted, we thought of the world in the white picket fence, shopping mall manner [and] we’re waking up late to the reality that it isn’t. We all mis-saw history.
I think that the Fukuyama-inspired middle-age foreign policy elites (myself included) would do a better job of looking at the world as it truly is rather than as we imagine it to be, because often we’ve been so wrong. Russia after 1989 and China after 2001 are just two examples of that. Political science therefore has to rethink how they interpret the world.
One of the key events of 1989 was the Tiananmen Square Massacre, an example of Chinese military intervention that protestors in Hong Kong are all too aware of. But could it happen again? Cukier doesn’t think so:
They [China] don’t want the optics of 1989, they don’t even like 1989, they see it as a regrettable necessity. I don’t think we really know the likelihood of Chinese [military] intervention but it wouldn’t be through tanks but through crowd control. The optics are just so bad that by the time you have to do it you would have to do it quickly and effectively.
So China won’t do it because the optics on the world stage would be awful, but they’re not only ones acting ignorantly. In the spirit of their upcoming Open Future event this week, an occasion that aims to bring all sides of the multiple political debates together, Cukier says the protestors need to answer for their actions as well:
They do themselves no favours in so far as storming and spray-painting the wood-panelled walls of the deliberating chamber [goes]. That’s about as damaging as it is to Chinese officialdom. The only thing that could be worse would be if they were waving American flags, and they were.
You think to yourself, “Seriously guys, we’re in the 21st Century, you have to win the media war too”. If you think your optics are winning supporters by doing this and you think that this is a great win then you’re wrong. The fact is that it seemed to tweak the nose, unnecessarily, of a stronger power. There’s another way to obey that case than to spray- paint the wood panels of the deliberative chamber.
It’s important to note that Cukier isn’t saying that the message by the protestors is wrong, but that their execution is dangerously poor. By damaging public buildings and tarnishing political offices they’re in danger of losing the PR war as well as the political one.
Hong Kong isn’t the only major geopolitical crisis occurring in the world. Brexit has proved to be an ongoing tragedy too. As we see democratic protests continuing in Hong Kong we also, curiously, see features of autocratic regime tactics here in the UK (see below):
Theresa May tried Endogenous Self-Reinforcement, by manipulating a political process in order to trigger path dependency. This saw the immediate activation of Article 50 in July 2016.
Boris Johnson tried Exogenous Self-Reinforcement, by trying to create a political outcome that was propelled by the available power and material resources of the ruling regime. See his recent threats of no-deal and his failed and now unlawful prorogation of Parliament.
These theories are not from a democratic study but from Johannes Gerschewski’s work on the ‘Three Pillars of Stability … in autocratic regimes’. Sometimes, in order to understand political outcomes such as Brexit and Trump’s election we must understand operating authoritarian regimes such as China and how they react to political crises.
But where does this leave us? 2019 has been another very turbulent year where politics is dangerous and uncertainty is rife, surely with all of this friction something has to give — doesn’t it?
Certainly, there is a new game in politics played by politicians like Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage who utilise the harshest truths of human instinct; namely, that we don’t like what we don’t understand and the belief that what we don’t know won’t hurt us. The game they play is one where ignorance is truth and truth ignorance because those with power, the messengers of truth, are intentionally ignorant. Cukier agrees:
There’s no integrity behind empirical evidence and fact, and now [politicians] don’t have any shame or try to hide the fact that they rely on their naked ambition. They rub their noses off their opponents in their lack of evidence and fact and reason, and in fact glorify their ignorance.
Just look at the first 24 hours of Trump’s’Presidency, it was just lies. […] Faith and trust have been eradicated so much that when Boris Johnson gives a number about something, people are right to be mistrustful. He abetted lies off the bus to such an extent that after the Brexit campaign he still trotted out those same statistics even though it was incorrect.
He did it because he didn’t care and that degree of toxicity, of an intentional deliberate nastiness, frays the relationship between those in political power and those who are the loyal opposition. The day some terrible thing happens and we have to trust these people who are meant to know more than us, if we don’t trust that person that’s a real problem.
In that case what is this? What is it that we’re living through, this acidic cascade that has been born out of decades of naivety? When asked about this Cukier said that it was a new type of politics, namely:
[A] Neo-real-politique where we drop the old pretence of progress in history; this Hegelian notion that the arrow of history is flying only in one direction towards betterment. We need to remember that sometimes it goes retrograde. Sometimes it takes a step back like it did in 1914 [and] 1939. I think we’re in a position where we can say its recently taken a step back.
Does that mean we’re set for a world war? No. There have been moments in history when we have been on the verge of international conflict but not entered one. Look at the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, America in 1968 and The Troubles (not the Anglo-Irish War as it would have been called, had it broken out) have been examples of this. There’s still time to ease this tension before it becomes too much.
This is why Kenneth Cukier says that The Economist’s upcoming event is so important:
Open Future is trying to have a conversation that is constructed by young leaders with a positive vision of the future to find that common ground and put these ideas into the public sphere where we can make a case for these values such as: fact, evidence, freedom, rights, diversity, tolerance etc.
Youth [should] have its say … We want to have younger people stepping up to say what society they want to live in. If we don’t do that we’re missing it because a lot of these questions require fresh thinking, that will come from another generation’.
Shout Out UK will find out what this generation has to say on the optics of ignorance when they meet this Saturday in Manchester.
Open Future Festival 2019 takes place in Manchester on Saturday 5 October. Hear discussions and debates mediated by journalists from The Economist and talks by prominent figures from across the political spectrum.