By Stephen Gowans
“When you’re criticized”, what should you do? asks Brian Martin, a scholar of non-violence. His answer: “Assess the way audiences are likely to perceive things.” That is, create the right impression.
Martin has written an article soon to be published in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing about how to respond to criticism, but it seems he also offers a guide to scholars on how to talk to non-scholars in popular forums – particularly those who have been criticized.
Martin may have been inspired to write his article because he has been criticized here and elsewhere for belonging to a dodgy organization that does openly what the CIA used to do covertly, namely, help people in country’s abroad overthrow their governments. That might not be such a bad thing were the successor regimes leftwing and advanced human progress but they’re invariably rightwing and keen to open their doors to US military bases and exploitation by Western capital.
What’s interesting about the advice that Martin delivers is that he seems to be telling scholars to shed their cloaks of dispassionate scholarly contemplation, in favour of a style of attack suited to persuading non-scholars. His advice: Ignore obscure critics who have no profile (otherwise you’ll give them credibility) and reply only to those who can command an audience. And then to do so with short, clear, punchy replies. Few people will read long, detailed, counter-arguments. Brevity and clarity are important.
If your aim is to win as many people to your side as you can, as opposed to say, thrashing out the issues in scholarly debate to arrive at the truth, there could be no better advice. Which makes you wonder why a scholar is recommending tactics more familiar to those who practice the cut and thrust of sharp political debate, than a battle of evidence and reasoned argument. Could it be that he’s a politician at heart?
I think so. The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, the outfit Martin belongs to as an academic adviser, is an advocacy organization for non-violent direct action, or what is sometimes deceptively called “peace scholarship.” Peace scholars are not at all interested in peace as you and I understand it (say, avoiding unnecessary conflict). Instead, peace studies amount to figuring out how to win in a political conflict without using insurrectionary violence (because it is often ineffective against modern militaries) or traditional military methods (because it is often impractical). Seizing political power through the use of strikes, demonstrations, boycotts and non-violent sabotage – what used to be called destabilization – is what non-violent conflict is all about, according to the ICNC’s principals. Not surprisingly, militaries take a keen interest in peace scholarship. After all, it’s concerned with what militaries have traditionally existed to do, namely, guard political power at home and take it abroad. It’s not by accident that peace scholars sometimes refer to their discipline as the study of non-violent warfare.
Ah, but the phrase “peace scholarship” makes seizing power through destabilization sound leftwing and gosh, peaceful. It couldn’t possibly be a CIA-style thing, right?
Think again. It’s implicitly understood that when peace scholars talk about seizing political power that this is to happen in other countries, and not, God forbid, the United States, where the ICNC’s chiefs are firmly ensconced in the US establishment leading very comfortable lives, thank-you very much. They would hardly want to carry out a people power revolution close to ICNC headquarters.
The outfit’s founder, Peter Ackerman, is an immensely wealthy investor who engineered the KKR leveraged buy-out of RJR Nabisco and hobnobs with other board members of the US establishment on the influential Council on Foreign Relations and various other think-tanks and foundations. Not too long ago he sat on a task force headed by former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and former CIA Director and current U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. And he once headed the far right Freedom House, which Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman described in their Manufacturing Consent as being interlocked with the CIA.
The ICNC’s defenders say that Ackerman’s connections are irrelevant, and that bringing them up amounts to assigning guilt by association. They have charged one of the ICNC’s most vigorous critics, Michael Barker, with trying to discredit sincere peace activists through a line of attack that amounts to singling out people because “they may have once been in a room with someone who may or may not have worked for the CIA.”
The rhetoric is clear, brief, punchy and memorable – exactly what, one suspects, Martin would recommend. The only problem is that it’s wrong.
Consider Ackerman. Wall Street background. Bags of money. Council on Foreign Relations membership. Task forces with the US foreign policy elite. Former Freedom House supremo. Holds seminars on how to destabilize governments for foreign activists sent his way by the US State Department. Hardly the model of a leftist peace activist. Or consider Lester Kurtz, one of Martin’s ICNC colleagues and another of Ackerman’s scholars. He has admitted to – indeed, was proud to acknowledge on his CV – that he has given advice to the CIA.
And that’s where Martin seems to have taken a wrong turn in his upcoming article. He seems more concerned with impression-making – of the kind that turns a wealthy establishment figure who works at overthrowing the bad boys on the State Department hit list into a left-leaning peacenik — and less with truth-telling. It’s like he’s saying to scholars: “Okay, now let me tell you how successful politicians and PR executives cover up embarrassing revelations.”
Well, one thing politicians, PR experts and other bamboozlers do is to prey on the weaknesses of people’s cognitive heuristics: that is, the ways they deal with complexity and too much information.
How do you tell whether the advice you’re receiving is sound? One way is to evaluate the credentials of the person offering it. For example, who are you going to believe about how you ought to deal with your troubling hernia — a licensed physician, or the local health food fanatic with a certificate in reflexology who peddles hot stone massage and flax seed oil? Evaluating statements about, say nuclear physics or hernia operations, by examining the credentials of the source is a good idea, if you know nothing about nuclear physics or hernias. Cognitive heuristics (that is, mental short-cuts) often work, but sometimes they can lead you astray, especially when unscrupulous people use them to lead you by the hand down the garden path.
One example of using peoples’ mental short-cuts to trip them up is a woman who not too long ago created a huge profile for herself by dispensing tough-love advice to troubled people on the radio. She called herself Dr., lending the impression that she was a psychiatrist or counselling psychologist – a person with credentials to deal with troubled individuals. She was neither. She was, instead, a Ph. D. in physiology. It’s as if your dentist, Dr. Hackensack, masquerades as a physician.
Another example would be a scholar writing a book which he prefaces with a short article by a well-known person who knows nothing about his book. He then presents the book as My Big Ideas, by Dr. X, with a forward by a well-known and admired person. This creates the impression that the well-known person endorses the book, and that the book – and its ideas — must therefore be worth paying attention to. Has this actually happened? Perhaps. Listen to this interview with journalist and science writer Fred Jerome, beginning at the 40 minute mark.
Stephen Zunes, the chief ICNC scholar, makes a habit of letting people know he is a professor with a Ph. D. He often refers to his docent, Ackerman, as Dr. Ackerman, but never as junk bond king Michael Milken’s former right-hand man or “the sniff” as he was known by his colleagues, for plumbing Milken’s proctological depths. Zunes, the sniff’s sniff, also makes sure to refer to critics as Mr. or Ms. even when he hasn’t the slightest idea whether they’re also Ph.D.s, who happen to shun honorific titles and therefore don’t make a big display of their educational attainments. Peacock-like credential displays, with the added intimation that your critics haven’t any, says: “I’m an expert; my critics aren’t. Who are you going to believe?”
Gravitas is related. Noam Chomsky’s gravitas is based on his reputation as a high profile linguist, his connection to MIT, and his prolific book-writing. A short-cut to evaluating whether what he says makes sense is to refer to his credentials. Wow, a guy like this must know what he’s talking about. Astonishingly, someone recently wrote a Z-Net article making a case whose support was largely that his position was based on what Chomsky told him. He was hoping to earn instant credibility by exploiting the cognitive heuristic that makes you deem anything Chomsky says as probably true (or probably wrong if you dislike him) without actually having to do the leg-work to figure it out yourself.
Many people hope that gravitas will unburden them of actually having to produce evidence for what they claim and it appears the hope is not always in vain. They can then make all manner of bold statements and expect to be believed, because, well…they have gravitas. That’s not to say Chomsky does this. But others do.
Here’s an interesting exercise. Read through one of Stephen Zunes’ articles and notice how many statements he makes with complete certitude about matters he couldn’t possibly know to be true. For example, in a recent article he said: “What has been remarkable about the successful civil uprisings against the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships, the serious popular challenges to the Yemeni and Bahraini dictatorships and the smaller-scale protests sweeping the region, is that they were completely indigenous and not sullied by foreign intervention.”
To this, I have three replies.
First, how could Zunes, or anyone else, possibly know this? It’s easy, in principle (and it turns out in fact too) to prove that it’s not true. All you have to do is cite one instance of foreign intervention and the claim that the uprisings were unsullied by foreign intervention crumbles. But how can you prove there has been no foreign intervention? You can’t. Zunes, however, wants us to believe he’s possessed of some sort of preternatural power that allows him to prove what mere mortals cannot — a negative.
Second, what evidence does he offer? Answer: Not a speck.
Third, if completely indigenous uprisings unsullied by foreign intervention are remarkable, it must be that uprisings that aren’t indigenous and are sullied by foreign intervention are the norm, otherwise how would the indigenous and unsullied ones be so remarkable? And yet Zunes is always prattling on about how the uprisings in which Uncle Sam and the ICNC have had an obvious hand (e.g., Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and attempts in Belarus and Iran) were completely or largely indigenous. It seems Zunes just makes it up as he goes. Indeed, the following from Ron Nixon’s April 14, 2011 New York Times’ report (“U.S. groups helped nurture Arab uprisings”) is strikingly at odds with Zunes’ confident assurance that the uprisings were unsullied by foreign intervention.
[A]s American officials and others look back at the uprisings of the Arab Spring, they are seeing that the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.
A number of the groups and individuals directly involved in the revolts and reforms sweeping the region, including the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and grass-roots activists like Entsar Qadhi, a youth leader in Yemen, received training and financing from groups like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights organization based in Washington, according to interviews in recent weeks and American diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks.
The Republican and Democratic institutes are loosely affiliated with the Republican and Democratic Parties. They were created by Congress and are financed through the National Endowment for Democracy, which was set up in 1983 to channel grants for promoting democracy in developing nations. The National Endowment receives about $100 million annually from Congress. Freedom House also gets the bulk of its money from the American government, mainly from the State Department.
Some Egyptian youth leaders attended a 2008 technology meeting in New York, where they were taught to use social networking and mobile technologies to promote democracy. Among those sponsoring the meeting were Facebook, Google, MTV, Columbia Law School and the State Department.
“We learned how to organize and build coalitions,” said Bashem Fathy, a founder of the youth movement that ultimately drove the Egyptian uprisings. Mr. Fathy, who attended training with Freedom House, said, “This certainly helped during the revolution.”
Ms. Qadhi, the Yemeni youth activist, attended American training sessions in Yemen.
“It helped me very much because I used to think that change only takes place by force and by weapons,” she said.
Through what magic does Zunes get away with it? The answer is in Martin’s upcoming article. Assess the way the audience is likely to perceive things. And then prey on their mental shortcuts. When you have no evidence, the truth is embarrassing, and your case is pure wind, it’s the only way to go.
Updated April 15, 2011.
13 thoughts on “Scholars or Bamboozlers?”
”The key thing is enough commonality to allow us to work on common goals and tolerance of each others differences’
‘..Mr Martin,do you share the same investment stratagies and profit making ventures as Mr Ackerman?Do you share the same goals as the US state department and do you have a commonality with the US state and the interests that it pursues in its foreign policy?
And..Do you believe in the existance of classes in society?
If yes,do you believe that the interests of these classes are opposed to each other?
Wich class interests do you share a commonality with?
Those of the working class or those of the capitalist class?
How can you be a critic of capitalism and yet advise an organisation that promotes the interests of the worlds most powerful capitalist state?
Saying Peter Ackerman has connections to the US establishment is like saying Rudolph Hess had connections to the Nazi Party. Ackerman not only has connections to it, he is part of it.
More than that, he has taken on a leadership role in pursuing its interests. That’s plain in his board membership in the elite Council on Foreign Relations, his sitting on foreign policy task forces with the likes of Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert Gates, and his role as go-to-guy when “State’s desk officers don’t want to create international incidents by advising activists on how to overthrow governments.”
Your depiction of him as just a guy who happens to have connections to the US establishment seems a little dishonest.
As regards his connection to the ICNC, he not only supports it financially, he founded it, and is its leading force.
This is significant, because if Ackerman is integrated into the foreign policy elite of the US ruling class, so too is the ICNC, and therefore, so too are you, as a loyal servant.
The ICNC’s training of locals in nonviolent direct action serves a legitimizing function. It makes massively US-assisted regime change operations appear to be grassroots uprisings, not imperialist interventions.
The model is the intervention in Yugoslavia, celebrated by Ackerman and the ICNC as a grassroots nonviolent action to topple a “dictator”. The ICNC model was neither grassroots, nor nonviolent, but it helps to legitimize the intervention to say it was.
From start to finish, the intervention was a Nato-driven exercise. Nato fabricated a fiction about a Serb-perpetrated genocide, supported uncritically by a compliant media, to justify a 78-day bombing campaign. It added sanctions, an ad hoc international criminal tribunal, millions of dollars of lucre to ICNC-trained activists, and assistance and direction to Serbia’s splintered political opposition. Thus, Nato-directed military, political, legal, economic and ideological assaults formed the basis of a multi-pronged strategy to oust the Milosevic government.
But according to Ackerman and the ICNC, Nato lies, media demonization, 78 days of bombing, Western political interference, and generous funding of an overthrow movement, had nothing whatever to do with the coerced departure of Milosevic. An organic mass non-violent uprising overthrew him.
Today, a dismembered Yugoslavia is ruled by pro-Western, pro-foreign investment regimes, having dismantled Milosevic’s socialist-oriented economy.
Well, ordinary Serbs haven’t. But people like Ackerman certainly have. And yet of the ultra-wealthy Ackerman’s ruling class pedigree, his board membership in the Council on Foreign Relations, his sitting on task forces with key members of the US foreign policy elite, you say: So what?
Well, it’s hardly a trifle.
The ICNC isn’t simply an organization for people of different views to get together to pursue a common interest in nonviolent direct action. It’s an instrument for destabilizing foreign governments and legitimizing certain imperialist interventions as grassroots uprisings. In other words, it is an instrument of Ackerman’s (not your) class interests.
You try to sanitize your collaboration with an organization that is plainly an instrument of US foreign policy as simply working with others of different views. But that’s like a physicist justifying his work on nuclear weapons by saying he’s working with others who share a common interest in nuclear physics.
When is it safe and sensible to join with others, despite some differences with them, and when is it better to leave or to challenge them? Let me give a few examples.
I’m an employee of the University of Wollongong. I work with numerous colleagues across campus who have a range of viewpoints. Some individuals in the university have connections with establishment bodies; others have connections with dissident groups. We work together because of a common commitment to learning and scholarship that involves tolerance for different views.
The university hosts military research, whereas I’m an anti-militarist. There’s a tension and a possibility for debate, but by and large we leave each other alone to pursue what we believe is important.
I’m a member of the National Tertiary Education Union, which covers academic and non-academic staff in universities across Australia. Union members don’t have to agree with each other and indeed often disagree. I remain in the union to help protect the interests of university workers.
I’m a member of Whistleblowers Australia, a voluntary organisation that supports the right of people to speak out on matters of public interest without reprisals. Currently I’m a vice-president. Members of Whistleblowers Australia have a wide variety of backgrounds and beliefs. They include police, teachers and hospital workers; they include conservatives and radicals, and people with strikingly different views about social issues; they include people with divergent beliefs about how best to help whistleblowers. We try to work together because of a common commitment to whistleblowing.
I’m an academic advisor to the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), an organisation set up to inform activists about methods of nonviolent action — such as marches, strikes, boycotts, and sit-ins — in a strategic challenge to repressive governments. People involved with ICNC include a range of perspectives.
I see the keystone of involvement with ICNC to be a commitment to the value of nonviolent action. The organisation has some other precepts, such as not taking sides and not telling people what to do. I’m willing to be involved with others in ICNC who have different orientations to struggles, for example being opposed to imperialism, opposed to any repressive government, or supportive of self-organised grassroots campaigners.
Peter Ackerman, who supports ICNC financially, has links to the US establishment. So what? I’m involved with ICNC, and I’m a critic of capitalism and representative government. We can work together because we have a common commitment.
In summary, I’m willing to work with others — or as part of an organisation involving others — even when we have different views about significant issues. The key thing is enough commonality to allow us to work on common goals and tolerance of each other’s differences.
Come on Brian!Its been nearly 3 months and still no reply….
As mentioned before, your query raises for me some interesting general issues. I will write about this at greater length, but it will probably take a month or two until I can get to it.
You ask about my affiliations. Like you, I am a citizen of a country. Like you, I have a regular job. Unlike you, I have no voluntary affiliations.
Your membership in the Amateur Chamber Music Society tells me that you’re interested in chamber music. But if you told me that you hate chamber music, and prefer hard bop, I would be perplexed and wonder why you belong to a group that is involved in what you hate.
It is in this respect that I ask about your voluntary affiliation with the ICNC. You say you are committed to undermining systems of domination and creating opportunities for people to collectively control their lives. Yet you choose to belong to the ICNC, even though the organization works toward the very opposite of the goals you say you are committed to.
As a brief reminder, this exchange began when you wrote “I do not advocate seizing political power’.” But the founding chair of the ICNC, Peter Ackerman, and the president, Jack DuVall, do – in other people’s countries, of course (see Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, “With Weapons of the Will: How to topple Saddam Hussein – nonviolently, Sojourners Magazine, September-October 2002 (Vol. 31, No. 5, pp. 20-23).
Moreover, Ackerman, as Edward Herman and David Peterson recently pointed out (see Reply to Stephen Zunes, December 30, 2010.)
You can understand my confusion.
I’ve been pondering your question concerning my association with ICNC, and it led me into a wider reflection on affiliations. It seems to me that your question raises some interesting general issues that I’d like to address. I think this might shed light on specific instances.
My ICNC affiliation is just one of many. Some of the others are being a citizen of Australia, an employee of the University of Wollongong, a member of the National Tertiary Education Union (the union for Australian university employees), vice-president of Whistleblowers Australia (an all-volunteer NGO), a member of the advisory board of Social Alternatives (a magazine) and a member of the Amateur Chamber Music Society.
Each one of these affiliations was a voluntary choice on my part.
Before proceeding further along this line of thought, I’d be interested in hearing about some of your own affiliations. I ask this not with any intention of criticism, but rather to provide some additional examples as well as my own, which may not be typical.
I hope you get a response Stephen.I asked the other artful dodger,lester Kurtz a few questions some time ago and im still waiting for some answers!Seems the best way for the left boot to avoid critism is to not answer it.
Hi Brian Martin,
One other question, if I may (an elaboration on the one above).
Everything about Peter Ackerman, the founding chair of the ICNC, the organization you belong to as academic adviser, hangs together:
• Wall Street background;
• former leadership role at the ultra right-wing and CIA-interlocked Freedom House;
• member of the elite foreign policy planning organization, the Council on Foreign Relations;
• committees with Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert Gates ;
• defining nonviolent resistance in much the same way the CIA defined destabilization — and acknowledging the purpose is to take political power;
• seminars for foreign activists sent his way by the US State Department on how to destabilize foreign governments.
What doesn’t hang together is your association with Ackerman and the ICNC, if you reject “seizing political power” and support “using methods of nonviolent action to increase people’s capacity to undermine systems of domination and to collectively control their own lives.”
Wall Street, Freedom House, the CFR, Brzezinski, Robert Gates, the CIA and the US State Department are hardly working to undermine systems of domination or to create opportunities for people to collectively control their lives; indeed, they’re doing the very opposite. And yet you’ve chosen to ally with an organization that is profoundly bound up, through its founding chair, with these instruments of domination.
As you would expect from its founder’s background and connections, it would appear that the ICNC operates to deploy techniques of nonviolent warfare to serve US foreign policy goals, but worse, the role of its academic advisers appears to be to provide research that is used to enhance the efficacy of the techniques (which the ICNC imparts to opposition groups in countries US foreign policy is destabilizing, not to undermine systems of domination, but to protect or create systems of domination controlled by the United States.) You are, then, working to achieve the very opposite of what you say your goals are.
That the ICNC is hostile to your goals is evident in:
• The connections of the ICNC to the US foreign policy elite.
• The absence of a single jot of evidence that any of the uprisings the ICNC has had a hand in has undermined systems of domination and opened opportunities for people to collectively control their lives. (For example, Ackerman and the ICNC celebrate the successful US-directed regime change operation in the former Yugoslavia, but one would be hard pressed to describe what has followed as an undermining of systems of domination or a new arrangement where people now collectively control their own lives.)
• The consequence that puppet governments serving US systems of domination invariably rise to power where the ICNC has been involved in successful regime change operations. (Consider, for example, the current Serb and Georgian governments, brought to power in so-called color revolutions, which are little more than neo-colonial outposts.)
Accepting that you are genuinely committed to undermining systems of domination and creating opportunities for people to collectively control their lives, how do you explain your association with an organization that works toward the very opposite?
Hi Brian Martin,
Thank-you for taking the time to reply.
Fair enough. I accept that “as a nonviolence researcher” you “do not advocate ‘seizing political power’”.
But the organization, the ICNC, to which you belong as an academic advisor, does. Here’s Peter Ackerman, the organization’s founding chair, and Jack DuVall, the outfit’s president, describing non-violent resistance.
If the view of the ICNC principals is not your view—and you’ve made a point of distancing yourself from it–how is it that you lend your name to, and work with, the organization?
Also, do you think the ICNC works toward your goal of increasing people’s capacity to undermine systems of domination and to collectively control their own lives? If so, do you believe that systems of domination have been undermined and people now collectively control their own lives in the places the ICNC celebrates as examples of successful nonviolent warfare, particularly Serbia, or say, the Philippines?
‘As a nonviolence researcher, I do not advocate “seizing political power” (Stephen’s words). Rather, I support using methods of nonviolent action to increase people’s capacity to undermine systems of domination and to collectively control their own lives’
so why is it so far that has not happened? the peoples of the colour revolutions DONT control their own lives? Not in Georgia nor in egypt,and a colour revolution helped destroy Yugoslavia. Any people who ally with the US in the belief that can undermine systems of domination hasnt been paying attention to history
Considering that Martin’s thesis is little more than a hastily cobbled together pamphlet on how to change the subject when you get into a jam, informed by personal experience, its detours are even more enlightening than its uncomfortable blend of good and bad advice.
In my article “When you’re criticised”, forthcoming in the Journal of Scholarly Practice, I describe three ways to respond when you’re the subject of a lengthy criticism that you think is misguided. The three ways are to ignore the criticism, to counter-attack, and to make a response that is “sensible, rational and polite”. I give the most attention to the third option.
In assessing these three options, I say it’s wise to assess the likely impacts on audiences you care about. To me this seems common sense. I have spelled this out because in many cases I’ve seen people respond emotionally – for example, making a counter-attack – in ways that are counterproductive.
My general goal is to help foster dialogue that is respectful and informative.
I am pleased that Stephen Gowans sees my article as worthy of commentary. In the spirit of “When you’re criticised”, I can make a few responses.
Stephen speculates that I wrote “When you’re criticised” because I had been criticised by him and others. Actually, I drew my inspiration from seeing book-length criticisms of Anita Hill, nonviolent activists and climate scientists, as cited in my paper, as well as criticisms in other arenas.
I think Stephen misses the mark in assuming my article is intended primarily for scholars. “When you’re criticised” can just as readily be used as a guide by non-scholars, and indeed I have already provided it to a citizen campaigner who had been attacked.
Much of Stephen’s post is about Peter Ackerman, Stephen Zunes and other matters only peripherally related to my article. I won’t comment here on these topics.
I agree with Stephen that it is not good to “prey on the weaknesses of people’s cognitive heuristics”. In my article I didn’t refer to this, nor do I advocate it. My research on making injustice backfire (http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/backfire.html) deals with how to respond to reinterpretation techniques by powerful perpetrators of injustice.
As a nonviolence researcher, I do not advocate “seizing political power” (Stephen’s words). Rather, I support using methods of nonviolent action to increase people’s capacity to undermine systems of domination and to collectively control their own lives. This is a recurring theme through my writings. See for example my books Social Defence, Social Change (http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/93sdsc/) and Nonviolence versus Capitalism (http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/01nvs/).