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Scholars or Bamboozlers? Stephen Zunes and the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict

By Stephen Gowans | What’s Left | April 10, 2011

“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 for 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 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? Second, what evidence of this does he offer? Answer: Not a speck. And 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 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.

Through what magic does he 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’re short on evidence—or the truth is embarrassing–it’s the only way to go.

April 10, 2011 - Posted by | Deception, Timeless or most popular

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