Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Some Further Thoughts on Trust (if not On Trust)

The new issue of Harper’s has an admiring review by John Lukacs of a book by Bryan Cartledge titled The Will to Survive: A History of Hungary. Overall, I found the review strange and weirdly off-putting (repeated invocations of squishy notions like “national character” tend to make me itch), but towards the beginning of it Lukacs says something that interested me. He writes:
The great Jacob Burckhardt once told his students in Basel that history has really no method of its own. But, he added, "You must know how to read." Bryan Cartledge knows how to read. Here is a professional diplomat who spent less than four years in a country, who has no personal ties with it, but whose interest was acute enough for him to learn its difficult language and read volumes and volumes about matters in which many of his predecessors, especially political historians, were not much interested.
This passage made me think of a couple of things. First, I had a Romantic, daydream vision of The Scholar, doing the difficult research, the close reading, the thankless work, following leads down alleys and potential dead-ends. Second, I was struck by this phrase: "whose interest was acute enough for him to learn its difficult language". This made my mind wander, thinking about how much we trust in the written word and in translation.

There is some irony in this, of course, in the context of my ongoing engagement with the work of Gabriel Josipovici, and in particular his book On Trust. After all, I've been writing about how "we" lack trust in tradition, in society, in institutions. I've been reading, and reading about, writers who feel this lack of trust keenly--writers who have doubted the value of writing, questioned the entire project of novel-writing, while at the same time feeling an urgent need to write. These struggles resonate with me. I feel it at the level of my own creative impulse: it is difficult for me to allow myself to even recognize an urgent need to write. (I fear that makes no sense at all.) I suppress the creative impulse. I relate this struggle with my own sense of what is wrong with society. It seems self-evidently true not only that our institutions cannot be trusted, but that most people lack this trust on a most basic level--and yet we desire it, do we not? We want desperately to trust in the institutions we have.

We latch onto things to trust in, however fragile that trust may be. I'm not talking here about religion or anything like that. I’m talking more about our basic trust in the written word. We may think that the media is not doing its collective job (as we see it—that it may be doing its actual job perfectly well is not clear to as many people as it might be)--we may, if pressed, claim to distrust the media as being full of shit, as pandering scandal-mongers, as obfuscators—as agents, finally, of widespread confusion and misinformation about our political process and the most important issues of the day--and yet, when it comes to the basic content of the news, how often do we simply believe that it’s basically true? It takes a lot of work to sift through the crap. Some of us do it more or less successfully. But when it comes, say, to the text of a world leader’s speech, how often does it occur to us, immediately, to question that the content is correct? That the very words can be trusted as accurate? For unless the leader gave the speech in English (or some other language we know), we inevitably encounter the words (out of context, most likely) in translation.

You'll have likely worked out that I've referred here to the oft-reported content of a speech from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in which he is said to have threatened to have Israel "wiped off the map". When this speech was first reported, my first instinct was to groan, because despite knowing better, I did probably trust, without even realizing it, that the content had been reported accurately. I groaned because it seemed likely to be the kind of thing that could only hurt efforts to prevent an American attack on Iran. But I don't take Ahmadinejad's pronouncements seriously, so other than bemoaning the speech's possible rhetorical value, I didn't pay much attention to it. Then when I read reports that he had been mistranslated and misunderstood, well, this was more interesting. Here we could pretty easily talk about the uses of propaganda by warmongers and the lock-step reporting by the media on the path to war. But even here, I was trusting that these counter-reports were accurate, wasn't I? I have no choice, ultimately, right? When it comes to translation issues like this, I have to trust somebody--after all, I don't speak or read Persian or Farsi (or, really, anything outside of English; my lame smattering of French hardly counts for much). But, of course, people earn our trust. We decide who to credit by weighing various factors. I'm not inclined to believe what the United States government says, so that's one factor. I believe I first learned about the mistranslation issue through Juan Cole. I don't read Cole's work religiously, but I read enough to know that he's a serious person. I don't agree with everything he says, but he doesn't seem to bullshit. He doesn't write outlandishly stupid things about topics that I do know something about. So, in this context, I was inclined to believe Cole's account of this business. That's another factor. I read subsequent articles from various Middle Eastern sources (probably translated, naturally), which tended to support Cole's arguments. A third factor.

Ok, I've sort of gone far afield. I started talking about how we trust in translation and in the written word. In the case of the Ahmadinejad speech, I've had to do some minor work of my own deciding what to believe about the basic elements that had been reported in a particular story. Too often, we don't do the work. We're less likely to notice the more subtle shadings in the news, even when trained to expect it. We have a strong tendency to want to see the newspaper as a portal to objective reality--we think that this is the role of the newspaper, that it should, in fact, be this portal. Certainly The New York Times cultivates this view--"all the news that's fit to print". It presents itself as the factual record, and generally it is trusted as such, even as it is attacked from right (often inanely) and left (more fruitfully). A lot of us criticize the Times and other media outlets--often, I sense, we feel that our trust has been violated. The media has been entrusted by us, we think, to provide us with the information we need, and it fails at this task spectacularly. And yet we go back for more: maybe this time we'll find that that trust will not have been given in vain. Maybe our trust, already given in advance, will be earned. Maybe.

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