Pundits and Propagandists

The rigor and enthusiasm with which economists have been advising government – and incidentally maligning each other – have naturally led some to reflect on the role of intellectuals in society. The role of social scientists have enlarged to a great extent in this world and they have come to play some sort of pre-eminent role in public policies and debates. At least in India, most if not all social scientists regard their discipline something more than just an intellectual pursuit. Such a view of their discipline compels them to seek a larger role in public life. There is nothing wrong in  playing an active role in public life for I strongly believe that in any decent society everyone should be free to set a role for himself.

The role can a modest one of satisfying one’s curiosity or a spectacular one of changing the world by putting oneself in the service of government or people. But when a person sets a role for himself which enables him to speak in the name of public, one should oneself be clear about, and be able to make clear to others, the basis and nature of expertise which gives one title such a role. In a country where learning have been a monopoly of a certain castes for millennia, and where a large section of people remains illiterate, people are easily baffled and confused if not beguiled by experts of fictitious expertise.

Our finance minister, members of planning commission, and others in key position have been telling us their best predictions about inflation, rate of growth and employment, level of poverty and education. A casual comparison of their predictions and what actually happened provokes one to ask if there is any basis behind such claims? The assumptions behind there claims are left undefined or too vague. In the end, we get theories which do little justice to reality, or generalization from limited experiences whose theoretical validity is uncertain. Let’s face it, we understand little how our economy  works, and even less about how it will going to behave under unknown circumstances. The number of planning models this country has produced and their success rate is a good example.  When technical expertise fails to deliver, people turn to rhetoric. The rhetorical style of arguing about almost everything around us is becoming extremely common. No doubt there is some scientific basis in what they say but it is obscured by a dense fog of rhetoric which accompanies it.

Intellectual professions, as one might expect, have their own codes and secrets; so from the point of view of a layman, there is a great deal of mystery about what they actually do. Intellectual skills are rather specialized skills and many constructs of common interests created by intellectuals looks clear and “obvious” to those who posses these skills. As long as these skills are used in academic circle, they remain both harmless and useless to most of the world. But when experts claim to speak and work in public interest, we must demand that the element of mystery to be kept at minimum. Those who have the capacity and skills to understand and elaborate the reality are expected to make it clearer to others. But something we might sincerely feel and have a right to understand is often made more obscure by those who are suppose to present in clearer light. When intellectuals themselves contribute to the mystification which they suppose to remove, we should ask how this comes about?

As I see it, there are two kind of mystifier in the world: pundits or technical virtuosity at one hand and propagandists or radical rhetoric on the other. The former is essentially an academic abuse, it concerns mainly if not solely with the style rather than the content of an intellectual activity. Pundits come from a certain kind of academic (and social) background and they jealously protect their style of functioning which looks esoteric from the point of view of a person who has a different background. Surely the argument against the style (or elitism) should not be turned against maintenance of standard and quality. The propagandists are populist in their mood and appeal, and prone to offer quick and simple solutions to difficult problems. It goes without saying that pundits and propagandists exist in all societies but they do not receive same kind of treatment everywhere. When things are working fine, they are not given much attention by public and any power by authorities to do either good or harm. But all this can change when economic system seems to be running down and political system seems to be falling apart.  The government is most likely to appoint pundits to its ranks and the public is most likely to lend its ears to propagandists. This all leads to more confusion. Add “argumentative Indians” to this and we get a cacophony of most mundane type sooner than later.

Punditry and propaganda alone can not very successful in confusing people, a certain combination of both is required. The radical way of arguing has always been a part of our intellectual culture. In recent decades, its appeal  has captivated our intellectuals trained — or educated, depending on point of view — abroad. An education from European and American university give these people a certain kind of assurance about the theoretical validity of diagnosis of ills of their society they make and the remedies they offer. They have their masters abroad who naturally commends the effort of their disciples in changing a society which would not change at its own accord. The command and mastery of these people over concepts such as “feudal”, “semi-feudal”, “quasi- feudal”, “quasi-capitalist” etc. gives them a formidable advantage in debates and polemics in public. What these people wants to settle first and foremost is the question of methods.  Anything which  does not start with enough faith in their cherished method is bound to be ridiculed or condemned as worthless. Moreover, if a certain theory has been accepted by “international” community as valid, isn’t is enough to confound the skeptics in India?

In India, those who are responsible for planning and its execution have always had foreign degrees. When their plans fail to deliver, all they do is to blame a particular expert and his ideological orientation. If such is the case then why not plan a little more carefully and set the responsibilities of experts before and not after the plan is written. The success (or failure) or planning commission is enough to point out the limitation of foreign education. Since it has been most incompetent — although impressive in rhetoric and theories — in understanding the reality of our society, the reality has been largely ignored. Since they are convinced that they have the ultimate method by virtue of having most elite kind of education, which will produce  the desired result if only applied correctly, anyone who disagrees with them is either stupid or dishonest or both. It has been said that pundits everywhere hide their ignorance behind a show of arrogance. It has to be added with little exaggeration here they are most successful.

No doubt the densest fog in places where open and free discussion can take place is spread by those who combine technical virtuosity with radical rhetoric. They are already too many and their numbers appear to be increasing. Since they thrive on confusion of time, they naturally contribute to it, knowingly or unknowingly.



Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

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