The World You Refuse to See

It seems that the Russian invasion of the Crimea has caught much of the Washington establishment by surprise:

President Barack Obama’s handling of the Western response to the Ukraine crisis is now arguably the biggest test of his presidency. It is a crisis that no one anticipated and that the West has been frustratingly divided over since the European Union’s original, misguided attempt to force Ukraine to make an either-or choice about going east or west. For too long we have heard U.S. officials says repeatedly, “The Europeans are taking the lead.” That needs to stop. 

Walter Russell Mead, writing about what’s happening in Ukraine, gets to something important:

Nobody, including us, is infallible about the future. Giving the public your best thoughts about where things are headed is all a poor pundit (or government analyst) can do. But this massive intellectual breakdown has a lot to do with a common American mindset that is especially built into our intellectual and chattering classes. Well educated, successful and reasonably liberal minded Americans find it very hard to believe that other people actually see the world in different ways. They can see that Vladimir Putin is not a stupid man and that many of his Russian officials are sophisticated and seasoned observers of the world scene. American experts and academics assume that smart people everywhere must want the same things and reach the same conclusions about the way the world works.How many times did foolishly confident American experts and officials come out with some variant of the phrase “We all share a common interest in a stable and prosperous Ukraine.” We may think that’s true, but Putin doesn’t.We blame this in part on the absence of true intellectual and ideological diversity in so much of the academy, the policy world and the mainstream media. Most college kids at good schools today know many more people from different races and cultural groups than their grandparents did, but they are much less exposed to people who think outside the left-liberal box. How many faithful New York Times readers have no idea what American conservatives think, much less how Russian oligarchs do? Well bred and well read Americans live in an ideological and cultural cocoon and this makes them fatally slow to understand the very different motivations that animate actors ranging from the Tea Party to the Kremlin to, dare we say it, the Supreme Leader and Guide of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Emphasis mine. I attended a “good school,” but I had the good fortune of attending it in the early to mid 1980s, when intellectual conformity wasn’t as strong as it is today. Still, I see the results of this conformity and groupthink all the time. All I have to do is look at my Facebook feed and I’ll get to see my fellow alumni comparing people who live in southern Indiana with the Taliban, to use just one example. It’s a particularly jovial form of misantrophy, but it’s there and it’s unceasing.The neoconservatives have come under justifiable criticism for not understanding the world in the previous decade. Whether we’ll ever come to a similar understanding about our current leaders is another matter, because what we’re dealing with is a willful commitment to ignorance, and it’s an ignorance that’s celebrated and regularly reinforced.