How much do you know about Ukraine? Or better, how much did you know before the recent political turmoil there? For my own part, I must confess I knew pitifully little. I have of course never been there. I knew bits of trivia, like the fact that its capital is Kiev. I knew about the Crimean War (vaguely) and that Florence Nightingale made her reputation there. I have read just two books that are located (at least partially) in Ukraine: one is Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches, the other is Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder, which has a horrific description of the Stalinist manufactured famine of 1932-3. I remember somewhat Ukraine breaking away from the Soviet Union in the early 90’s. And I knew that it was a fertile agricultural land, the “bread-basket” of the USSR. That’s pretty much it.
Since the recent crisis, my treasury of facts has increased quite a bit. I have a nice little wikipedia education on aspects of Ukrainian history. I have read a couple of decent essays on Ukrainian/Russian relations. I went from knowing next-to-nothing to knowing next-to-next-to-nothing. Good for me.
Yet, I know more than enough to offer a strong opinion on the Ukraine. I can sound really learned in an argument with other poorly-informed opinionated persons. (I am pretty good at sounding smart about something I know little of.) We opiners can really go at it, getting angrier in turns, at each other if we disagree or someone else (Putin or Obama or the opposition party perhaps) if we agree. Of course, we will think the person who disagrees with us is ignorant or poorly informed without noticing that we are as well. And in a representative democracy, this rhetoric has an effect as our representatives fall all over themselves to ally themselves to the majority opinion, to voice strongly the pundit-manufactured opinions of the poorly informed, and they are armed with confident-sounding phrases decorated with a few decontextualized facts. The result can be utterly tragic. Let’s hope it is not in this case.
Do we understand what we are doing when we do this? One of the aims of the Platonic dialogues is to make the strong case about the dangers of assertive, immoderate doxa/opinion. When talk is cheap we forget that it is also consequential. Countering doxa with a louder, contradicting version of the same type of doxa leads to an ever increasing scandal. We must be critical of punditry as such, not just the pundits with whom we disagree. (Nate Silver recently tweeted: “Never would have guessed how many political pundits also happen to be experts on Crimea.”) Let’s remember that pundits get paid to be opiners, not knowers. Making clear to ourselves and others the ignorance inherent in opinion is the only antidote that I know for the chief political disease. But that requires a kind of self-critical thinking that is much less fun in a world that celebrates rhetorically effective opinion. In all the hubbub about this crisis or that, what has really escaped notice is that philosophy is always the proper response.