Knowing more but understanding less

Knowing more but understanding less

by Nigel Yates

Aylmer Haldane, the commander of British Forces in Iraq, telegraphed Winston Churchill for more troops and airplanes.  It was August 26, 1920.

"Jihad was being preached with frenzied fervour by the numerous emissaries from the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, "Haldane wrote.  Churchill, secretary of state for war and air, sent him an encouraging note: "The Cabinet have decided that the rebellion must be quelled effectually, and I shall endeavour to meet all your requirements."

Several days later, Churchill wrote, Hugh "Boom" Trenchard, the head of the Royal Air Force, a memo.  Churchill and Trenchard were developing the notion of policing the British Empire from above, thereby saving the cost of ground troops - a policy that became known as "air control."

"I think you should certainly proceed with the experimental work on gas bombs, especially mustard gas, which would inflict punishment on recalcitrant natives without inflicting grave injury on them," Churchill wrote Trenchard.  Churchill was an expert on the effects of mustard gas - he knew that it could blind and kill, especially children and infants.  Gas spreads a "lively terror," he pointed out in an earlier memo; he didn't understand the prevailing squeamishness about its use: "I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes." Most of these gassed wouldn't have "serious permanent effects," he said.

Haldane's men bombed and strafed rebellious tribes, fired on them with gas-filled shells, burned villages, and repaired the railway.  The official death toll on the British side was forty-seven English officers and troops and 250 Indian Gurkhas.  "It is impossible to give the Arab casualties with any approach to exactitude," Haldane wrote, "but they have been estimated at 8450 killed and wounded."  Haldane offered his thoughts on how to deal punitively with a village.  "Separate parties should be detailed for firing the houses, digging up and burning the grain and bhoosa, looting, &c.," he advised.  "Burning a village properly takes a long time, an hour or more according to size from the time the burning parties enter."

Churchill wrote Haldane a congratulatory telegram: "During these difficult months your patience and steadfastness have been of great value, and I congratulate you upon the distinct improvement in the situation which has been effected by you."  It was October 18, 1920.


Those extracts were from a recently published book that I recommend to you 'Human Smoke' by the American author Nicholson Baker. The moral, which I am sure you may have grasped, is that we would be well advised not to judge too quickly. Winston Churchill is an iconic figure in British history; 'a good guy' - one of 'us' and by extension not to be criticised.  Churchill fought against fascism, despite rather admiring Mussolini, and was an emblematic figure in the WW2 against the Nazis. One does not expect him to be exhorting his military staff to be using gas against 'recalcitrant natives' in Iraq knowing the consequences for the innocents. After all Saddam Hussein was convicted of war crimes for doing what; using gas against 'recalcitrant natives', no doubt the unfortunate descendants of those who had been so similarly treated by Haldane's troops.

Let me tell you two very short stories about how we should be careful about the habit of categorising.

One of my sons has a very clear view of the world. On one of those few occasions when parents get to talk to teenage children, usually when they are locked in the car on a long journey and unable to escape to their rooms, muttering 'whatever', we fell into a discussion about friends.  He categorises with a certainty that is without compromise; his year group can be divided into two categories; those who are 'cool' and those who are 'gay'. I asked him whether (like Churchill perhaps) his cool friends could just occasionally, even for a minute or two be  'gay' and, even more unlikely perhaps, whether or not his gay contemporaries ever had cool moments. Incidentally his teacher categorisation was equally clear. Teachers, I am informed are either 'OK' (the best that it ever gets!) - or 'Rubbish'.

One might comment that the young, especially teenagers are always very definite in their view of the world; it is quite a primary coloured existence.  But similar exchanges occur between adults;  just a day or two after this exchange I overheard a conversation between two colleagues which went something like this;

'How do you find your L6?'

'They're dreadful; I had give them a real talking to the other day.'

'Mine too; they are probably the worst group I've had for years.'

'No interest, no motivation, just sit there expecting to be spoon fed.'

These are intelligent people; they have degrees that suggest that they have the capacity to argue and to evaluate. If one suggested that this level of generalisation was probably pretty meaningless then they might be offended but ultimately recognise that within their 'worst group' lurked a few outstanding or even modestly talented individuals who were being unreasonably tarred with a generalised brush. Americans are stupid, Germans are control freaks, the French are unreliable, women are emotional, parents are tragic. Moslems are terrorists, communists are evil, the lower sixth are rubbish - it is all so very much easier than thinking.

Not that it is entirely your fault. The educational system spends years getting you to understand how to put things into their relevant boxes. From the round pegs and the round holes to the great literature and the rubbish, cities and towns, good kings and bad kings, odds and evens - all can be divided up and carefully put away into its appropriate drawer. Except that it can't. So at some moment from your 3rd from year onwards you start to be introduced to uncertainty. Perhaps the tooth fairy doesn't exist; maybe granny isn't in a better place, maybe Heisenberg and Schrödinger with his cat have it right.

In his experiments in the 1960s the American social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in which he showed that when told by authority figures to torture innocent people, 65% of us would do so. The capacity for evil is in us all.

Allow me to illustrate my point with a topical issue. The wicked Chinese and the innocent Tibetans. We all know who the good guys (the cool guys) are and who are the baddies (the gay guys).

The West is projecting not only its own spiritual fantasies upon Tibet, but its own economic fears upon China, imagining a power struggle quite different from that which has actually happened in Tibet.

We have to learn to look at Tibet as it is - and China too. All the media reports impose an image which goes like this: the People's Republic of China, which illegally occupied Tibet in 1950, engaged for decades in brutal and systematic destruction not only of the Tibetan religion, but of the identity of Tibetans as a free people. Recently the protests of the Tibetan people against Chinese occupation were again crushed with brutal police and military force. Since China is organising the 2008 Olympic games, it is the duty of all of us who love democracy and freedom to put pressure on China to return to the Tibetans what it stole from them. A country with such a dismal human rights record cannot be allowed to whitewash its image with the noble Olympic spectacle. That is the 'party' line.

What are our governments going to do? Will they, as usual, cede to economic pragmatism, or will they gather the strength to put our highest ethical and political values above short-term economic interests? While the Chinese authorities did no doubt commit many acts of murderous terror and destruction in Tibet, some things disturb this simple "good guys versus bad guys" image. Here are eight points which anyone passing judgment on recent events in Tibet should bear in mind:

1. Tibet, an independent country until 1950, was not suddenly occupied by China. The history of its relations with China is long and complex, with China often acting as a protective overlord .

2. Before the Chinese took over Tibet was no Shangri-la, but a country of harsh feudalism, poverty (life expectancy was barely 30), corruption and civil wars. Fearing social unrest and disintegration, the ruling elite prohibited any development of industry, so all metal had to be imported from India. This did not prevent the elite from sending their children to British schools in India and transferring financial assets to British banks there.

3. The destruction of the Tibetan monasteries in the 1960s was not carried out by Chinese Red Guards. The young mobs burning the monasteries were almost exclusively Tibetan.

4. Since the early 1950s there has been systematic and substantial CIA involvement in stirring up anti-Chinese troubles in Tibet, so Chinese fears of external attempts to destabilise Tibet are not irrational.

5. As television images show, what is going on now in Tibetan regions is no longer a peaceful "spiritual" protest of monks as in Burma over the last year, but also gangs burning and killing ordinary Chinese immigrants and their stores. We should measure the Tibetan protests by the same standards as we measure other violent protests: if Tibetans can attack Chinese immigrants, why can't the Palestinians do the same to the Israeli settlers on the West Bank?

6. The Chinese invested heavily in Tibetan economic development, as well as infrastructure, education and health services. Despite undeniable oppression, the average Tibetan has never enjoyed such a standard of living as today. Poverty is now worse in China's own undeveloped western rural provinces than in Tibet.

7. In recent years the Chinese changed their strategy in Tibet: depoliticised religion is now tolerated, often even supported. The Chinese rely more on ethnic and economic colonisation, rapidly transforming Lhasa into a Chinese capitalist Wild West with karaoke bars and Disney-like "Buddhist theme parks" for western tourists. What the media image of brutal Chinese soldiers and policemen terrorising the Buddhist monks conceals is a far more effective American-style socioeconomic transformation. In a decade or two Tibetans will be reduced to the status of Native Americans in the United States.

It seems the Chinese Communists finally learned the lesson: what is the oppressive power of secret police, camps and Red Guards destroying ancient monuments, compared to the power of unbridled capitalism to undermine all traditional social relations? The Chinese are doing what the West has always done, as Brazil did in the Amazon or Russia in Siberia, and the US on its own western frontiers.

8. A main reason why so many in the West have taken part in the protests against China is ideological: Tibetan Buddhism, deftly spun by the Dalai Lama, is a major point of reference of the New Age hedonist spirituality which is becoming the predominant form of ideology today. Our fascination with Tibet makes it into a mythic place upon which we project our dreams. When people mourn the loss of the authentic Tibetan way of life, they don't care about real Tibetans: they want Tibetans to be authentically spiritual on behalf of us so we can continue with our crazy consumerism.

The philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote: "If you are snagged in another's dream, you are lost." The protesters against China are right to counter the Beijing Olympics motto of "one world, one dream" with "one world, many dreams". But they should be aware that they are imprisoning Tibetans in their own dream. It is not the only dream.

So let me try to pull this together - how do you know the truth? The answer is that you probably never do but you can keep hunting for it.

You know more but understand less now than when you came into the school. Perhaps the motto of schools should be 'teaching them to doubt'. Be suspicious of those who tell you that they are certain, utterly certain about almost anything. Of course not the trivial stuff such as today being Friday for that is fruitless to debate - it is a trivial fact. About almost everything else there is doubt and uncertainty.

So don't judge, at least if you make judgments they should always be conditional. That is to say you shouldn't claim infallible knowledge. And if I were you I would quickly avoid those people who claim to 'know' the truth for they deny humanity for to be human is to doubt.

Thank you.


Nigel Yates

May 2008