Reading Crisis: Ukraine and our Search for Knowledge

Over the last two months we have been inundated with news stories concerning Ukraine’s domestic political crisis and the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the fate of the eastern provinces of the country. Many friends have asked me why our website has not produced articles regarding the crisis, particularly given our strong track record of supporting democratic populism here in the West as well as our enthusiasm for commenting on global political trends.

Speaking for myself, I can say that my silence on the Ukraine issue has not been for any lack of interest in the topic. I have followed the events voraciously, reading the daily stories regarding a crisis that has already reached tragic proportions, one that fair-minded people the world over can only hope doesn’t spill into all out war. Of course, the full sovereignty of the Ukrainian people must be respected, democratic rights of protest, assembly, and self-government must be defended, while non-violent solutions need to be found for the deep regional and ethnic divides that roil the nation.

And yet to make those statements is to only repeat what has already been said many times by politicians and analysts both inside Europe and without. What else can we sway about this crisis? Every time I sat down to write something about it, I found myself pulling back. Despite the multitude of stories I have read regarding the issue, I had to ask myself: how much do I really know about what’s going on on the ground in communities across the Ukraine? Can I even name the various parties that were vying for power within Ukrainian society during the last election? Can I explain the complex economic relationships that currently exist between the Ukraine and Russia? And what about the deep historical forces that created so much regional division between the Eastern and Western parts of the country?

Of course I have read about all of these issues, and I could write on them with a feigned degree of expertise. But instead of trying to proclaim myself to be any kind of expert on Eastern Europe, I want to use my own difficulty at forming a strong sense of what is actually going on in Ukraine to point to a fundamental challenge the engaged individual faces in his or her daily life. Whether you live in Canada, China, or anywhere else in the world, as socially progressive individuals we have a responsibility to be aware of the world around us. But the question then becomes: who do we rely on to form our opinions about parts of the world we have no experience with, whose languages we do not speak, and whose newspapers we cannot read?

It is all well and good to claim that we are going to be engaged with the world beyond our shores, but how are we to foster that sense of global consciousness in our daily lives? We all labor under a multitude of quotidian pressures: professional deadlines, over-demanding bosses, the stack of bills at the door, the need to be good family members and partners. Honestly speaking, no matter how educated a person may be, it is impossible to claim expertise outside of one, maybe two fields of inquiry. And it is impossible to “keep up” with everything that is going on around us, even if we had the drive and inclination to do so.

So how am I to form anything resembling a rigorous, nuanced position on what is going on right now in Donetsk? No matter how ambitious a reader one is, it is simply impossible to answer that question with full confidence. Simply put, we all have to reckon with our own limits to professed knowledge.

How can we know how these people truly feel about the events defining their country?
How can we know how these people truly feel about the events defining their country?

In the face of this social condition, which is both enforced upon us by the hectic rhythms of our daily lives as well as by our own ontological limits, we must rely on outside sources to produce our understanding of the world. In the case of global affairs, those outside sources are often presented to us in the guise of two social actors: the academic and the foreign affairs journalist.

By the latter, I mean the kind of globe-trotting foreign correspondent who operates on the ground in complex and often dangerous political situations to sift through layers of misinformation, work with local actors to get concrete stories, and present to us the first draft of history.

By the academic, I mean the kind of intellectual who has spent their lives studying a particular part of the world, immersing him or herself in its language, reading deeply in its history, grappling with its social problems as if it was their own, and trying to provide as nuanced (and interconnected) a portrait of a given society as they can. It is this intellectual expert who, we hope, will be able to provide us more historically informed, intellectual rigorous analysis of the global conflicts we see beyond our shores. Her labor will, we hope, produce the articles, monographs, and documentaries that we take as authoritative histories, taking pride of place on our library shelves as the definitive account of the historical forces that have shaped our world.

That we rely on good journalism and good academic work to understand the world around us is not a groundbreaking statement- indeed, it is such an undeniable fact that it seems obvious. But in Canadian and American society it is precisely these obvious truths which have been forgotten. For support for both good academic and journalistic work has been ruthlessly slashed in our neo-liberal era of economic scarcity.

In the realm of journalism, institutional downsizing at every major news organization has only produced a race to the bottom that has undeniably hurt the quality of our public discourse. How many major news organizations in Canada actually have a foreign bureau in Moscow, to say nothing of Kiev or Warsaw? How many Canadian or American journalists have ever worked on the ground in Eastern Europe, none the less have fluency in Russian or Ukrainian? Who among the journalists working in our country today can give us any picture of what is actually going on in the public discourse in Russia or the Ukraine? The economic cuts to news organizations have been felt most profoundly in foreign reporting, where overseas bureaus have been shuttered and replaced with generic copy from newswires.

One quickly realizes that very few reporters have any actual sense of how societies such as Russia or Ukraine operate. This lack of rigorous social understanding is painfully obvious in the stories currently being written about the crisis. Indeed, most stories focus on statements made by American, European, or Russian government officials, manageable quotes which have already been translated into English for the reporter. Very few, if any reporters, attempt to talk to the citizens on the ground effected by these crises, for a very simple reason: they cannot speak their language. Simply put, you can’t drop an English speaking correspondent into downtown Kiev during a protest movement, without any linguistic or cultural fluency, and expect them to make anything but the most general statements about what is going on around them.

You cannot drop a monolingual journalist into a protest zone and expect anything resembling strong reporting
How could a non Ukrainian speaking journalist make sense of a scene such as this?

The academic expert is a role that has also come under tremendous economic strain in recent times. The reasons are, in some ways, even more complex than those facing the decline of good journalism on international issues. The academy can be effectively divided into two classes. While post-tenure professors enjoy job security and strong professional associations, the demands of annual teaching, conference presentations, and academic publishing can make it hard to find more public forums (such as newspapers, commercial publishing ventures, and popular blogging sites) through which professors can project their expertise to a wider audience. Certainly, many academics would love to influence public perceptions by publishing in more widely-read outlets, but actually getting the chance to publish in such public forums has remained a challenge. No doubt, the sometimes complex language academics communicate in has not helped in making their historical expertise easily translatable to mass mediums.

The second class of academic labor are those workers with no job security: pre-tenured professors, adjunct instructors, and graduate-students. All of them labor (to different degrees) under the pressure of dwindling academic positions, chronically over-stuffed class rooms, non-guaranteed annual incomes, and brutal publishing and conference schedules. The idea that this class of intellectual labor can go out on CNN and start directing public opinion in a mass way is unrealistic. Given the tremendous pressure under which these workers labor, it is a great testament to their commitment to public service that they still often try to effect public consciousness through a variety of online means (in spite of all the sapping institutional demands placed on them).

Yet despite these real economic challenges facing the continued existence of both the rigorous journalist and the engaged intellectual, I for one believe that both social roles need to be nurtured in our society. The economic forces suppressing their continued existence is the subject for another article. Needless to say such forces are deeply intertwined with the neo-liberal model of economic governance that governments in so many parts of the world have pursued over the last three decades.

Yet if we don’t have seasoned intellectuals working on Ukrainian society stashed away in university departments throughout this country, how do we expect to do something as simple as understand what Ukraine’s own newspapers are saying about the social events defining the country? To be able to read the newspaper in Ukrainian (or any other foreign language) isn’t a skill that can be developed overnight. It takes years of carefully wrought linguistic training, a process that should receive the highest level of public support for talented young students. It is, after all, a skill that is absolutely crucial to understanding the discourse that is defining the societies beyond our shores. Likewise, if news organizations do not have the capital to keep foreign bureaus open so they can imbed trained journalists within a society for a number of years, providing them with a modicum of linguistic and cultural fluency, then our reporting on foreign events will be so vapid as to be meaningless.

It takes years of linguistic and cultural training to understand profound events when they do erupt
It takes years of linguistic and cultural training to understand profound events when they do erupt

Simply put, what the events in the Ukraine and Russia tell me is that we need well-trained people in public life who actually understand the societies which exist beyond our borders. These people need to be at our newspapers, our broadcasting centers, our universities, and our government agencies. And the form of international understanding they should posses can only be nurtured through public investment- in people’s linguistic training, in their cultural experiences, in their professional associations- one that takes place over many decades of a person’s life.

So I say the following: all hail the engaged intellectual and the rigorous journalist. If I am to form an opinion on the status of the Crimea, the nature of Putin’s foreign policy, or the health of democratic processes in Ukraine, who else could I turn to but these two social figures? They are absolutely vital in my quest to be an informed citizen of this world.

We still need them desperately, now more than ever. And we need to urge them on- by supporting their publishing ventures, by valuing their labor, and by continuing to publicly finance the institutions which nurture them.

Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.

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