The World is Nuanced

History is nuanced. The connections between what happened historically and the way things are now, are nuanced. Will anyone claim that President-Elect Trump has a nuanced understanding of the ways things are and the history of how they came to be that way?

Tweets are not nuanced. You can express a provocation in 140 characters or fewer, but you can’t express a concept, much less a nuanced concept. That’s why some people are tweeting in chains. But that too is a poor substitute for rational discourse.

Consider all the delicate arrangements Mr. Trump has suggested, not to say threatened, he would like to blow up. Consider what it might mean to blow them up without understanding them first.

I’ll just list some of them and try to indicate, without explaining, the nuances. I certainly make no claim that I could explain them if I tried.

One China: a solution put into place nearly 40 years ago after Nixon’s opening to China. Just one question: Does anybody think Mr. Trump’s understanding of the China relationship and the One China solution is more nuanced than Henry Kissinger’s?

Two States in Palestine: This solution has proven less stable than the One China solution, but you’d have to understand why before you decided to try a different solution, particularly a solution that only one of the affected parties advocates.

Sanctions against Russia: It’s a mistake to let friendship get in the way of a balanced understanding. But in this case all the nuances, or better deviousness, lies with the people who would like to justify Putin’s annexation of the Crimea. The second clause of August, 1941, Atlantic Charter rules out “territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned.” The charter was adopted by the United Nations then opposing the Axis powers, and forms the basis for the powers the present United Nations granted to the Security Council after the war. This account may already be too long, but I give it to show that Roosevelt and Churchill and those who inherited the victory over aggression in World War II would have no difficulty understanding what is wrong with Putin dismembering the Ukraine.

Sanctions against Iran: The burdens of a year’s economic sanctions are possible for a nation to bear, but after thirty-plus years they begin to add up. At the same time, a quantity of fissionable uranium, and the capacity to make more, are bargaining chips of the first order. Naturally any accommodation between the interests represented by these facts is going to be complicated, and people are going to have trouble understanding the nuanced reasons for the result. It’s one thing for congressmen to be simple-minded about them, but a president’s responsibilities are graver. Fortunately Trump will no doubt get an earful from the CEO of Boeing before he can upset this applecart.

Nuclear disarmament: a policy first realized by the noted pacifist (and loser?) Ronald Reagan some thirty years ago and followed by every administration since. Maybe Mr. Trump didn’t mean to say “more” nuclear weapons, but rather only “more modern” nuclear weapons, a policy Mr. Obama has been pursuing. But the difference here is not a mere nuance. Not seeing it is worrisome. And why say a second-rate power like Russia should have “more” as well? Who has Mr. Trump been listening too? And what is he hearing?

More could be said on all of these points. But for the present….

What is the opposite of “nuanced”? Shallow? uncritical? naïve? I suppose a person of great understanding can see though all the nuances to the essential point, which then seems simple. But you have to see the nuances first, don’t you? Otherwise you may reach the essential point, but only by good luck, not by good understanding. Or if you happen to be wrong, it’s a case of not knowing that you don’t know: the worst sort of ignorance. It’s much better in such a case, like Socrates, to know that you don’t know.

Originally published in Marx’s Political Economy. Republished here, even though it concerns epistemology rather than economics, to gain a wider audience.