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‘Tinker Tailor’ and the certainty trapBY: Dan Rottenberg 01.03.2012
Who really knows what’s going on in any given situation? And why do so many pundits on the left and right alike insist that they do? Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may cure them of their illusions.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. A film directed by Tomas Alfredson, from the novel by John Le Carré. At the Ritz East, 125 S. Second Street, (215) 925-7900. For Philadelphia area show times, click here.
The ignorance of certaintyDAN ROTTENBERG
In his recent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, the psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahnemann suggests that our brains contain two independent systems for organizing knowledge. System One is amazingly fast, enabling us to recognize faces and understand speech in a fraction of a second.
System Two, on the other hand, is the slow process of forming judgments based on conscious thinking and critical examination of evidence. This sort of thinking is hard and exhausting work, Kahnemann notes, and consequently our daily lives are organized so as to avoid it as much as possible, through such convenient intellectual tools as rhetoric, logic and mathematics. So long as we are engaged in the routine skills of talking and calculating and writing, says Kahnemann, we’re not really thinking.
Kahnemann’s theory presumably explains why Ernest Hemingway, when asked what was the most terrifying thing he’d ever seen, replied, “A blank sheet of paper.” It also explains why I find editing other people’s prose so easy but writing my own prose so daunting.
It also surely explains why my wife and I both recently found ourselves nodding off midway through the film adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
The problem is not that this Cold War mystery is boring. Quite the contrary: Tinker Tailor requires a concentrated dose of System Two thinking almost from beginning to end, and consequently it’s exhausting.
Friends and enemies
The film concerns a retired spy’s efforts to identify a Soviet mole who has infiltrated the very highest levels of British intelligence. In her BSR review Judy Weightman argues, “Two hours isn’t enough to provide a coherent version of the complicated story; at least not a version that I found coherent.” I would add that Tinker Tailor fails to provide sufficient clues as to who the mole is— and, what’s more, it fails to develop the characters sufficiently to make us care once the mole is exposed.
Nevertheless, I found my two hours in the fog of Tinker Tailor a fascinating and useful exercise. The British intelligence officers portrayed here exist in a world where nothing is as it seems and, consequently, you can never tell your friends from your enemies.
This is only a slight exaggeration of the real world we live in. In almost any given situation we encounter in every day life— let alone global politics— something is happening that we’re unaware of. That acquaintance who grimaces as he passes you on the street may not mean anything personal— maybe he has an upset stomach, or he just learned that his wife has a terminal illness. Similarly, even as we speak, in some obscure office or garage or flophouse or cave, some unknown Edison or Henry Ford or J.P. Morgan or Hitler or Steve Jobs or bin Laden is concocting an idea that will dramatically alter everyone’s life, for better or worse.
What we ‘know’ about Obama
The fictitious agents in Tinker Tailor appreciate this concept all too well. Yet our real world public affairs authorities— commentators, columnists, pundits, talk-show hosts— rarely acknowledge it. They’re too busy churning out the next editorial, column or show to engage in the sort of System Two thinking that’s necessary to figure out what’s really happening. But reacting, venting, cheerleading and pandering— all System One rhetorical devices— shouldn’t be confused with real thought.
Think of the thousands (millions?) of people who claim to know what happened between Mumia Abu-Jamal and Officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. Think of the thousands who “know” what happened between Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the cleaning lady in his New York hotel room last year.
Or think of all those right-wing pundits who “know” that Barack Obama is a committed socialist, and all those left-wing commentators who “know” that Obama is a willing tool of Wall Street. They’re not only certain they know what Obama wants; they’re also certain that Obama knows what he wants— and, what’s more, that he wields the power to pursue his agenda.
These are the same people who not so long ago believed the Soviet Union was permanently entrenched and that ordinary Arabs had no interest in democracy. Extrapolating the past into the future is much easier than seriously trying to imagine the future.
A few rules
So how can we ever know for sure what’s really going on? The only certainty, I submit, is that we can’t. In that case, let me suggest a few System Two rules for understanding how the world works, assuming you’re willing to take the trouble:
— In any given situation, personal or political, assume that there’s probably some piece of the puzzle that you don’t know about.
— Steer clear of any public figure who won’t acknowledge that he could be wrong or uses expressions like “Mark my words” or “Make no mistake.”
— Avoid pundits who seem preoccupied with proving that they were right about a given issue and their adversaries were wrong (Charles Krauthammer and the late polemicist Christopher Hitchens spring to mind on the right, Paul Krugman on the left). Since nobody’s infallible all the time, the logical response to such exercises is, “So what?”
— Do gravitate toward commentators who use terms like “I think” or “I feel” or “I believe"— a recognition that they might be mistaken.
— When a commentator declares that something is “inevitable,” turn the page or switch channels. What human knows the future?
The Iraq exception
Of course, these rules themselves aren’t foolproof, either. During the run-up to the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003, for example, I assumed that George W. Bush’s calls for “regime change” were merely a cover for some diplomatic dance that was transpiring behind the scenes in order to find some face-saving way for Saddam Hussein to leave office. The truly appalling thing about the Iraq invasion, to my mind, was the subsequent realization that in fact nothing had been going on behind the scenes— that Bush and his advisers had assumed that diplomacy was unnecessary since they enjoyed superior force of arms.
The spies in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are System Two thinkers, which I find a refreshing change of pace. They never fall back on rhetorical devices like “Mark my words” or “Make no mistake.” They do say, “Things aren’t what they seem.” Spy work has made them not arrogant but humble.
So mark my words and make no mistake: Two hours with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will cure you of your certainties— assuming you can stay awake.♦
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