Friday, 29 August 2014

The F**kwit Factor

This is not a post about public diplomacy or international communications, but it does address an issue I would like to share here.

Knowing little about the world's 4th most populous country, I am currently reading Elisabeth Pisani's wonderful and recommended Indonesia etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation (Granta 2014). I had no idea that Indonesia is made up of 13,466 islands; that 'Jakarta tweets more than any other city on earth,' and that 'around 64 million Indonesians use Facebook' in a country where '80 million live without electricity' (p.3).

Reading Pisani's description of what a British diplomat called the 'Fuckwit Factor', it struck me that in political analysis we sometimes lose sight of human error and fallibility. Shit happens, we are told; and perhaps this can have clear political consequences. Perhaps we read too much into the everyday decisions made by political elites - see grand ambitions, strategies and conspiracies - when in fact they may simply be the result of unexpected intrusions on everyday life.

The relevant passage in Indonesia etc. (pp.32-3):

Around the table, journalists, diplomats and the braver Indonesian intellectuals put forward their theory about who was in, who was out, whether the absence of this minister from that cocktail party signalled that [Suharto] was unhappy with a faction of the military or was a warning to a particular business conglomerate. Since nothing much was known, everything was possible.
A young British diplomat named Jon Benjamin ... frequently came down on the side of what he called the Fuckwit Factor. Behind all the smoke and mirrors, the most likely reason that his minister was not at that cocktail party was that his driver forgot to put petrol in the car. The cancellation of the joint military exercises with Singapore, the postponement of the trade mission to the US, the blackout at the radio station scheduled to broadcast a vice-presidential address: again and again Jon would advance the theory that someone, somewhere, just fucked up. As events unfolded, Jon was often proved right.    

I am sure that any Cold War Soviet or China specialists reading this post will be familiar with the pressure to know who's in and who's out; where is Comrade X on the podium this year, and what does it reveal?

Maybe the lesson is that we need to consider the possible intervention of the Fuckwit Factor a little more often in our analysis of political events, behaviour and decisions.        

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