Saturday, May 8, 2004

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My very own public intellectual feud

Devoted readers of are aware that on occasion, sometimes, I've been known to get into the occasional intellectual scuffle with a another blogger or public figure. Most of them have been minor tempests that quickly faded into obscurity.

Alas, obscurity is harder to come by when a dispute is carried out in the Letters page of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. To see Jagdish Bhagwati's reply to my review of In Defense of Globalization, as well as my response to Bhagwati's response, click here.

I'll confess to being genuinely puzzled by Professor Bhagwati's obsteperous response -- as my lovely wife put it, between Bhagwati and myself, our opinions on globalization range from A to A'. I thought I gave the book a pretty favorable review, and I certainly think it's worth reading. Trust me, if I don't like a book, I can be much more scathing in my comments.

However, read my original review, then read the exchange of letters and judge for yourself. After this Sunday, this disagreement will hopefully fade into onscurity as well.

And for those of you who wish to make a living by being a critic (or a book author), learn this lesson well -- don't write angry. Or rather, if you feel the urge, write angry, but then be sure to crumple up that effort and try again with a cooler head.

Why? It's exceedingly difficult to translate anger into polished prose -- particularly anger directed at another person, as opposed to a more abstract target -- without seeming either petty or undisciplined. Angry writing is also, more often than not, completely humorless. And wit is a valued commodity in almost every writing venue known to man.

This is a tough lesson to digest, because the exceptions to this rule are the most coveted critics of them all. A critic that manages to focus their anger into an righteous but humorous vivisection of someone else is the ne plus ultra of entertainment. If you can do it, I'll tip my hat in deferential respect.

However, I strongly suspect that this skill is much rarer than is commonly perceived.

posted by Dan on 05.08.04 at 10:34 AM


Is your blog any less public than the letters page of the New York Times Book Review? I don't see this feud as more public than your blog disputes, just more civil and less funny.

My suggestion is to aim low and get booked on Lou Dobbs - TV is a better medium for your unique mix of Friedrich Hayek/Salma Hayek analysis. You can return to blog on the wrongheaded Lou Dobbs and the divine Soledad O'Brien.

posted by: joejoejoe on 05.08.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

"Is your blog any less public than the letters page of the New York Times Book Review?"

Unless my blog has expanded its readership by a couple of million, yes, it is decidedly less public.

posted by: Dan Drezner on 05.08.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Book reviewing is the hardest thing one can do nowadays. Every book writer (aka author) is presumed (de facto) to be absolutely right and the followers (aka readers) then become a most righteous army of defenders of the truth. The illusion of intellectual engagement (aka discourse) in an open and egalitarian field of ideas is obliterated by doctrinal field mines and intemperance that passes for rigor. There is a lot of anger in print and in talk around us today that is expressed in book reviews and responses thereto.
Luckily your review did not pertain to more sacred notions like "sustainable development" or "ethical sexual conduct". Those fields are worse than Lebanon or Palestine when it comes to angry and aggressive response. It is no wonder that there is an increasing silence in many pages of past importance. Nobody wants to engage such incivility and ignorance. Let us hope that the anger will subside and rational discourse can again emerge to the benefit of those who do not keep score or see life as a constant game of "gotcha"

posted by: simple simon on 05.08.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Maybe this is a case of what Nelson Ascher of Europundits posted "LEARNING HOW TO READ IN DIFFICULT TIMES"

Although you are not writing under a dictatorship, forcing "nuances", nor being read under such an impediment there seems to be a general problem of the public not understanding the symantics.
Nelson writes:
"But I also found out that most Western Europeans and many Americans simply ignore what the critic Harold Bloom calls the "difficult pleasures" of reading."

posted by: Barry on 05.08.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Professor, my late father, who was in academic medicine, once gave me this eminently practical advice about his opponent in a similar intellectual scuffle: "Ah, hell. He just doesn't take criticism well."

posted by: Tom Kirkendall on 05.08.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

'... righteous but humorous vivisection of someone else is the ne plus ultra of entertainment'

Very rare indeed. His name is Mark Steyn. :•)

posted by: old maltese on 05.08.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

I have to disagree with the pointer to Andrew Sullivan as the presumed heir to Jonathan Swift. Or even of Hazlitt -- who, among the classic English critics, is the only one I know of who could successfully infuse the dissipation of anger -- its blurring of targets and promiscuity of weapons -- into successful prose. In my opinion, the only current American writer (at least, on politics) who can write out of cold anger is Michael Kinsley.

posted by: roger on 05.08.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

More good advice. Never write while drunk. Never answer email when drunk.....

posted by: bartelson on 05.08.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

I also have to disagree with the selection of Andrew Sullivan as one who writes well angry. Frankly, Andrew writes emotionally and with sloppy logic at the best of times. One instance in particular stands out in my mind.

He once offhandedly condemned all Rhodes Scholars as being resume-polishing frauds(I don't remember exactly what he said, but it was something very unflattering). He referred to Wesley Clark and Bill Clinton, and if they were indicative of all Rhodes scholars, he might have had a point. Of course, to insult a large group of people based on two examples is grossly unfair. The Oxbloggers, in particular, objected. As far as I can tell he never apologized, which he really should have.

This was a relatively small thing, but telling, in its way. It was neither the first nor the last straw in convincing me not to read him anymore, but I think the petty lack of consideration is what really causes it to stick in my mind.

Michael Kinsley writes very well, and he can be very clever, but he can also be astonishingly dishonest when it suits him. You should never read a Kinsley article unless you are already well acquainted with the subject matter, so you know what he isn't telling you.

posted by: Bill on 05.08.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Unless my blog has expanded its readership by a couple of million, yes, it is decidedly less public.

A small but perhaps vital point which I'll dispute with you, Dan; You are making an assumption in your comparison, that I think unwarranted. I know the temptation is there to minimize this medium, and particularly your own work, and in fact the Times does have a hiigher readership in the overall. But we don't really know, do we, what actually gets READ in a newspaper?

At the moment (5/8/04@23:22) I show you as having 2300 site hits this week. Yes, that's a far lower number by far than the distribution figures at the Times. Yet, I think I can pretty much guarantee that your hitcounters are more accurate than the distribution figures for the Times, at least insofar as actual readers for each medium and each article within each, are concerned. If you show a hit, it's pretty well on certain that someone is actually at least seeing what you've written, before it becomes a pan liner under a Budgie. Can the Times say as much? I doubt it.

Put another way, stop selling yourself, and this medium short.

No, I'm not crazy, and I don't propose to suggest your site is getting more readers of a given subject than the Times does. But at the same time, at least be aware that there's a lot less fluff in your readership numbers, eh?

posted by: Bithead on 05.08.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

In looking over my last post, I recognize I've left out something rather crucial... UNDERSTANDING.

Having debated Times readers in the past, I will openly wonder here, which has a higher per capita of readers who actually understand what you're writing about, on any given subject?

I guess between the 'actual readership' question, and the 'understanding' question, it comes down to what we used to call 'reader penetration'.

posted by: Bithead on 05.08.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

It's difficult to grapple with Rodrik's arguments becuase, well, he's probably more correct in the general sense than his opponents.

While I am, roughly, a "free trader," there really is no convincing empirical case that trade openness is a particularly important component of growth-encouraging policies. Much of the case for trade in this context is indeed faith-based.

posted by: Atrios on 05.08.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

atrios is a free trader? atrios is posting a civilised comment?

me thinks that the above comment is lost and that that ain't atrios!

otherwise... be careful with saying that your arguments are A and A'... in matrix algebra, A' is rather different than A ... in other uses of notation, it is rather similar (such as in calculus)

as for atrios' allegations that the benefits of free trade rely on faith... there is, for one, ricardo's concept of comparative advantage, then there is the idea that one should be able to do what one will, such as buying from another person, irrespecive of where they happen to live. There is also the historical examples of economies that allowed free trade, and those that did not. Feudal economies (especially France) were chopped up with innumerable internal trade barriers, so much so that it could be dramatically cheaper to import from half a world away than it was to ship things internally. Rome, by contrast, had internally free trade (and very secure as well, at least in the first century or two AD), and its economy and people were much better off than Feudal France (they were comparable in the level of slaves and oppressed classes, though the Romans gave bread to the mob, while the Louis simply exploited the peasants/serfs).

Another demonstrative advantage of free trade is in the difference of economic performance in US states since the invention of the corporation and the application of the interstate commerce clause. Internal free trade (in terms of no tariffs and no non-tariff barriers) dramatically expanded the US's ability to grow, allowing it to take advantage of the railroads, etc. India, with more controls and limits on growth and trade, did not experience a similar % growth. Nor did Argentina or Brazil, despite the fact that these latter two countries were similarly situated and prosperous as the US in the early 1900s... Free trade is key (ask around at the next anti-capitalist/anti-globalization demo where the best weed and E comes from... most likely the weed is Canadian or Dutch, and the E is from Europe, somehwere....)

posted by: hey on 05.08.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

I fondly recall an amusing essay some years ago in the NY Review of Books characterizing the sort of thing Bhagwati did as an "ABM" = "author's big mistake". ;)

posted by: Steve LaBonne on 05.08.04 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

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