Friday, May 23, 2008
Are authoritative public intellectuals extinct?
In his column today, David Brooks makes an provocative closing point:
People in the 1950s used to earnestly debate the role of the intellectual in modern politics. But the Lionel Trilling authority-figure has been displaced by the mass class of blog-writing culture producers.Intriguingly, Brooks' observation echoes some of the reactions in the blogosphere to my public intellectuals paper.
I think I might argue that even if the overall PI scene is still vibrant, 40 years ago there were a small number of what you might call mega-intellectuals — people like Buckley and Chomsky and Galbraith and Friedman — who had a bigger influence on public discourse than any single public intellectual does today. Nobody on Dan's list really seems to compete on quite the same plane as some of those 50s and 60s superstars. This might just be the hindsight bias that he talks about earlier in his piece, but if you had to nominate someone to be as influential today as Buckley and Galbraith were in their time, who would you choose? No one really comes to mind.Ezra Klein made similar points last week as well.
Let's take as given the assertion that today's public intellectual scene is robust in terms of number, but that there are fewer "giants" than there used to be (I don't, just as I don't think a lot of people in the fifties .were earnestly debating the role of the public intellectual, but whatever). Klein, Brooks and Drum all write about this with a tinge of regret.
I'd argue that the forces driving this are -- mostly -- healthy developments for public discourse....
One reason that public intellectuals might seem smaller than they used to be is that they don't wander as far off their area of specialization as in the past. While Galbraith might have been comfortable riffing about culture and Buckley could talk economics, this sort of thing is rarer today.
I'm with Richard Posner in thinking that this is a good thing, since as a general rule public intellectuals are less likely to have penetrating insights when they're talking about subject in which they have no extant knowledge. This doesn't vitiate the role of the public intellectual: as the specialization of knowledge has progressed, it becomes more difficult for the same person to flourish in their specialized field and make that knowledge accessible to the public. This does create a market niche, however, for “second order intellectuals” to emerge, bridging the gap between first order intellectuals and the informed public.
Another reason that public intellectuals might seem smaller than they used to be is that they can measure the response to their public musings more accurately than in the past. As I pointed out last week, blogs now play an important role in policing the thinking class. When public intellectuals generate shoddy work, bloggers are perfectly willing to cry foul. Consider, for example, the responses to William Kristol's columns, last year's reaction to Michael Ignatieff's mea culpa on Iraq, or disenchantment with Paul Krugman's robotic commentary on the Democratic primary.
Again, this is a good thing. The best public intellectuals (I'd put Brooks in this category, by the way) should be able to respond to criticism and improve their commentary; the worst should fade from view (As a personal aside, I know that my paper on this topic has profited from the blog responses to the initial draft).
One negative reason for a decline in mega-public intellectuals is the rise in partisanship. It has become tougher for someone like a Milton Friedman or a Michael Harrington to be accepted across the political spectrum as a legitimate authority because they have staked out a clear ideological position that is anathema to half the pundit class.
I'm less than thrilled with this trend, but it does get to an interesting tension between promoting democratic discourse and preserving the authority of expertise. The thing about public intellectuals is that they're trying to walk a tightrope between these two poles -- trafficking in their expertise to make a public intervention -- and this is tough to do in any era.
To conclude then -- if we're living in a world where there are more public intellectuals, but they're more responsive to criticism and less willing to venture way beyond their areas of competence -- well, then let me dance on the grave of "mega-public intellectuals."
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Bloggingheads 911: Miami!!
What happens when Bloggingheads.tv has three planned diavlogs collapse at the last minute? Why, they break the glass and call on the most reliable media whore in the business -- and Megan McArdle!!
Go check it out. Topics discussed include the recent Israel-Syria negotiations, the uber-lame-duckness of George W. Bush, Black Lieutenant Syndrome, and the difficulties women can face trying to get the top job.
I'm huge in Ontario.... huge, I say
The Agenda with Steve Paikin is TV Ontario's equivalent of Charlie Rose...at least, that's what they tell me.
Anyway, I participated in their show on "The International Order" earlier this week:
The search for a new international order at a time of profound global change: Is the global system established in the wake of WWII still working? Do organizations such as the UN, the World Bank and the IMF need to be reformed ... or replaced?You can access the video by clicking here. Other participants include Janice Gross Stein, Richard Rosecrance, Alan Alexandroff, Patricia Goff, and David Rothkopf.
As an added treat, if you watch the whole thing, you'll catch the conversation about me and my eye-rolling.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
A powerful incentive to fix the comments feature on this blog
Longtime readers are likely aware that I've been relatively slow to fix the comments feature on the blog. Partly this was due to being distracted by the day job, partly because I enjoy the peace and quiet that comes with an end to comment spam.
It appears that John McCain has provided me with an incentive to fix the comments. According to Politico's Jonathan Martin:
John McCain's campaign is using their campaign website to encourage supporters to post supportive comments on political blogs, including the most well-known liberal site in the blogosphere. And to make things easier, they're including talking points with which sympathizers can use to get out the McCain message.[Um... according to McCain's campaign site, the blogs of attention are Red State, DailyKos, and Jeff Emmanuel. Plus, it's the commenters getting paid, not you--ed. Ah, but I can delete their comments unless they hand over the McCain swag! Mmmmmmm..... swag!--ed.]
May the United States continue to be blessed with incompetent and stupid adversaries
The Human Security Brief has released its 2007 report. The headline findings:
Challenging the expert consensus that the threat of global terrorism is increasing, the Human Security Brief 2007 reveals a sharp net decline in the incidence of terrorist violence around the world.It should be noted that the 40 percent decline is based on excluding Iraq from the count:
The most interesting (and heartening) finding I've seen comes from Pakistan:
Wow, it's almost like once citizens experience terrorism, they become less tolerant of it as a political tactic. Who knew?
Seriously, what would be interesting would be if Pakistani support for terrorist tactics increased after the most recent drop in attacks.
Hillary Clinton's remaining political argument for staying in
Over at The Plank, Josh Patashnik makes an argument about the limited appeal of both Obama and Clinton:
[W]hat's become clear at the end of this primary season is that neither Democratic candidate's appeal is as wide as Democrats would prefer. It's difficult to project what will happen in November from primary results or even general-election polling at this stage, so any such speculation should be taken with a major grain of salt. I think it's fair to say, though, that in general Obama appears to have a problem with working-class whites east of Illinois, and Clinton appears to have a problem with Westerners and more upscale independent-minded voters. This pattern has been remarkably consistent since the beginning of the primary season. My suspicion is that these weaknesses basically cancel each other out, which is why you see both candidates sporting approximately equal-sized small leads over John McCain in national polls.There's one asymmetry that Patshnik doesn't discuss, however: every exit poll I've seen confirms that a larger fraction of Obama voters at this point are willing to vote for Clinton in November than vice versa.
Those numbers will fade somewhat once the heat of the primary season fades, but I suspect that they'll be more resistant to change among Clinton supporters. Despite McCain's presence as a reasonably attractive GOP candidate, I seriously doubt Obama's coalition of voters would vote for him. On the other hand, Clinton's "hard-working, white Americans" have voted for the GOP in the past and could easily do so in November.
There's been a lot of speculation in the press about why Hillary's staying, in, but this is the only politically viable argument I think she has left. Oddly enough, Saturday Night Live pretty much drove this point home in this sketch:
Regarding Angelina Jolie, I'd like to deny the rough sex
Tirdad Derakhshani has an article in today's Philadelphia Inquirer on celebrity activism in politics in which I'm quoted. It's worth a read, but alas, it appears that my quote was sexed up a bit:
Drezner, whose 2007 book, All Politics Is Global, analyzes how globalization affects international power relations, said there's no better way to reinvent oneself in Hollywood than through good works.While I do not have a photographic memory, my New England upbringing has trained me to remember any and all times I say the words "rough sex" to anyone. I never said it to Derakhshani.
The basic thrust of the quote is accurate, but I just want to categorially deny that I alleged anything about Angelina Jolie's sex preferences during the interview.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Your political quote of the day
Today, if you’re not rich or Southern or born again, the chances of your being a Republican are not great.From George Packer's New Yorker essay.
Monday, May 19, 2008
Op-ed - actual research for op-ed = blogswarm
On Tuesday night, while the G.O.P. Congressional candidate was losing in a Mississippi district George Bush carried in 2004 by 25 points, Barack Obama was being trounced in the West Virginia Democratic primary — by 41 points. I can’t find a single recent instance of a candidate who ultimately became his party’s nominee losing a primary by this kind of margin (emphasis added).The blog reaction:
It took me all of 2 minutes to find what Kristol couldn’t find -Politico's Ben Smith:
Because it's been a while since this blog really angered feminists....
In the worlds of science, engineering and technology, it seems, the past is still very much present.Just to muck up that straightforward conclusion, however, the Boston Globe's Elaine McArdle reports on some alternative explanations:
[T]wo new studies by economists and social scientists have reached a perhaps startling conclusion: An important part of the explanation for the gender gap, they are finding, are the preferences of women themselves. When it comes to certain math- and science-related jobs, substantial numbers of women - highly qualified for the work - stay out of those careers because they would simply rather do something else.I don't think this is an either-or issue -- sexism and self-selection can be mutually reinforcing narratives.
Incidentally, the most awful sexist anecdote I read today came from Jodi Kantor's front pager in the New York Times:
Ms. [Elaine] Kamarck, 57, the Harvard professor and a longtime adviser to Democratic candidates, said she was still incredulous about the time her colleagues on Walter F. Mondale’s presidential campaign, all men, left for lunch without inviting her — because, she later discovered, they were headed to a strip club.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
How John McCain is not George W. Bush
Matt Bai's lead essay on John McCain's foreign policy vision in the New York Times Magazine is worthwhile reading. In contrast to the Times story of a few weeks ago that inaccurately painted McCain as dealing with a tug-of-war between foreign policy advisors, Bai actually gets some face time with the senator.
The two passages I found revealing:
McCain has never been confused for an isolationist, but neither can he be confined to either of the other factions [realism and neoconservatism--DD]. One reason is temperamental; McCain just doesn’t like labels, and he isn’t very good at sticking to orthodoxies — a personality quirk he has tried hard to control during the campaign. “He’s not a guy who drinks Kool-Aid easily,” says Gary Hart, the former Democratic senator who was once close enough to McCain to have been a groomsman in his wedding. “He’s suspicious of any group who sees the world that simply.” Lorne Craner, a foreign-policy thinker who worked for McCain in the House and Senate in the 1980s, told me that McCain had a standing rule in his office then. All meetings were to be limited to half an hour, unless they were with either of two advisers: Jeane Kirkpatrick, the Reaganite idealist, or Brent Scowcroft, the former general who was a leader in the realist wing. McCain loved to hear from both of them at length.This strikes me as a spot-on assessment of McCain's foreign policy instincts -- a little less postmodern, "we create reality" than George W. Bush's, but nevertheless leaning quite heavily in the neocon direction.
It's this passage, however, where McCain mentions something I haven't heard from him before on foreign policy:
Most American politicians, of course, would immediately dismiss the idea of sending the military into Zimbabwe or Myanmar as tangential to American interests and therefore impossible to justify. McCain didn’t make this argument. He seemed to start from a default position that moral reasons alone could justify the use of American force, and from there he considered the reasons it might not be feasible to do so. In other words, to paraphrase Robert Kennedy, while most politicians looked at injustice in a foreign land and asked, “Why intervene?” McCain seemed to look at that same injustice and ask himself, “Why not?”The Bush administration's fundamental mistake was to believe that a generation-long project could somehow be pursued without the need for consensus by anyone outside the executive branch. McCain seems to get that.
After researching what the American people think about foreign military interventions, I'm pretty sure that the American people don't want us in Iraq regardless of how well the surge works (Bai makes this point later on in the article). I'm not sure, however, whether this will be the deciding factor in how they vote in November.
The paradox: for McCain to be a more prudent foreign policy president, he needs to have a hostile public constraining him. Of course, if that's the case, then it's entirely possible he won't be elected president in the first place.