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.

Take Take Kevin Drum, for example:

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."

posted by Dan at 09:22 AM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Bloggingheads 911: Miami!!

What happens when 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.

posted by Dan at 11:41 PM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

I'm huge in Ontario.... huge, I say

The Agenda with Steve Paikin is TV Ontario's equivalent of Charlie 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.

posted by Dan at 08:14 AM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

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.

"Select from the numerous web, blog and news sites listed here, go there, and make your opinions supporting John McCain known," instructs the page.

McCain supporters are asked to send the details of their comment to the campaign, which in turn will verify it and then reward the supporter with "points" (assumedly to accumulate for McCain swag).

[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.]

posted by Dan at 02:23 PM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

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.

Fatalities from terrorism have declined by some 40 percent, while the loose-knit terror network associated with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda has suffered a dramatic collapse in popular support throughout the Muslim world.

The Brief also describes and analyses the extraordinary, but largely unnoticed, positive change in sub-Saharan Africa's security landscape. The number of conflicts being waged in the region more than halved between 1999 and 2006; the combat toll dropped by 98 percent.

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.

Click here for more on the report.

posted by Dan at 12:40 PM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

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:

posted by Dan at 11:54 AM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

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.

"Just look at Angelina Jolie. Ten years ago her image was about tattoos, rough sex, and wearing vials of Billy Bob Thornton's blood around her neck," Drezner said. "Today. Jolie has royalty status because of her work with UNICEF and other international charities."

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.

posted by Dan at 08:44 AM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Your political quote of the day

Ed Rollins:

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.

posted by Dan at 11:52 AM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, May 19, 2008

Op-ed - actual research for op-ed = blogswarm

Further evidence that, "it might be the case that bloggers serve an even greater good by engaging in quality control of other public intellectuals."

Bill Kristol in today's New York Times:

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 -

Utah Updated 11:02 a.m. EST, Feb 14, 2008

Romney 255,218 90%

McCain 15,264 5%

Paul 8,295 3%

Huckabee 4,054 2%

Politico's Ben Smith:
Arkansas 2008
Huckabee 61%
McCain 20%

Massachusetts 2000
McCain 64%
Bush 32%

West Virginia 1976
Byrd: 89%
Wallace 11%
Carter: 0%

posted by Dan at 04:10 PM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Because it's been a while since this blog really angered feminists....

Matt Yglesias approvingly links to this New York Times story by Lisa Belkin from a few days ago arguing that women ae shut out of science and engineering because of rampant sexism:

In the worlds of science, engineering and technology, it seems, the past is still very much present.

“It’s almost a time warp,” said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit organization that studies women and work. “All the predatory and demeaning and discriminatory stuff that went on in workplaces 20, 30 years ago is alive and well in these professions.”

That is the conclusion of the center’s latest study, which will be published in the Harvard Business Review in June.

Based on data from 2,493 workers (1,493 women and 1,000 men) polled from March 2006 through October 2007 and hundreds more interviewed in focus groups, the report paints a portrait of a macho culture where women are very much outsiders, and where those who do enter are likely to eventually leave.

The study was conceived in response to the highly criticized assertion three years ago, by the then-president of Harvard, that women were not well represented in the science because they lacked what it took to excel there.

The purpose of the work-life center’s survey was to measure the size of the gender gap and to decipher why women leave the science, engineering and technology professions in disproportionate numbers.

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.

One study of information-technology workers found that women's own preferences are the single most important factor in that field's dramatic gender imbalance. Another study followed 5,000 mathematically gifted students and found that qualified women are significantly more likely to avoid physics and the other "hard" sciences in favor of work in medicine and biosciences....

Rosenbloom surveyed hundreds of professionals in information technology, a career in which women are significantly underrepresented. He also surveyed hundreds in comparable careers more evenly balanced between men and women. The study examined work and family history, educational background, and vocational interests.

The results were striking. The lower numbers of women in IT careers weren't explained by work-family pressures, since the study found computer careers made no greater time demands than those in the control group. Ability wasn't the reason, since the women in both groups had substantial math backgrounds. There was, however, a significant difference in one area: what the men and women valued in their work.

Rosenbloom and his colleagues used a standard personality-inventory test to measure people's preferences for different kinds of work. In general, Rosenbloom's study found, men and women who enjoyed the explicit manipulation of tools or machines were more likely to choose IT careers - and it was mostly men who scored high in this area. Meanwhile, people who enjoyed working with others were less likely to choose IT careers. Women, on average, were more likely to score high in this arena.

Personal preference, Rosenbloom and his group concluded, was the single largest determinative factor in whether women went into IT. They calculated that preference accounted for about two-thirds of the gender imbalance in the field. The study was published in November in the Journal of Economic Psychology....

Starting more than 30 years ago, the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth began following nearly 2,000 mathematically gifted adolescents, boys and girls, tracking their education and careers in ensuing decades. (It has since been expanded to 5,000 participants, many from more recent graduating classes.) Both men and women in the study achieved advanced credentials in about the same numbers. But when it came to their career paths, there was a striking divergence.

Math-precocious men were much more likely to go into engineering or physical sciences than women. Math-precocious women, by contrast, were more likely to go into careers in medicine, biological sciences, humanities, and social sciences. Both sexes scored high on the math SAT, and the data showed the women weren't discouraged from certain career paths.

The survey data showed a notable disparity on one point: That men, relative to women, prefer to work with inorganic materials; women, in general, prefer to work with organic or living things. This gender disparity was apparent very early in life, and it continued to hold steady over the course of the participants' careers.

Benbow and Lubinski also found something else intriguing: Women who are mathematically gifted are more likely than men to have strong verbal abilities as well; men who excel in math, by contrast, don't do nearly as well in verbal skills. As a result, the career choices for math-precocious women are wider than for their male counterparts. They can become scientists, but can succeed just as well as lawyers or teachers. With this range of choice, their data show, highly qualified women may opt out of certain technical or scientific jobs simply because they can.

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.

posted by Dan at 10:16 AM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

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.

It’s clear, though, that on the continuum that separates realists from idealists, McCain sits much closer to the idealist perspective. McCain has long been chairman of the International Republican Institute, run by Craner, which exists to promote democratic reforms in closed societies. He makes a point of meeting with dissidents when he visits countries like Georgia and Uzbekistan and has championed the cause of Aung San Suu Kyi, the imprisoned leader of the Burmese resistance. Most important, as he made clear in his preamble to our interview, McCain considers national values, and not strategic interests, to be the guiding force in foreign policy. America exists, in McCain’s view, not simply to safeguard the prosperity and safety of those who live in it but also to spread democratic values and human rights to other parts of the planet.

McCain argues that his brand of idealism is actually more pragmatic in a post-9/11 world than the hard realism of the cold war. He rejects as outdated, for instance, a basic proposition of cold-war realists like Kissinger and Baker: that stability is always found in the relationship between states. Realists have long presumed that the country’s security is defined by the stability of its alliances with the governments of other countries, even if those governments are odious; by this thinking, your interests can sometimes be served by befriending leaders who share none of your democratic values. McCain, by contrast, maintains that in a world where oppressive governments can produce fertile ground for rogue groups like Al Qaeda to recruit and prosper, forging bonds with tyrannical regimes is often more likely to harm American interests than to help them.

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?”

“I think we’ve learned some lessons,” McCain told me. “One is that the American people have to be willing to support it. But two, we need to work more in an international way to try to beneficially affect the situation. And you have to convince America and the world that every single avenue has been exhausted before we go in militarily. And we better think not a day later or a week later, but a year and 5 years and 10 years later. Because the attention span, unfortunately, of the American people, although pretty remarkable in some ways, is not inexhaustible.”....

McCain is relying on the same strategy to achieve success both in Iraq and in the November election. In each endeavor, McCain is staking everything on the notion that the public, having seen the success of a new military strategy, can be convinced that the war is, in fact, winnable and worth the continued sacrifice. Absent that national retrenching, McCain admits that this war, like the one in Vietnam, is probably doomed. Near the end of our conversation in Tampa, I asked him if he would be willing to change course on Iraq if the violence there started to rise again. “Oh, we’d have to,” he replied. “It’s not so much what McCain would do. American public opinion will not tolerate such a thing.”

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.

posted by Dan at 09:40 AM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)