The New York Times’ Op-Ed Page Is An Intellectual Dark Web

The New York Times Op-Ed page has been an intellectual dark web for a long time. Few corners of the Internet can lay claim to both Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, two of the most widely ridiculed, mocked, and parodied ‘thought leaders’ ever to have deigned to grace us swine with their pearls of wisdom; so extensive and ubiquitous is the scorn sent their way and so, correspondingly, entirely self-unaware is this pair that they continue to write on as before, unaware that they are now parodying themselves. The Times’ Op-Ed page also includes Maureen Dowd, who slipped into irrelevance during the Bush years, and only makes periodic, pitiful attempts to show up on readers’ radars–sometimes by penning unhinged rants about clueless consumption of marijuana edibles in legal jurisdictions. Then there is Sophist-in-Chief-And-Apologist-For-Religion Ross Douthat, whose rambling, self-pitying pieces about the marginalization of conservative thought by remorseless liberals have also settled into their own familiar and head-scratching template: see, liberalism, you so mean, you just shot yourself in your own foot while you thought you was picking out distant conservative targets.

And then, we have Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens.

I must confess to knowing little about these two writers before they were promoted to their own space on one of the nation’s most prominent media platforms; the former apparently distinguished herself by attacking the academic freedom of Arab scholars to criticize Israel, the latter by cheerleading for the Iraq War. But their settling down into the boring, predictable output emanating from the New York Times Op-Ed page was rapid enough, and Weiss’ latest offering cements her own particular corner in that outpost: a paean to those intellectuals who have thrown their toys out of the pram because they are not being recognized–it remains entirely unclear by whom–for the intellectual revolutionaries they imagine themselves to be. Here they are: Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan etc. They have giant book deals, extensive media presence and connections, YouTube channels and podcasts whose audience runs into the millions; indeed, you might even imagine them ‘thought leaders’ of a kind. Their ideas are, sadly enough, disappointingly familiar: sexism and racism and the wonders of the free market find scientific grounding here, as do dark imprecations about the conceptual connections between particular religions and social dysfunction, and so on. No matter: what really unites the intellectuals is that they imagine themselves iconoclasts and pioneers and brave outsiders. And those writing on them imagine themselves to be similar intellectual heroes: they are, after all, speaking up on behalf of the rebels and outsiders and outliers.

A more depressing display of intellectual cluelessness cannot be imagined; the essay’s astonishing photo-spread, which showcases the various profiled ‘intellectuals’ in the act of getting caught peeing in the bushes confirms this assessment. The ‘intellectuals’ profiled by Weiss are not on the margins; they are right at the center, and they aren’t keen to share the spotlight with anyone; an elementary examination of their cultural placement would reveal this fact rather quickly. It is hard to know how this pitch was first made by Weiss; it is equally hard to fathom the editorial reasoning that led to its approval and to the final finished form.

Before Weiss is alarmed by the scornful response to her piece, she should remember that she is not being ‘silenced,’ that her ‘essay’ was published at the New York Times, and that, despite the writerly incompetence on display, she is not being sacked. She’s right where she belongs: on the intellectual dark web.

Tony Judt On A Pair Of Intellectual Sins

In The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and The French Twentieth Century (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998, p. 121), Tony Judt writes of Albert Camus:

One of the things that he had to come to dislike the most about Parisian intellectuals was their conviction that they had something to say about everything, and that everything could be reduced to the kind of thing they liked to say.

Of the two intellectual sins made note of here, the former seems more forgivable than the latter. Moreover, it is not a specifically ‘intellectual’ failing (and certainly not restricted to only those that live within Parisian precincts); the desire to make our opinions heard on every topic imaginable seems a rather more universal striving. We are a loquacious species, prone to issuing a series of rich, detailed, reports on what we observe in both the inner and outer dimensions. We thrive on communication and theorizing, on seemingly endless chatter; even our silences are understood to be pregnant with meanings and are instantly analyzed as such. We valorize the novel and the personal essay–perhaps even the tweet and the ‘status’–and esteem their creators as among our finest. So long as this incentive scheme remains in place, those who speak and write will continue to hold forth, and with ever greater ambition.  When history and philosophy and autobiography cannot contain these strivings, they spill over into fiction. Or vice-versa.

The sin of indiscriminate reduction is another matter altogether. It insists on an unimaginative pigeonholing of our experiences into rigid, unbending templates; the rich multiplicity of possible perspectives vanishes into a monochromatic view.  Discourse–the supposedly unending stream alluded to above–narrows. The bit about the lack of imagination is crucial; it is reductionism’s greatest sin. It lazily insists on returning all conversations to the same terminus. Again, intellectuals are not the only ones to stand indicted of this failing, but their sin is greater. For they are supposed beneficiaries of education, that great ‘broadening’ of the mind; the ignorant’s failure to move beyond the confines of their illiteracy is more comprehensible.

If we had to extend our tolerance to these failings let us err on the side of generosity and encourage the possibilities of the former. Richer rewards await us there.

Note: The supposedly old saw about hammers and nails is, according to Wikipedia, possessed of a relatively recent academic etymology:

Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science, 1966, page 15 and his earlier book Abraham H. Maslow (1962), Toward a Psychology of BeingI suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

Similar concept by Abraham Kaplan, The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science, 1964, page 28: I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.

Labeled “Baruch’s Observation” (after Bernard Baruch) in The Complete Murphy’s Law: A Definitive Collection (1991) by Arthur Bloch.


Derrida And Beauvoir On The ‘Powerless,’ ‘Not Bothersome’ Intellectual

In ‘The Ends of Man,’ (from After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, eds. Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy, MIT Press, 1987, pp. 129), Jacques Derrida writes:

It would be illusory to believe that political innocence has been restored and evil complicities undone when opposition to them can be expressed in the country itself, not only through the voices of its citizens but also through those of foreign citizens, and that henceforth diversities, i.e., oppositions, may freely and discursively relate to one another. That a declaration of opposition to some official policy  is authorized, and authorized by the authorities, also means, precisely to that extent, that the declaration does not upset the given border, is not bothersome.

As I had noted here a while ago, some writers–political dissidents by design or accident–find out just how talented they are precisely because the powers that be find them ‘bothersome’ and act accordingly to reduce such disturbances. The rest of us have to chug along, our peace and quiet ensured by our mediocrity, by  our inability to stir the hornets’ nest. Insofar as the freedoms of expression are made available by the powerful, they are carefully circumscribed by the troubles they generate. Insecure, anxious regimes lash out blindly and often stupidly, stirring up the depths, roiling the waters; the secure, the assured, the carefully propped up, the ideologically protected, they do not need to act with such haste and panic. They may grandly, with regal authority, with a wave of an outstretched hand, permit the parades of loud and visible disobedience and dissidence to march on, knowing they can and will do little harm. More to the point, such indulgence grants them the air of enlightenment, one to be carefully cultivated by future displays of ersatz concern for civil liberties.

On a related note, at one point in  The Mandarins (WW Norton, New York, 1954; 1999, Simone de Beauvoir (or, rather her alter-ego, Anne Dubreuilh) thinks the following about her American character Lewis Brogan (in real life, Nelson Algren):

All in all, he was practically in the same position as Robert [Dubreuilh] and Henri [Perron], but he reconciled himself to it with a calm bordering on the exotic. Writing, speaking on the radio and occasionally at meetings to denounce some abuse or other satisfied him fully. Yes, I had once been told that here [in America] intellectuals could live in security because they knew they were completely powerless.

That caustic summary of the relationship between the American intellectual and the political systems which pay host to him or her is tinged with a characteristic French disdain for most things American–and perhaps a personally inflected bite as well in Beauvoir’s case–but Beauvoir’s remark is still perspicuous. The ‘critical’ American intellectual is simply not, because of his or her location in culture and its ‘business,’ placed to make dramatic or radical changes in the polity. The ‘real’ cultural, political, and financial power is wielded elsewhere; its face is most dramatically visible when the critical intellectual does dare to make an actually threatening move or two. The fate of whistleblowers reminds us of this grim fact quite frequently.

Contra Damon Linker, ‘Leftist Intellectuals’ Are Not ‘Disconnected From Reality’

Over at The Week, Damon Linker accuses ‘the Left’ of being disconnected from reality, basing this charge on his reading of two recent pieces by Corey Robin and Jedediah Purdy. (It begins with a charge that is all too frequently leveled at the Bernie Sanders campaign: that its political plans are political fantasies.) What gets Linker really offended is that ‘left-wing intellectuals’–who presumably should know better–are trafficking in the same ‘disconnected from reality’ ramblings.

I don’t think they are. Rather, they are doing the exact opposite of what Linker claims, and in this spectacular misreading of them, Linker only indicts his own disconnect from the actual historical realities of how ideas and actions–especially political ones–interact.

First, Linker suggests that Robin thinks that indifference to political reality is a virtue. As he notes:

In a provocative essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Intellectuals Create a Public,” Robin argues that “the problem with our public intellectuals today is that they are writing for readers who already exist, as they exist,” as opposed to “summoning” a new world, a new public, a new reality, into being.

In his essay, Robin offered a critique of Cass Sunstein‘s libertarian paternalism, suggesting that it merely further reifies an existing political reality, leaving everything as it was before; later Robin goes on to suggest that Ta-Nehisi Coates is afflicted by a kind of ‘impossibilism’ about the possibility of the “politics of a mass mobilization.” (Robin’s take on Coates deserves far more considered analysis than I can provide here. More on that anon.) Linker then, by linking to Marx’s famous quote in the Theses on Fuerbach about the need for philosophers to change the world and not just interpret it, insinuates that Robin is just being an impractical Marxist in accusing Sunstein and Coates of producing “an all too accurate reflection of the world we live in.” (Incidentally, this trope “You sound like Marx; you’re impractical!” is profoundly unimaginative. I’m surprised it still does work for people.) The production of this facsimile for Linker is a virtue; for Robin, in the case of Sunstein, it speaks of a limited imagination (in the case of Coates, I think, again, that matters are very different.)

What makes Linker’s critique of Robin especially bizarre is that from the very outset of his essay, Robin is talking about action, activity, making and remaking, interacting with this world, reshaping and reconfiguring it–through ideas and beliefs, expressed through writing, sent out into this world in an effort to change people’s minds, to make them see the world differently. This is about as far as being disconnected from reality as you can imagine; Robin is not advocating a retreat to the ivory tower, to write complacently for a pre-existent audience that will force the author into the templates of its demands; rather he is suggesting that the author, the intellectual, by the form and content of his ideas–as expressed in his writings–can change and alter those templates and bid his readers follow different trajectories of both thought and action.

As Robin says:

[The public intellectual] is…the literary equivalent of the epic political actor, who sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world.

This is as ‘reality-based’ as you can get, and you only get to doubt that if you, perhaps like Linker, seemingly doubt the power of ideas and beliefs; you know, those things the American pragmatists called ‘rules for action.’ Let’s forget about religion for a second, and simply consider a couple of examples Robin provides: Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring and Michelle Alexander‘s The New Jim Crow. The former produced an environmental movement; the latter has galvanized a nation-wide movement against mass incarceration.

As Robin goes on to note:

By virtue of the demands they make upon the reader, they force a reckoning. They summon a public into being — if nothing else a public conjured out of opposition to their writing. Democratic publics are always formed in opposition and conflict: “to form itself,” wrote Dewey, “the public has to break existing political forms.

The role for the public intellectual that Robin envisages is the breaking of existing political forms–philosophers of culture like Nietzsche suggested doing this with a hammer; we’ll have to settle for our word processors. Far from being disconnected with reality, Robin is suggesting an active engagement with the world; these engagements, Linker might be surprised to know, take many forms, ranging from the grubby and sordid to the elevated and sublime. Sometimes those forms of engagement are literary, sometimes physical, sometimes performative, sometimes emotional.

The problem is that Linker’s imagination is limited; he is himself cut off from the very reality he claims to be in touch with. Robin’s vision, by extending further than Linker’s, might be informing him that there are more things in this world than he might have allowed for.

Linker then moves on Purdy, summarizing his claims as follows:

[P]olitics and economics have been “denaturalized” in our time, and that even nature itself is undergoing the same process….all appeals to permanent, intrinsic truths or standards by parties involved in political, economic, or environmental debates have become unconvincing. Nothing is natural in the normative sense — no political or economic arrangement, and not even any specific construal of the natural world and its meanings.

All such appeals to nature are in fact conventional, artificial constructs of the human mind imposed upon the world.

Linker suggests that Purdy draws a ‘radical’ conclusion from this:

a wonderful opportunity [which] holds out the possibility of a collective “world-shaping project” that would bring about a radical democratization of politics and economics, and of the relation of both to the natural world.

Linker now fulminates:

The problem with this way of describing the world is not merely that it’s wrong. (As long as human beings have physical bodies that can thrive, be injured, and die, and as long as they live out their lives in a physical world that obeys natural laws disclosed by science, politics and economics will be hemmed in by constraints and obstacles that stand in the way of any number of potential “world-shaping projects.”)

Purdy’s claims are not particularly ‘radical’; instead they build on a rich tradition of deflationary claims about the pretensions of absolutist theorizing about metaphysics, ethics, and politics. Linker should know–if he’s read any philosophy of science or history of science–that science richly interacts with politics and economics and law. Thus the very science that Linker so valorizes is in fact something co-constructed with the society in which its practices are embedded. The politics and economics of this world impinge on the science it practices; a radical remaking of our politics and economics will also remake the science we practice. Not the truths it discovers but what it thinks it is important to research, investigate, and pursue as an object of knowledge.  Science is “hemmed in by constraints and obstacles that stand in the way of any number of potential “world-shaping projects.” Want to build that accelerator? Sorry; we don’t have the funds. Want to go to Mars? Same problem. Want to do stem-cell research? Sorry, no can do. The religious folk won’t stand for it.

If Linker simply wishes to say that our physical bodies and the world limits our physical actions, then he’s stating the obvious. What he missed out on, like he did with Robin above, is that Purdy is speaking of an untrammeled imagination, which hitherto has been restricted and confined to pre-existing categories of thought and possibilities. It is the ‘construals’ of the world that have been limited; change those and you change your sense of what is possible for your interactions with this world. We’ll always bump up against the hard, unforgiving edge of something or the other; but we don’t even know, so long as we are confined by existing construals, what and where those edges are.

And then, Linker levels that old canard:

The even bigger problem with Purdy’s account of things is that it renders political evaluation and judgment impossible. As Will Wilkinson writes in a brilliant critique of the essay, “Appeals to value only make sense…against a background of belief about how things really are. If our best ideas about the way the world works can’t put a boundary around political contestation, then leaving the lead in Flint’s drinking water makes as much sense as taking it out.”

The kind of anti-metaphysical claims that Nietzsche made, the kind of radical undermining he conducted of morality, did not render moral evaluation impossible. Au contraire, it bid us examine the foundations of our moralities to see whose interests were represented therein. We, moral subjects, could radically reconfigure those values by dint of our actions. By, you know, our politics, our imaginations, our actions, our writings.

Accusing of intellectuals of being disconnected from reality is a tired, old, reactionary political trick. It is a ideological maneuver, one that merely indicts the one making the charge of preferring their own fantastic vision of the world.

Ta-Nehisi Coates Attacks One Privilege, Defends Another

Last week, Ta-Nehisi Coates rightly took Dylan Byers to task after the latter’s snarky response to Coates’ anointment of Melissa Harris-Perry as ‘America’s foremost public intellectual’:

What sets Byers apart is the idea that considering Harris-Perry an intellectual is somehow evidence of inferior thinking.

I came up in a time when white intellectuals were forever making breathless pronouncements about their world, about my world, and about the world itself. My life was delineated lists like “Geniuses of Western Music” written by people who evidently believed Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin did not exist. That tradition continues. Dylan Byers knows nothing of your work, and therefore your work must not exist.

Here is the machinery of racism—the privilege of being oblivious to questions, of never having to grapple with the everywhere; the right of false naming; the right to claim that the lakes, trees, and mountains of our world do not exist; the right to insult our intelligence with your ignorance. The machinery of racism requires no bigotry from Dylan Byers. It merely requires that Dylan Byers sit still.

Good stuff. But as part of his defense, Coates also said:

This began because I claimed that Melissa Harris-Perry is “America’s foremost public intellectual.” I made this claim because of Harris-Perry’s background: Ph.D. from Duke; stints at Princeton and Tulane; the youngest woman to deliver the Du Bois lecture at Harvard; author of two books; trustee at the Century Foundation. I made this claim because of her work: I believe Harris-Perry to be among the sharpest interlocutors of this historic era—the era of the first black president—and none of those interlocutors communicate to a larger public, and in a more original way, than Harris-Perry.

Again, mostly good stuff. The bit that bothers me is the bit about ‘background’, which abides by another conventional sort of privilege: the credentialing capacities of the Ivy League. (In my mind, almost synonymous with ‘expensive private university privilege.’)

Duke, Princeton, Harvard. (There is Tulane too, another private school; I’m aware Duke is not Ivy League.) Coates deploys these names as any other exponent of Ivy League privilege might: the mere fact of association with them is evidence enough of intellectual quality. What was the Ph.D on? Was the dissertation any good? Did it make dissertation-level contributions to its field or was it pretty perfunctory stuff? Coates also mentions ‘two books’. What were they on? Were their arguments any good? (They were published by Yale and Princeton University Presses incidentally.)

What if Melissa Harris-Perry had done exactly the same work, but had gone to the University of North Carolina with stints at San Diego State and the University of Illinois? And had her books published by Florida University Press and University of Texas Press? Would Coates still be citing her ‘background’? Somehow, I don’t think so.

Ivy League privilege is real. Presidents, Supreme Court justices, the list goes on. Remember that old football chant that Ivy League students use when their teams are losing to a state school: ‘It’s alright, it’s OK, you’re going to work for us someday’?

Why not just concentrate on the intellectual quality of her work and forget about her credentials? Like you know, we should forget about race and just concentrate on the quality of her work? Down with all privilege, right?

There is something problematic, also, about turning the business of being a ‘public intellectual’ into some sort of competition, but more on that later.

Note: I didn’t attend the Ivy League.