Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Public intellectuals, thought leaders, and um what?

Today's book report from former New York Times columnist David Brooks ("This Age of Wonkery") is on Daniel Drezner's The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas, which just popped out of the lab and into the ideas market on Friday:

In his book, The Ideas Industry,” Daniel W. Drezner says we’ve shifted from a landscape dominated by public intellectuals to a world dominated by thought leaders. A public intellectual is someone like Isaiah Berlin, who is trained to comment on a wide array of public concerns from a specific moral stance. A thought leader champions one big idea to improve the world — think Al Gore’s work on global warming.
Which I think is sidestepping the point Drezner really wants to make: that the traditional "marketplace of ideas" has been transformed in the 21st century into an "ideas industry"—so that the old intellectual village, I guess, where we always used to get together to haggle over the price of the dry goods before repairing to the local for some spiritual liquid refreshment has given way to a Satanic intellectual mill, powered by some previously unavailable energy source, where we must toil in smoke and darkness, whipped into submission.

The energy source being, apparently, the fabulous quantities of money invested by billionaires in the mass production of position papers, think pieces, and furious polemics, all made out of ticky-tacky and all looking just the same, making it possible for a surprisingly large number of intellectuals—more of them, inevitably, wonky and optimistic "thought leaders" than generalist and critical "public intellectuals"—live in a style that would have seemed inconceivable to their ancestors on sheer hack work, or, as Drezner more discreetly and ritually puts it, three things:
  1. pessimism: the erosion of trust in prestigious institutions, especially after the spike in respect for authority of 9/11 was wasted in the cataclysmic waste of Operation Iraqi Freedom (yes, if you're wondering, Drezner, like Brooks, made one of his leaps toward the inner orbit of intellectual celebrity as an Iraq war booster);
  2. polarization: the (political) polarization of American society into parallel audiences that have no contact with each other, diminishing the market for critical discussion as it encourages positive reinforcement of intellectual tribalism; and
  3. plutocrats: the growth in economic inequality and the increasing importance of wealthy benefactors as a force.

Which is a pretty interesting idea, actually, though to my way of thinking, the presentation is backwards, twisted, perhaps, by Drezner's need to present a balanced bothsiderist account. But it needs to be partisan, and it needs to be turned upside down to start with income inequality and end with hopelessness: the billionaires' work to subvert government to their goal of keeping inequality increasing, going back to the tax revolts of the 1970s, leads to the polarization (the cabal of tax protesters and capital authoritarians, their intellectual hangers-on, and their bamboozled hillbilly voters versus everybody else), and the polarization leads to the erosion of trust (when the Republicans are out of power they devote all their energy to painting the institutions as corrupt, hard-hearted, and incompetent, and when they're in power they provide proof that they were right).

Brooks, anyhow, seems to have skittered back into the shadows around p. 13, spooked by the flash of the phrase "economic inequality", and stopped reading. But first he picks up on Drezner's bothsiderizing cue, and runs it into the ground—

Intellectual life has fallen out of favor for several reasons, he continues. In a low-trust era, people no longer have as much faith in grand intellectuals to serve as cultural arbiters. In a polarized era, ideologically minded funders like George Soros or the Koch bothers will only pay for certain styles of thought work. In an unequal era, rich people like to go to Big Idea conferences, and when they do they want to hear ideas that are going to have some immediate impact — Jeffrey Sachs’s latest plan to end world poverty or Amy Cuddy’s findings on how to adopt the right power stance.
Note how he's moved the billionaires up to point 2—they're attempting to control the means of idea production because they're "polarized", not because they're unspeakably rich and intent on getting still richer,—leaving point 3 to be just about how the rich need high-class entertainment (of the kind Brooks himself provides them at Aspen every year, for example).

And he buries, as they always do, the crucial difference, that the Kochs pay intellectuals to influence government in a way that increases their profits, while Soros works to develop ideas for an "open society" that need not benefit him at all. I get particularly infuriated by this equation, by the way, not just because Soros is my comrade in the cult of the philosopher Karl Popper, but because in fact he makes huge amounts of money by not having influence; his biggest coups are so often made when governments reject his advice and he bets against them, so that he wouldn't be nearly as rich if his ideas prevailed. Then again the same kind of argument would apply to Warren Buffett, who works for Democrats to raise his tax bill, or Tom Steyer, who campaigned for policies that would decrease the value of his energy-industry investments before he finally dumped them altogether—our billionaires really are very different from theirs.

And then Brooks leaves the other 220 pages of Drezner's book aside; it's only that appeal to a contrast between "public intellectuals" and "thought leaders" that got his attention in the first place. It seems to make him wistful about how people used to call him a public intellectual, and literate (Democratic) presidents read his work. Those were the days, huh?

For example, because you didn't really need to know anything down and dirty about what the government does:

In the first place, public thinkers now conceive of themselves as legislative advisers. Drezner writes a book called “The Ideas Industry,” but he is really writing about public policy. When George Orwell, Simone de Beauvoir or even Ralph Waldo Emerson were writing, they were hoping to radically change society, but nobody would confuse them with policy wonks.*
It's not as if President Roosevelt ever gathered some kind of "brain trust" around him, amirite, or guys like John Kenneth Galbraith or Arthur Schlesinger Jr. or Daniel Patrick Moynihan were ever called on to hang out in the corridors of power?

Besides, in those days you could really let your imagination run free, because nobody had any idea what was possible:

Second, there was a greater sense then than now, I think, that the very nature of society was up for grabs. Call it a vestige from Marxism or maybe Christianity, but there was a sense that the current fallen order was fragile and that a more just mode of living was out there to be imagined.
"What is the very nature of society?" John Berger asked Noam Chomsky one night. "Search me," said Chomsky. They were open to anything—silicon-based life forms, multiple genders, new theocracies. I'm not perfectly clear what time frame we're talking about, when Marxism and possibly Christianity had been reduced to vestiges, which sounds like sometime in the 1990s, perhaps, but the unpleasant current system of thought leaders hadn't yet been invented. "Let's come up with a more just mode of living!" cried Martha Nussbaum, "the current order is fallen!" "The fallen order is fragile!" groused John Searle. "Then the fragile order is current!" said Nussbaum, encouragingly. "It's out there," said Cokie Roberts, in her public-intellectual début, but nobody paid any attention.

Finally, intellectual life was just seen as more central to progress. Intellectuals establish the criteria by which things are measured and goals are set. Intellectuals create the frameworks within which politicians operate.
It's awfully interesting how he switches, there, to the present tense, but I don't know what it means. Possibly just that he's phoning it in and forgotten what column he's writing. Anything else?

The equation between being a public intellectual and a "moral person", for one thing: in the ancient tradition of Brooks, it doesn't matter what you believe about politics, as long as you work out a way of being good. And the obligatory oblique reference to Plato's cave, to prove that Brooks himself, moral or not, is still a public intellectual, because Plato's cave is what those cats always do:

Doing that sort of work meant leading the sort of exceptional life that allowed you to emerge from the cave — to see truth squarely and to be fully committed to the cause. Creating a just society was the same thing as transforming yourself into a moral person.
And a last bothsiderist gasp failing because somehow Brooks and his friends still think Eric Blair/George Orwell was a conservative, rather than a dedicated socialist throughout his life who (quite rightly) hated the Communist parties of the West for their blindness in not seeing how Stalin was destroying the socialism he believed in (not that it wrecks Brooks's argument because at this point there's no argument, but just sayin):

For George Orwell, this meant being with the poor and the oppressed — living as a homeless tramp in England, a dishwasher in Paris, getting shot through the neck as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War. It meant teaching himself how to turn political writing into an art form.
For the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, it meant committing fully to ideas, even if it meant years in prison, and doing the rigorous mental work required for a life of hard thinking. He was as left as can be, but he believed in traditional school curriculums, the tough grinding of learning Latin and Greek grammar. “It will be necessary to resist the tendency to render easy that which cannot become easy without being distorted,” he wrote.
Matched by that bland suggestion that Gramsci was really a kind of conservative because he favored the study of Greek and Latin, which real Communists would never do? (Disclosure: I wish I'd found some time to do some Greek myself...). But no, David, this has not been an effective way to convince me that you're an effective publiic intellectual.
You'll be glad to know that Daniel Drezner is very contented about his own future as a public intellectual, which is unlikely to involve poverty, prison, or the study of Greek:

*Though Beauvoir for one certainly had some pretty specific policy ideas in mind, some of which have actually been realized to some extent in some places since 1949, including no-fault divorce, universally available contraception, paid maternity leave, while other haven't yet been scratched off the list—
women raised and educated exactly like men would work under the same conditions and for the same salaries; erotic freedom would be accepted by custom, but the sexual act would no longer be considered a remunerable "service"; women would be obliged to provide another livelihood for themselves; marriage would be based on a free engagement that the spouses could break when they wanted to; motherhood would be freely chosen—that is, birth control and abortion would be allowed—and in return all mothers and their children would be given the same rights; maternity leave would be paid for by the society that would have responsibility for the children, which does not mean that they would be taken from their parents but that they would not be abandoned to them.
Close up, Beauvoir actually starts looking a lot like one of Drezner's thought leaders, with her hedgehog ability to focus on the single idea that women were the equal of men, and her irrepressible belief that it could be done.

And Orwell's clear-eyed and circumstantial explanation of the necessity of socialism at the outset of the war would sound pretty wonky if the writing wasn't so spectacularly entertaining:
All through the critical years British capitalism, with its immense industrial plant and its unrivalled supply of skilled labour, was unequal to the strain of preparing for war. To prepare for war on the modern scale you have got to divert the greater part of your national income to armaments, which means cutting down on consumption goods. A bombing plane, for instance, is equivalent in price to fifty small motor cars, or eight thousand pairs of silk stockings, or a million loaves of bread. Clearly you can’t have many bombing planes without lowering the national standard of life. It is guns or butter, as Marshal Goering remarked. But in Chamberlain’s England the transition could not be made. The rich would not face the necessary taxation, and while the rich are still visibly rich it is not possible to tax the poor very heavily either. Moreover, so long as profit was the main object the manufacturer had no incentive to change over from consumption goods to armaments. A businessman’s first duty is to his shareholders. Perhaps England needs tanks, but perhaps it pays better to manufacture motor cars. To prevent war material from reaching the enemy is common sense, but to sell in the highest market is a business duty. Right at the end of August 1939 the British dealers were tumbling over one another in their eagerness to sell Germany tin, rubber, copper and shellac - and this in the clear, certain knowledge that war was going to break out in a week or two. It was about as sensible as selling somebody a razor to cut your throat with. But it was ‘good business’.

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