Voice

Am I defining public intellectuals down?

Barry Gewen has a post up at the New York Times book blog on my recent paper on the state of public intellectuals in America.  Gewen is a little skeptical: 
Drezner’s impulse is to be inclusive: if you’ve written a serious book that has attracted a modicum of general attention, you seem to qualify as a public intellectual. I would be more restrictive, and I’d go back to the original New York Intellectuals for guidance. Broadly, they viewed the public intellectual as someone deeply committed to the life of the mind and to its impact on the society at large. Irving Howe refers to the pursuit of “the idea of centrality” among the writers he knew, and the yearning “to embrace . . . the spirit of the age.” That is, public intellectuals were free-floating and unattached generalists speaking out on every topic that came their way (though most important for the New York Intellectuals was the intersection of literature and politics). They might be journalists or academics, but only because they had to eat. At the most fundamental level, ideas for them were not building blocks to a career. Rather, careers were the material foundation that allowed them to define and express their ideas. It hardly needs to be said that this stance produced an inevitable tension between academic life, with its occupational demands for specialization, and opinionated public intellectuals refusing to be pigeon-holed.... The problem I have with Drezner’s list is that it fails to capture any of this tension, and therefore misses, I believe, something essential in the meaning of “public intellectual.” Drezner includes, for instance, Fareed Zakaria and Samantha Power. I yield to few in my admiration for these two writers, but for them to be considered public intellectuals in the old New York Intellectual sense — with its commitment to cultural “centrality” — I think they would have to demonstrate greater breadth than they have so far displayed. Zakaria would have to write, say, a thoughtful essay on the novels of Philip Roth and Power a book on the history of the blues.
One could contest whether Gewen is being fair to either Zakaria or Power (the former had a wine column in Slate for a few years; the latter contributed to a book about baseball) but let's get to the larger point.  Are this generation's public intellectuals "speaking out on every topic that [comes] their way"?  I partially responded to this in an earlier post.  To sum up: 
[A]s 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.... 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.”
There's two other points to be made , however.  First, how public does an intellectual need to be to merit discussion of someone as a "public intellectual"?  It's not like Irving Howe or Dwight MacDonald merited large readerships with their Partisan Review contributions.  Furthermore, a quick perusal of Howe's "Age of Conformity" reveals a distinct snobbery towards intellectuals that embraced a wider audience.  In the here and now, people like Russell Jacoby and David Brooks would count Jane Jacobs or William Whyte as being public intellectuals, even though they were not in the Partisan Review crowd.  I fear Gewen is now being too restrictive in his definition, in that I'm not sure how "public" the New York Intellectual crowd really was.  The second point is that Gewen's example raises a bias in the way some think about the public intellectual species.  As I noted in my essay: 
In the current era, a lot more public intellectuals possess social science rather than humanities backgrounds.  In Richard Posner’s list of top public intellectuals, there are twice as many social scientists as humanities professors.[1]  In the Foreign Policy list, economists and political scientists outnumber artists and novelists by a ratio of four to one.  Economics has supplanted literary criticism as the “universal methodology” of public intellectuals. 

[1] Posner, Public Intellectuals, p. 207 and 215. 

 

 

Here's the bias:  in the past, when literary critics traversed into the fields of social science, they were seen as public intellectuals.  Why, when social scientists return the favor -- like Tyler Cowen, Richard Posner or Gary Becker --  are they viewed as arrivistes and/or methodological imperialists?

Daniel W. Drezner

Trying for the full Huntington

As I've said before, I've greatly admired Samuel Huntington's career. Huntington's gift as an academic is that he has been unafraid to make the politically incorrect argument, regardless of the consequences. This doesn't always mean he is right -- but it does mean he's usually interesting. I suspect that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt are trying to copy the Huntington template in their essay, "The Israel Lobby" for the London Review of Books: Here's how it starts:

For the past several decades, and especially since the Six-Day War in 1967, the centrepiece of U.S. Middle Eastern policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering support for Israel and the related effort to spread democracy throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardised not only U.S. security but that of much of the rest of the world. This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the U.S. been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the U.S. provides.

Instead, the thrust of U.S. policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the Israel Lobby. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. interests and those of the other country  in this case, Israel are essentially identical.

Well, that argument certainly won't rub anyone the wrong way. Interested readers should be sure to check out the longer, footnoted paper which is archived at the Kennedy School of Government. So do Mearsheimer and Walt achieve the full Huntington? No, not really. "The Israel Lobby" is the academic equivalent of waving a big red cape at one's ideological opponents, hoping they'll foam at the mouth and act stark raving mad because the authors cited Chomsky or CommonDreams, or because, "the Fatah office in Washington distributed the article to an extensive mailing list." [Or maybe they're pissed that they didn't crack the 100 Most Dangerous Professors in America!!--ed.] So let's avoid that bait. Reading the essay, I can conclude the following:

1) Mearsheimer and Walt make a decent case of arguing that interest group lobbying is responsible for some aspects of U.S. policy towards the Greater Middle East. Now this asssertion alone is enough to make people very uncomfortable at cocktail parties and other venues. Whenever I bring up ethnic lobbying in my American foreign policy class and mention Israel, everyone in the room tenses up. So kudos to Mearsheimer and Walt for speaking the taboo thought.

2) Shot through these papers are an awful lot of casual assertions that don't hold up to close scrutiny [Which makes it eerily similar to some of your blog posts!!--ed. True that.]. The authors assert that, "If Washington could live with a nuclear Soviet Union, a nuclear China or even a nuclear North Korea, it can live with a nuclear Iran. And that is why the Lobby must keep up constant pressure on politicians to confront Tehran." I'm pretty sure that there's more to U.S. opposition to Iran possessing nuclear weapons than the protection of Israel.

From the longer Kennedy paper, Mearsheimer and Walt make a fascinating logical assertion: "[T]he mere existence of the Lobby suggests that unconditional support for Israel is not in the American national interest. If it was, one would not need an organized special interest group to bring it about. But because Israel is a strategic and moral liability, it takes relentless political pressure to keep U.S. support intact." What's fascinating about this quote are the implicit assumptions contained within it: i) the only interest group in existence is the Lobby, and; ii) in the absence of the Lobby, a well-defined sense of national interest will always guide American foreign policy. It would be very problematic for good realists like Mearsheimer and Walt to allow for other interest groups -- oil companies, for example -- to exist. This would allow for a much greater role for domestic politics than realists ever care to admit.

Finally, they argue that the U.S. invaded Iraq only primarily because Israel and the Lobby -- in the form of neoconservatives -- wanted it. I wrote my take on this argument three years ago:

The notion that such a conspiracy exists rests on the belief that the administration's foreign policy principals -- Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and Bush himself -- have somehow been duped by the neoconservatives into acting in a manner contrary to their beliefs. But while critics have never lacked for accusations against these officials, being weak-willed is not among them. In the end, it's far more likely that Bush is exploiting the neoconservatives' ideological arsenal to advance his preferred set of policies than vice versa.

3) There are sins of omission as well as commission. Walt and Mearsheimer assert that Israel has been a "strategic burden." They do a good job of cataloging why that's the case -- but omit important examples of Israel being useful, such as the 1981 Osirik bombing. They also go into depth on the Bush administration's policy towards the Palestinian Authority, but never mention the arms shipment that Arafat lied to Bush about as a causal factor behind Bush's decision to freeze out Arafat.

4) The evidence is pretty thin in some sections. To demonstrate the current political power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, they cite a 1984 election where AIPAC was allegedly curcial. They argue that the Israeli-Palestine problem is at the root of Al Qaeda's beef with the United States -- which is funny, because I was pretty sure it was the presence of U.S. forces near the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina. They claim the Lobby is responsible for U.S. policy towards Syria, but that policy amounts to little more than some empty sabre-rattling.

After finishing the article, I began to wonder whether the paper is simple a massive exercise in explaining away a data point that realism can't cover. Most realists opposed the Iraq War, and Mearsheimer and Walt were no exception. They can and should take some normative satisfaction in being proven right by what happened after the invasion. However, I suspect as positive social scientists they are bothered by the fact that the U.S. invaded Iraq anyway when realism would have predicted otherwise. When realists are confronted with contradictory data, they tend to fall back on auxiliary hypotheses -- the cult of the offensive, the myth of empire -- that have very little to do with realism. Explaining away Iraq on The Lobby might have a whiff of the Paranoid Style, but it's certainly consistent with the literature.

In the end, I think Mearsheimer and Walt get to the full Huntington -- but alas, it's the Huntington of Who We Are? rather than The Soldier and the State. There's more I could write about, but I'm eager to hear what others think.

UPDATE: OK, I should have said, "I'm eager to hear what others think... after they read the article." Two final thoughts. First, I'm surprised and disappointed that the article has gotten zero coverage from the mainstream media in the United States. I completely agree with Walt and Mearsheimer that this is a topic that needs more open debate. Second, there's one non-event that keeps gnawing at me after reading the piece. If "The Lobby" is as powerful as Walt and Mearsheimer claim, why hasn't there been a bigger push in the United States for more fuel-efficient cars, alternative energy sources, and the like? After all, the only strategic resource that Israel's enemies possess is large quantities of oil. If "The Lobby" is so powerful and goal-directed, wouldn't they have an incentive to reduce the strategic value of their advesaries?

ANOTHER UPDATE: See this follow-up post on the Walt/Mearsheimer paper as well.