A Mind That Suits What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.

Monday, January 03, 2005 :::
The previous post contains the statement that one of the reasons conservative intellectual discourse about the war is so abysmal is that many conservative writers majored in "political science or some other social science, and not history and philosophy."

Although there is truth in that, it needs a little shading. Certainly a number of people whose academic training is technically in political science have made major contributions to intellectual discourse. Two of our best writers on current affairs--William McGurn of the New York Post and Robert Samuelson of Newsweek--are trained as economists. Mr. McGurn, in particular, writes with considerable knowledge on a wide range of subjects. While doing research last summer, this writer wiled away mildly bibulous Friday nights with a brilliant young German economist just completing his Ph.D.. Young Philip was the embodiment of the classic German ideal of the broadly educated scholar, and had a real conservative’s depth of historical knowledge.

It is hard to think that there could be a conservative sociologist, given that Auguste Comte, that field’s founder, said that the aim of sociology was socialism. Yet it was exactly a sociologist, the great Peter Berger, who provided some of the best initial work among the dreaded “neo-cons.” Even one of his books written when he was more liberal--Pyramids of Sacrifice--still repays careful attention.

But let us look at journalism, traditionally the least respected of academic fields--except for teacher's training. If that book that keeps not getting written had actually been written, then someone seeking an argument could point out that “you said that Allen Drury was the single most important influence in your intellectual development. Did he not major in journalism?” Indeed he did.

And we will go one better: there is a current Washington Post reporter--a secular liberal even--whose work rises to the lofty standards maintained by Al. Al’s own work as a reporter in the 1940’s and 1950’s is still mined by scholars of the period, particularly his greatest work, A Senate Journal, written during FDR’s decline. Al, it should be pointed out, was 26 when he wrote it. So “lofty” is the word to apply to his standards, and my Post friend rises to them with aplomb.

But let us look more closely: the Stanford journalism (now communications) department requires that its majors pick another field to minor in. More importantly, Allen Drury came to Stanford pre-soaked in British and American history. He took a circumnavigational approach to studying, which displeased his teachers somewhat, but the style paid off: he dedicated one whole summer to studying the Confederacy on his own, something which almost no major university allows. The Senate he came to cover almost immediately after he graduated was dominated by the segregationist Democrats of the “Solid South.”

In his declining years, he sent his pudgy balding nephew a book he thought of some interest. It is called The Great Game, a history of European competition over South Asia. The book acquired a new cachet after 9/11. In one of his last novels, A Thing of State, Al referred to the “Third Gulf War” when the oil fires from the first one were still burning. Allen Drury, it seems, never lost his reporter’s nose.

So, too, with the Post reporter. His desk groans under a pile of books, none of whose contents will ever warrant even one column inch in his writings, but they inform his writing and give him leads that simply escape any other reporter on the same beat at a major publication. (The Journal, in many ways the most important paper in the world, published an overview of the career of the most important public figure in that area. The reporters had done nothing more than ask people at a typical liberal New York dinner what they thought. It was appalling.)

It is almost a certainty, by the way, that the Post reporter would never have bought some of those books on his desk on his own; dispassionate reading is a key to good reporting.

The magic word is “reading.” This new breed of conservative writer seems to fall down exactly where we used to be strongest--our comfort around difficult books.

The French have a marvelous expression which has no counterpart in English: “professional deformation.” There is something about each profession, in other words, that tends to twist the views or affect the personalites of its members. Journalism has one of the worst. Call it “Woodsteinism:” the belief that the greatest moment comes when you can yell “gotcha.” In thrillers, this often takes the form of a reporter going to see the one expert everyone tells him he simply has to talk to. The expert gives him an account of whatever problem he is an expert in, but at some point, the reporter snarls, “but what’s the real story?” At which point, the expert pauses, brushes aside the stacks of paper he has been referring to, and whispers some incredible conspiracy theory, a large corporation usually being the real villain. (How so many reporters can live on the assumption that corporations are the embodiment of evil when they in DC, where for many years there was no private sector and the government raped the poor folks, is beyond this writer, but that is a tale for another day.)

The important point is the attitude toward reporting: the story is almost always in the documents, and the documents are what a younger generation of conservative writers seems unfamiliar with. Worse, they do not seem to have acquired a genuine intellectual interest in Arab culture or Islam. If any of them have read beyond Bernard Lewis and Stephen Schwartz, or has even read Prof. Lewis’s books and not just his op-ed pieces, it does not seem to be showing up in their reporting.

As for how many have taken up Arabic--well, we are talking about Americans, and foreign languages seem especially foreign to most of us. But during the Cold War, it was the Hoover Felllows who spoke Russian fluently, and conservativer writers who remembered what happened in 1933, or 1949. Most younger conservatives seem unaware that former Communists continue to dominate even in such successful ex-Communist countries as Poland. All they know is that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War. They “know” about 1989, but not even about 1993.

So it’s not so much that too many conservatives have majored in journalism or poli sci, it's that they have been uncritical of the assumptions and superficial thinking that seem to go with those fields.

And they’re not reading enough.

Happy thoughts tomorrow. Promise.

::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 11:20 AM



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