A FIRST BRUSH WITH GREATNESS! We freshmen sneered at the young professor—then learned how very wrong we had been: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 2008
THEY JEERED, WE CHEERED: Watching Keith Olbermanns post-debate session, we cheered John Damato when he mentioned the moment no one else would ever have mentioned. Quite correctly, the audience had booed and jeered Wolf Blitzer when he asked that late-debate question, the one in which he let us know what he so brilliantly thought. Good for that audience—and good for John! Of course, Keith and his other guests wouldnt have mentioned it if they had chatted for years.
MADDOW MIND-READS MOTIVE: Quick disclaimer: We have an extremely low opinion of MSNBCs Rachel Maddow, a progressive woman who was willing to pander to Chris Matthews to land a key media spot. Disclaimer offered, let us say this: Appearing on Olbermanns post-debate show, Maddow gave us an excellent look at the role of motive journalism.
Simply put: Pundits typically attribute motive to candidates whom they disfavor.
At issue was Obama and Clintons discussion of the way illegal immigration affects working-class wages, specifically for African-Americans. (This issue was specifically raised by a question. Sorry: Transcripts arent available yet.) To simplify things a bit (but not much), Obama said that illegal immigrants dont harm working-class blacks all that much. Clinton said she disagreed, and she said that all such groups will gain from comprehensive reform.
Why did the solons state these views? Lets start with an obvious possibility; it may be that they stated these views because they actually believe them. (As far as we know, academic research is a mixed bag on such questions.) But when Maddow was asked to share her views, she quickly began to trash Clintons motives, using extremely unpleasant code language. Clinton had been deliberately driving a wedge, she informed us, over and over. Thats right, Rachel—and Chris Matthews may well be the most brilliant man in the world.
Lets understand how this works.
A mind-reader could have attributed motive to either Clinton or Obama. You could say that Obama was kissing up to Hispanic voters, for example, or that Clinton was courting African-Americans. But in the world of people like Maddow, motive is typically dumped on the head on the candidate who is disfavored. In saying that Clinton was driving a wedge, Maddow engaged in some ugly race-baiting—and she said that Clinton had a motive for her remarks. Obamas motives were never considered, as was completely appropriate.
By the way: Its widely held that Clinton needs major support from Hispanic voters next Tuesday. Why would she want to drive a wedge in a way which might offend these voters? To us, Maddows analysis didnt even make sense. But so what? Typically, pundits like Maddow will mind-read and trash the motives of those they disfavor.
Sometimes a disagreement is just a disagreement. In assessing a disagreement like this, decent people will typically start with the thought that candidates may simply believe what theyve said. But Rachel Maddow adores Chris Matthews—and she repeatedly, nastily said that Clinton was driving a wedge.
It would be hard to convey the contempt we hold for this brilliant young mind-reading pundit, who lied in your faces a few weeks ago to get the media spot she wanted. And yes, were mind-reading motive here. Sometimes (not often), conduct is so baldly transparent that motive becomes quite hard to miss.
REPETITION: We know, what follows is repetitious—but then again, thats the whole point. In todays column, Gene Robinson offers a balanced assessment of the electability of Clinton and Obama. [N]either has a lock on electability, he says—and we agree. But when he compared the two candidates prospects, a basic consideration was once again AWOL. Can you spot the basic problem these people never discuss?
We think thats abundantly fair—and we agree with Robinsons final sentence. (We view that as one of Obamas down-sides.) But in accord with Hard Pundit Law, Robinson dropped a major consideration from this discussion. Here it is: The mainstream press corps loathes one of these candidates—and it doesnt loathe the other. That too is part of The Whole Clinton Thing—but its a part of the The Whole Clinton Thing mainstream pundits are sworn to ignore.
Surely, Robinson understands this problem. Hes a regular guest on Hardball, which is world headquarters for MSM Clinton-loathing. Indeed, Chris Matthews was recently raked over the coals, in a very public way, for his gruesome Clinton-trashing, which has gone on for the past dozen years. And Robinsons colleague, E. J. Dionne, recently noted an obvious fact—the old irrational Clinton hatred is alive and well in certain parts of the media. But E. J. simply forgot to say which parts of the media he might have meant—and Robinson completely avoids this point. The Whole Clinton Thing energizes Republicans, he says. And no one else.
But then, the liberal, Dem and mainstream press worlds have played it this way for the past sixteen years. Eight years ago, for example, we all pretended not to know that the mainstream press was savaging Gore. Eight years later, Hard Pundit Law is still in place—and Robinson is still avoiding the obvious. Omigod! When we consider the role of the mainstream press, Obama gains an edge in electability. But even Robinson knows he cant go there; Hard Pundit Law makes him quit.
Many of us were a bit puzzled by the problems we were asked to study. (Who were these problems problems for? we would ask, decades later.) At this late date, we can only remember one of these problems: How do you know that 7 plus 5 makes 12? Our graduate assistant, Mr. Hurt, seemed to be in agony as he tried to puzzle it out.
Miss Cummings told us? In second grade? That didnt satisfy Mr. Hurt. No, no, students, he could say—and hed then emphasize one crucial word. How do you KNOW that 7 plus five equals 12? he would ask, clearly in torment.
Mr. Hurt was taking it hard, trying to solve those six classic problems. And we freshmen were starting to learn the scope of academic philosophy. Meanwhile, we were doing one more thing; we were grumbling among ourselves about how god-awful our young professor was. Discontent grew as the weeks crawled by, leading to major embarrassment.
In those days, you see, we young Harvard lads were expected to applaud at the end of every lecture. (Radcliffe women too!) And not only that: After the semesters final lecture, we were expected to author a real ovation, letting our professors know how much we appreciated access to their vast erudition. But in this class, tradition was failing. Midway through the semester, the applause began to peter out; fairly soon, it stopped altogether. No one even applauded the final lecture, creating a truly embarrassing moment. Our professor seemed like a very nice guy. But we assumed we were watching a hapless young fellow as his career flamed out.
But wouldnt you know it? Within a few years, that young assistant professor was one of the biggest stars in all of philosophy.
Because yes, that young assistant professor was the late Robert Nozick, a handsome and thoroughly decent young guy who published Anarchy, State and Utopia in 1974, after which he belonged to the ages. Despite our failure to applaud, Nozick somehow soldiered on—and became a giant star. Indeed, heres how they describe his career at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Maybe youre the type whos inclined to doubt the pronouncements of an Internet encyclopedia. Fair enough. But when Nozick died of cancer at age 63, early in 2002, the New York Times referred to him as the intellectually nimble Harvard philosopher whose critique of America's social welfare system 25 years ago continues to define the debate between conservatives and liberals. The Associated Press ranked him among the most famous philosophers of the late 20th century, noting that Anarchy, State and Utopia won the National Book Award and was named by The Times Literary Supplement as one of The Hundred Most Influential Books Since the War. (Since World War II. The Times of London assembled the list in 1995.) The Los Angeles Times said that he had dazzled liberal and conservative thinkers alike with his daringly original critique of the welfare state more than 25 years ago. And across the pond, the Times of London called Nozick one of the leading political philosophers of the 20th century. The Telegraph was less restrained: Professor Robert Nozick, who has died aged 63, was the greatest American philosopher since William James; his influence extended far beyond the academic world.
For us, this raises some questions:
First, a fairly simple question: With intellectual giants like Nozick and Rawls defining the world of political philosophy, how can it be that our daily political discourse seems to be drawn from the worlds largest sandbox? If giants like these have been striding the earth, consuming themselves with political theory, how can it be that the worlds dimmest, most childish, most unbalanced minds define our public discussion?
When their nonsense drags on for year after year, why do no giants intervene?
But a second set of questions comes to mind when we read about Nozicks brilliance. To capture them, well start with this: By all accounts, Bob Nozick was a superlative person. But if he was among the most famous philosophers of the late 20th century; if his famous book continues to define the debate between conservatives and liberals; if hes the greatest American philosopher since William James, if his influence extended far beyond the academic world—if all these statements are true, why is it youve never heard of the man? Why do you have no earthly idea what Nozick said in that book?
Why is he never mentioned or quoted? Why have you never heard his name pass lips? Why is he so hard to find when you run his name through Nexis? If Bob Nozick is so famous, why is he also unknown?
An essential point, before we dismiss, looking ahead to next Fridays venture: We dont think we ever spoke with Nozick after that awkward first semester, although we had other brushes with greatness as the years dragged by. But he seemed like a thoroughly decent person, even when we all thought he was hopelessly failing; weve never heard anyone say a word to contradict that assessment. That said, well leave you with one final question, a question well visit in Fridays to come: Is there any chance that we freshmen were right, back when we sullenly stopped our applauding? Is there any chance that the greatness of Nozick (and Rawls) might be a scripted illusion?
COMING SOON: About that accessible style.
EXTRA READING: For links to extra credit reading, you know what to do—just click here.