Oxy Mora: Personas Eat Policy Wonks for Breakfast
No, I'm not defending Naomi Schafer Riley as any art form, including the writing of an 800-900 word newspaper article can be practiced badly. To not even read what you're criticizing is pretty low. But Dr. Cleveland, Professor of Dagblog, sets a very high standard for columnists. Paul Krugman, who sticks (usually) to his discipline, is praised while David Brooks and Ross Douthat are singled out for writing on a broader array of topics which they cannot, by definition, claim expertise.
Come to think of it, I don't want to defend Brooks and Douthat either. They both annoy me for some of the same reasons they annoy Dr. Cleveland. Then there's me, a former financial journalist who now makes his living in marketing but who, as a side gig, writes an Op-Ed column for a The Daily. Though I am generally most comfortable writing in my wheelhouse (the intersection of economics, business and politics that I became familiar with during 10 years at Forbes) I do not limit myself to those topics. While it is true that I feel more comfortable about topics like Romney and the auto bailouts, I have opinions about Obama and Libya as well. There's no doubt that I'm less qualified on Obama and Libya. But, I'm a citizen. My tax dollars pay for both auto bailouts and foreign interventions. Besides, I'm probably less likely to make a boneheaded mistake in the Libya column. It's when I'm not worried about making a fool of myself that I most often do.
That said, even if I make an honest effort to understand Libya by reading Brookings briefings, Foreign Policy and articles from both the U.S. and international press, I'm probably not expert enough to really write about U.S. policy, which is likely driven by non-public information. Maybe nobody should be writing about it who isn't willing to reveal state secrets. But, by that standard, even Krugman doesn't have all of the information he needs to write about the Federal Reserve, we just have to believe that he can infer it.
Maybe I'm taking Dr. Cleveland too far, here. But his admonition that academics not talk about what they don't know, along with his description of the academic pursuit, makes it very difficult for people to claim expertise in anything. Maybe the Socratic Humility Dodge is in order for everyone? Or, maybe it is that you have to spend a lifetime looking for new and novel things in your field, which gives you a familiarity that others simply will not have. Heck, the problem isn't so much that outsiders haven't done the reading, it's that they might not even know what to read. It's like being confused in a math class and not even knowing what question to ask the professor.
This is at odds, however, with the great middlebrow experiment in American culture. It used to be that a New Yorker subscription and active participation in a Great Books club could give the layman the foundations they need in literature, culture, art, philosophy and science. Nowadays, people can use the Internet to get even more information but the academic disciplines that might interest them have become more and more specialized.
This becomes a huge problem when we get into realms of public policy. Like, for instance, the Presidential Commission for Bioethics, which is loaded with well-versed academics who mighty rightly say to an outside critic like me that I don't even know then literature they're debating. Yet, the results of their debate could well affect what kind of medicines I get and what research programs my tax dollars go to support.
Now, if I wrote a column criticizing the Commission with no knowledge whatsoever bout what the Commission was actually saying, I'd call that a bad column. But I do think that a layman who makes an honest effort to understand the Commissions recommendations and concerns can probably weigh in without wading into tens of thousands of pages of bioethics literature dating back more than a decade. Heck, that columnist might even do a service to the debate by chiming in from the outside.
And that's where I think I disagree. I don't think that Ross Douthat needs to be able to speak or read Aramaic in order to take issue with Elaine Pagels, a theologian who writes for a popular audience. Whether or not he's right or could hold his own in a debate with her is another matter.
Similarly, given that most universities either get direct taxpayer support or indirect support through their nonprofit status, I think it's okay for outsiders to have an opinion about what topics are studied and how they're taught. Again, they should have informed opinions, but they need not be academically informed. The academy is part of society. So it's fair game.
But the final thing, and I know I'm being long-winded here, is that not everyone wants to specialize. Some people crave more general knowledge. I have a hard time knowing when I want to read fiction, when I want to read science and when I want to read politics. A month from now, I might be dusting off some Milton. Or, not. It actually seems like there's little place for so scattered a thinker in academic life, but that's often what we've expected of our public intellectuals.
It actually seems sad to me that generalism isn't more highly regarded because for a lot of us, specialization is unnatural.