Daniel W. Drezner

Intellectual power and responsibility in an age of superstars

Intellectual power and responsibility in an age of superstars

In the last few weeks, Fareed Zakaria and Niall Ferguson have found themselves at the centers of controversy. As someone who has written a thing or two about public intellectuals, I confess to finding it all very fascinating. What’s striking to me is the vehemence on all sides.  Brad DeLong is an excitable sort, but calling for Harvard to fire Niall Ferguson for tendentious matters unrelated to his scholarly work seems… a bit much. Last week the Washington Post ran a story falsely accusing Zakaria of another act of plagiarism… without independently checking to see if the charge had any validity. 

On the other hand, the defenses that have been mounted also seem a bit over the top. Tunku Varadarajan defended Zakaria in Newsweek with an essay that bordered on the sycophantic, all the while accusing Zakaria’s accusers of simple envy:

What one has seen in the past few days can only be described as a hideous manifestation of envy—Fareed Envy. Henry Kissinger’s aphorism about academia (where the “politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small”) applies with delicious tartness to journalism, where media reporters of the kind who hounded Zakaria occupy the lowest rung and exult at the prospect of pulling people down. Zakaria, by contrast, is insanely successful by the standards of his profession: he has a TV show to which few people of any prominence would refuse an invitation, plus columns at Time, CNN.com, and The Washington Post. He also writes academic-lite books that presidents clutch as they clamber aboard planes, and gives speeches at—it is said—$75,000 a pop. He is as much a brand as he is a journalist: he has “inc.” in his veins.

Zakaria himself responded to the Post’s bogus second charge of plagiarism in a somewhat curious manner. Here’s what he told them: 

Zakaria, in an interview Monday, defended the practice of not attributing quotes in a popular book. “As I write explicitly [in the book], this is not an academic work where everything has to be acknowledged and footnoted,” he said. The book contains “hundreds” of comments and quotes that aren’t attributed because doing so, in context, would “interrupt the flow for the reader,” he said.

He compared his technique to other popular non-fiction authors. “Please look at other books in this genre and you will notice that I’m following standard practice,” he said.

“I should not be judged by a standard that’s not applied to everyone else,” he added. “People are piling on with every grudge or vendetta. The charge is totally bogus.”

Ferguson responded to his critics in a similar fashion: 

The other day, a British friend asked me if there was anything about the United States I disliked. I was happily on vacation and couldn’t think of anything. But now I remember. I really can’t stand America’s liberal bloggers….

My critics have three things in common. First, they wholly fail to respond to the central arguments of the piece. Second, they claim to be engaged in “fact checking,” whereas in nearly all cases they are merely offering alternative (often silly or skewed) interpretations of the facts. Third, they adopt a tone of outrage that would be appropriate only if I had argued that, say, women’s bodies can somehow prevent pregnancies in case of “legitimate rape.”

Their approach is highly effective, and I must remember it if I ever decide to organize an intellectual witch hunt. What makes it so irksome is that it simultaneously dodges the central thesis of my piece and at the same time seeks to brand me as a liar.

I’d feel more sympathy towards Ferguson if his term "liberal blogosphere" obfuscates the fact that a Nobel Prize-winning economist is rebutting Ferguson on his use of facts, and then Ferguson didn’t compound his economic errors in a Bloomberg interview

So what the hell is going on? 

I think there are three interlocking things going on that explain why everyone feels so cranky.  The first, as I alluded to in my Zakaria post, is that the economics of superstars has now reached the world of public intellectuals.  There’s been a lot of talk about "brands" recently, and it gets at how the rewards for intellectual output have expanded at the upper strata

Not that long ago, getting a column in Time would have been the pinnacle of a journalist’s career. But expectations and opportunities have grown in the last few years. Many writers now market themselves as separate brands, and their journalism works largely as a promotion for more lucrative endeavors like writing books and public speaking.

Replace "journalist" with "intellectual" and that paragraph still works.  Credentialed thinkers like Zakaria and Ferguson, once they’ve reached the top, become brands that can multiply their earning potential far more than was the case fifty years ago.  The ways in which the Internet concentrates attention on a Few Big Things means that if you are good and lucky enough to become one of those Big Things, money will rain down on your door.  Over at Esquire, Stephen Marche proffered this explanation for what he would call Ferguson’s intellectual devolution:

The real issue isn’t the substance of Ferguson’s argument, though, which is shallow and basically exploded by this point in time. It isn’t even the question of how such garbage managed to be written and published. It is, rather, why did Ferguson write it? The answer is simple but has profound implications for American intellectual life generally: public speaking.

Ferguson’s critics have simply misunderstood for whom Ferguson was writing that piece. They imagine that he is working as a professor or as a journalist, and that his standards slipped below those of academia or the media. Neither is right. Look at his speaking agent’s Web site. The fee: 50 to 75 grand per appearance. That number means that the entire economics of Ferguson’s writing career, and many other writing careers, has been permanently altered. Nonfiction writers can and do make vastly more, and more easily, than they could ever make any other way, including by writing bestselling books or being a Harvard professor. Articles and ideas are only as good as the fees you can get for talking about them. They are merely billboards for the messengers.

That number means that Ferguson doesn’t have to please his publishers; he doesn’t have to please his editors; he sure as hell doesn’t have to please scholars. He has to please corporations and high-net-worth individuals, the people who can pay 50 to 75K to hear him talk. That incredibly sloppy article was a way of communicating to them: I am one of you. I can give a great rousing talk about Obama’s failures at any event you want to have me at.

Now, railing at the One Percent aside (*cough* Esquire‘s target demograpic *cough*) Marche is really onto something here. I’ve heard from a few sources that Ferguson resigned his professorship at Harvard Business School (but not Harvard University) because he calculated that if he gave four or five extra talks a year, he could earn his HBS salary without all the tedious teaching obligations. 

Zakaria and Ferguson got to where they are by dint of their own efforts, but the thing about the superstar phenomenon is that there’s also an element of caprice involved. The gap between Zakaria and Ferguson, and their replacement-level deep thinkers is pretty narrow; the gap in the financial and intellectual rewards is pretty vast.

So I suspect that there is a bit of jealousy in some of the criticisms being leveled. These guys earn many multiples of the median intellectual income — and I guarantee you that the median intellectual doesn’t think that either Ferguson or Zakaria is many times smarter.  That’s gonna stir up some petty and not-so-petty resentments.  

The top tier of public intellectuals are doing well in this world, and the best are pretty savvy at marketing their ideas across multiple platforms in a Web 2.0 world. But the same dynamics that push these people to the top also increase their vulnerability to intellectual criticism — and this is the second thing that’s going on here. As I noted a few years ago:

The most useful function of bloggers is when they engage in the quality control of other public intellectuals. [Richard] Posner believed public intellectuals were in decline because there was no market discipline for poor quality. Even if public intellectuals royally screw up, he argued, the mass public is sufficiently disinterested and disengaged for it not to matter. Bloggers are changing this dynamic, however. If Michael Ignatieff, Paul Krugman or William Kristol pen substandard essays, blogs have and will provide a wide spectrum of critical feedback.

One can clearly add Niall Ferguson and Fareed Zakaria to this list. Furthermore, the very act of trying to market ideas across platforms — and the constant drive to generate new content — leaves these intellectuals vulnerable to criticism. They can get sloppy, like Zakaria, and commit a near-fatal error. They can be tendentious in their use of facts, like Ferguson, and suffer reputational damage. Or, they can simple debase themselves to the point where Evgeny Morozov goes medieval on them

For high-flying intellectuals, this kind of public criticism clearly wounds. What the superstar phenomenon gives, it can also threaten to take away (though, to be honest, scandals and bad writing don’t seem to actually take away rewards all that often). But in the mind of top-tier public intellectuals, effort and intellect drive their accomplishments, not fortuna. They see online criticism and interpret it as jealousy, pettiness and ideological score-settling. A lot of the time that’s exactly what it is — but the online intellectual ecosystem is also pretty good at fact-checking and substantive criticism. Publc intellectuals don’t see that these kinds of criticisms are the flip-side of the very phenomenon that is enriching them in the first place. They also don’t realize that in a Web 2.0 world, mere bloggers can fact-check them and scorn them for a lack of citation. 

Which leads to the last thing that I think is going on: this superstar phenomenon is invading one of the last spheres of life where money is not necessarily the Most Important Thing. Getting a Ph.D. means being socialized into a world where an academic job is considered more respectable than becoming a consultant that earns gazillions more in money. The currency in the academic economy is intellectual respect. Even if public criticism doesn’t affect their real-world income, it does affect their intellectual standing. Even if Zakaria has left the academy, and Ferguson can "transcend" it, they were socialized into this value system, and they clearly care what their peers think. 

Zakaria’s argument that general nonfiction shouldn’t be held to the standards of academic discourse rankles academics who know that he should know better — the first instinct of any person with graduate training is to read the literature and cite, cite, cite. As my friend Delia Lloyd put it:  "I find him culpable because Zakaria comes from the world of academia…. Plagiarism may not be  a major moral failing… in the university setting in which Zakaria was trained and credentialed, it’s pretty much one of the worst crimes you can commit."

As for Ferguson, Timothy Burke blogs about what it is exactly about Ferguson’s career arc that nettles him: 

Ferguson would feel more like he was still within the bounds if he either investigated his own distaste for Obama in more reflective, philosophical and recursive ways or if he was willing to lay out a generalized, prescriptive theory of political leadership that didn’t fitfully move the goalposts on intensely granular or particular issues every few seconds. Why? Because I think scholarship requires some measure of self-aware and reflective movement between what you know and what you believe, and the relationship between your own movements and those of your professional peers… A scholar has to believe on some level that things are known or understood only after being investigated, tested, read, interpreted, that there’s something unseemly about robbing the graves and morgues for cast-off “facts” in order to assemble them into a shambling, monstrous conclusion built from a hackish blueprint. Being an intellectual takes some form of thoughtfulness, some respect for evidence and truth, something that goes beyond hollow, sleazy rhetoric that plays dumb every time it gets caught out truncating quotes or doctoring charts. Being an expert means you guide an audience through what is known and said about a subject with some respect for the totality of that knowing and saying before favoring your own interpretation.

Public intellectuals who have PhDs do not want to lose their standing as scholars.  Sure, they can gin up psychological defenses against the hidebound ivory tower, but criticism like the one quoted above will leave a permanent mark. They’ll have their riches, but they won’t have what they were trained to crave more than anything — respect. 

In the end, what I think is going on is that, contra Russell Jacoby, top-tier public intellectals have acquired greater power than they used to possess. What they resist on occasion is the responsibility that comes with that power. 

So that’s what I think is going on. What do you think? 

P.S.  I think one of the best compliments I’ve ever received is that Justin Fox independently and simultaneously arrived at very similar intellectual destination on this topic.