Where the buffalo roam

Chris Matthews -- not my favorite TV news personality even under the best of circumstances, and these are hardly the best of circumstances -- has managed to annoy me, but not in the usual way of news commentators (by misrepresenting things in order to gain notoriety and increase shock value). No, this time Matthews has done what news personalities are supposed to do, and pithily put his finger on something that really annoys me about life here in Coruscant:

People here don't read. Instead, they mine books for interesting nuggets. Or, to use Matthews' analogy, "Unlike the Plains Indians who harvested the entire animal -- meat, horns, skin, hooves -- for their needs, we buy a book simply to cut out its tongue -- that one tasty tidbit that justifies the read."

Yes, I'm oversimplifying. And yes, this tounge-cutting-out, scavenging-for-a-tasty-tidbit style of "reading" is somewhat mitigated here at the university . . . but not entirely. The city seeps into what we do here, modifying (perhaps, if this isn't too string, infecting) the intellectual culture and shifting it in the direction of the Jeopardy! (tm) style of intelligence: if I have a witty anecdote or a striking bit of data to produce in a conversation, then this makes me an intelligent person. As though "knowing about something" were equivalent to "having a number of disconnected facts about something."

There are several things that frustrate me about this kind of "instrumental intellectualism," perhaps the most important of which is that reading through a book looking for some juicy morsel ends up simply reinforcing the prior conceptual predilections of the reader -- and defeating any attempt by the author to shift those predilections. Case in point, drawn from Matthews' article:

The same is true of last year's "The Cold War: A New History" by John Lewis Gaddis. That book had a trio of surprises: first, that Soviet wartime leader Joseph Stalin believed that even a one-year delay of the Normandy invasion would have given him the chance to grab all of Europe; second, that Stalin was so ideologically delusional as to believe that the United States and Great Britain, both being capitalist, would inevitably go to war with each other; and third, that the missiles Nikita Khrushchev delivered to Cuba in 1962 were strategic, meant not to defend Cuba from attack but as nuclear blackmail to get the United States out of Berlin.
The first and third of these points are, in Matthews' smash-and-grab operation, deprived of any of the nuance and subtlety inherent to the historian's scholarly task; reconstructing personal beliefs of leaders is a tricky business, and invariably runs into complicated issues of source criticism and the uncertain weighing of evidence. And even if we did know for sure what Stalin or Khrushchev had in mind, precisely what (if anything) does this tell us? Not surprisingly, that dimension is missing from Matthews' summary as well.

But it's the second "surprise" that Matthews gleans from Gaddis' book that strikes me as the most telling. it's the phrase "ideologically delusional" that leaps out at me here, since Matthews has clearly assimilated Gaddis' claim to Matthews' own convictions and implicitly used it to shore up those convictions. It's not that Matthews has learned something about Stalin here, but that Matthews has acquired a bit of data that reinforces two notions simultaneously: Stalin was "delusional" rather than just mistaken, and the Marxist theory that capitalist countries would eventually go to war with one another over profits and markets is "ideology" rather than knowledge (even if falsified). Both point in the same direction -- Chris Matthews is correct, his views of the world are correct, and here's some new evidence to "prove" it -- and both dramatically illustrate the problem with the culture of the imperial capital.

Matthews in this case annoys me not because he's oversimplifying, but because he's captured something very revealing about this place. There are at least three reasons this instrumental intellectualism bothers me so much:

1) it simulates a genuinely intellectual orientation, but does so in a way that cuts off basically any critical impulse in favor of a scavenger hunt for shiny rocks. People who read in this manner have something to toss into a conversation about a serious issue, but they don't necessarily "know anything" in the sense of being able to talk intelligently about the subject. They sound intelligent, because they have a few pieces of data at their disposal, but that doesn't amount to actually having a good grasp of the situation.

2) it makes social science that much more difficult to sustain, because readers are only too willing to pull data and evidence out of its argumentative context and thus to ignore precisely that element of social science that generates novel insight. Pulling out anecdotes -- cutting out the buffalo's tongue -- eliminates the distinctiveness of wissenschaft in favor of raw politik (to deploy one of my favorite Weberian distinctions) by making it virtually impossible to properly appreciate the significance of those anecdotes. And all that remains is a set of political positions that can't be shaken by either argument or evidence.

[Indeed, tongue-cutting, instrumental intellectual reading is perfectly suited to as political a place as the imperial capital is, because -- as many thinkers from Machiavelli on up have taught us -- the only thing that matters in politics is results. Instrumentalism is built into the whole vocation for politics and the whole political arena. Am I surprised by Matthews' characterization? Not really. Am I shocked by it? Yes, perpetually, again and again, every time I am reminded of it.]

3) having just written a book, it depresses me to think that people may "go through" the book in the way that Matthews discusses, searching for those shiny rocks that they can drop into conversations. Yes, there probably are some of those anecdotes in the book (I do have some neat stories about people like Konrad Adenauer, George Kennan, and Oswald Spengler), but they are buried and embedded in a complex argument. And what I most want people to take away from the book is the argument, not decontextualized details.

For this among other reasons I am not likely to appear on Hardball promoting the book.

Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam, and people use all of the parts of the animal after they hunt it down.

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