There was a stage set for Remnick and Gladwell. … When they came out, Remnick immediately brought up the Gladwell’s social media article from a few weeks ago, where Gladwell wrote that social media only created weak ties and wasn’t sufficient to push a people to form a social movement. He took a lot of heat in the past few weeks, since social media may have played some role in the uprisings in Egypt. Gladwell was pretty hostile to his critics. He scoffed that his critic was some blogger from Huffington Post. Why should we listen to some pajama-wearing blogger, he asked? Some pajama-wearing blogger who lives in Brooklyn, he added for extra laughs.
Well, I’m not sure why we should listen to a journalist who doesn’t like to travel north of 14h Street. Look, it was a very entertaining evening. Those guys were funny and witty and shared lots of amusing stories. But they didn’t know anything about revolutions or social media or Egypt. That’s okay. Journalists don’t have know be experts in their field. But they have to acknowledge that they aren’t experts and they really have an obligation to talk to people who spend their lives studying those subjects. … Why should anyone care what Malcolm Gladwell thinks about Egypt and Facebook, when there are people who have travelled to the Mid East, are fluent in Arabic, and spend most of their waking hours learning about this subject.
It must have been more than 30 years ago now that Michel Foucault wrote an article entitled “La mort de l’intellectuel.” Apparently Le Monde didn’t get the message, because it invited four “intellectuals” to comment on the “Arab revolts.” The choice of participants in this forum tells you something about what the word “intellectuel” means today. We hear from Alain Touraine, Alain Badiou, Elisabeth Roudinesco, and André Glucksmann. None is a specialist on the region in turmoil, on the history of revolutions, on Islam, on Arab culture, on the political economy of the rebellious states, on social movements in the Arab world, on previous rebellions against military dictatorships, on relations between the military and civil society, or any of a hundred other topics that might confer authority to speak about one or another aspect of the unfolding wave of rebellion.
in France, to be a specialist is almost a disqualification to speak as an “intellectual.” An intellectual is one who has risen above his or her specialty, if any, to acquire a quasi-priestly authority to pronounce on n’importe quoi—and as often as not, to say n’importe quoi about it. But I wonder if this sort of rootless speculation has any purchase on the French audience today. Perhaps a piece like this in Le Monde is simply a throwback to the day when large numbers of people hungered to know what Sartre or Camus thought about the events of the day.
When I read these posts (nearly back to back – I’ve been away from the internets for a few days), the similarities were striking. The current crop of French intellectuals is rather like Malcolm Gladwell. And (such comparisons being commutative) Malcolm Gladwell is rather like the current crop of French intellectuals. I wonder which would take greater umbrage at the comparison.