New Structures and Public Intellectuals

by Henry on August 29, 2012

I was on holiday in Ireland over the last couple of weeks without regular Internet access; one of the things I missed was the Niall Ferguson debate. I liked how these posts from Dan Drezner and Justin Fox identified Ferguson’s behavior as symptomatic of a broader structural change.

Drezner:

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. … 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.

Fox:

The path to lucrative thought-leaderdom blazed over the past couple of decades was to establish yourself with dense, serious work (or a big, important job) and then move on to catch-phrase manufacturing (I spent a few weeks following Tom Friedman around in 2005, and learned that he had made this transition very deliberately). Nowadays ambitious young people looking to break into the circuit often just aim straight for the catch-phrases. Speakers bureaus need pithy sales pitches, not complex erudition — and while speaking fees might be spare change for Mitt Romney, for journalists and academics they often represent their only real shot at a top-tax-bracket income. The result is an intellectual environment that seems to increasingly reward the superficial, and keeps rewarding those who make it into the magic circle of top-flight speakers even if they don’t have anything new or interesting to say. Or at least: a part of the intellectual environment is like that.

The Ferguson and Zakaria cases are interesting, but I’d love to see someone (maybe at the Baffler or similar) write a serious piece on how this political economy of paid talk-giving works more generally, and how it is reshaping debate over ideas. A friend who moves back and forth between this world and academia described one path towards making it big some months back – you start off on the rubber chicken circuit, then try to move up to mid-range venues like Poptech where people might start to pay attention to you, and then, if you’re extremely lucky, get picked up by TED, after which you can start to demand speaking fees in the tens of thousands of dollars. It’s what Paul Krugman describes in Geography and Trade (if my memory isn’t playing tricks) as a Sierra Madre phenomenon – lots and lots of people working for free, in the pursuit of a prize that only a select few can win. Books play an important role in this world – but less as objects of intellectual interest in themselves, than as symbolic markers of prestige (this can have quite unfortunate consequences). Of course, this problem has been around for a while – but the advent of TED, the Aspen Ideas Festival and their like seem to have systematized it.

Some initial, relatively obvious hypotheses:

(1) On average, these developments will dumb down the world of ideas. Russell Jacoby worried that free-floating intellectuals were being replaced by depoliticized academics who were more interested in pursuing their own arcane fights than engaging in public debate. This was plausibly right – but the current risk is very different. If debate over ideas is increasingly reducible to what you can express in a short talk, complex and interesting ideas are going to get short shrift. This is not to say that the ideas which do get expressed and shared are all bad (although some surely are) – but instead that a lot of good ideas are not going to get shared.

(2) The world of ideas will be more business friendly. Books are becoming less important for the ideas that they convey, than as symbolic markers. Your ideal – if you are a profit maximizing author – is to write one of those books that businesses buy in thousands and distribute to their employees to reinforce a certain kind of corporate culture. Alternatively or simultaneously (the two go hand-in-hand) it is to command very large fees (typically from corporate entities, or risk-averse institutions such as universities) on the lecture circuit. Both of these incentives point in favor of writing books that are not apt to get the servants or the horses all riled up. Not all authors (including some of those authors who have done well in this economy) want to maximize profits. But the incentive structures certainly point in the direction of a certain political blandness, especially on touchy questions such as the allocation of profits, hierarchy in the workplace etc. Given the biases of existing structures (TED, Aspen), they’re likely to be more tech friendly too.

(3) The most efficient style of writing will be that which best leverages both talk-giving and book writing as profitable activities. In other words, books with chapters which are structured around ‘telling anecdotes,’ which may either easily be converted into talks, or, perhaps have been converted from speeches. I’ve heard it suggested that the best way to write a non-fiction book is to road-test each chapter several times as a talk – when you are able to win over your audience, you know that you’ve got the narrative structure right. Again, lots of good books are written this way – but it isn’t the only way to write a good book.

This is a topic which I’m particularly interested in, because I’m considering trying to commit commercial non-fiction sometime in the next couple of years. Not the kind that is even faintly likely to result in a lucrative career of speech giving (I have no principled objection to being showered with large amounts of money, but, as my prospective co-author has noted, businesses are highly unlikely to pay for us to come and tell them that they ought to radically democratize their internal structures). But even so, the world of non-fiction publishing is going through a lot of changes, which I’m busy trying to figure out.

{ 85 comments }

1

Matt 08.29.12 at 6:56 pm

The linked phrase “this can have quite unfortunate consequences” is associated with a slightly mangled URL.

2

dsquared 08.29.12 at 7:01 pm

Once you unmangle the URL, it’s associated with a hilarious book review.

3

Kieran Healy 08.29.12 at 7:04 pm

On the other hand, estimated earnings from my widely-viewed YouTube video now stand at $1.38.

4

Andrew F. 08.29.12 at 7:13 pm

I wonder how much of this is new development, and how much is a somewhat new medium being incorporated into an old pattern.

If we break down the “world of ideas” in your post into audiences or consumer segments, then would the change look less dramatic? Ideas as entertainment isn’t a new industry, after all, and while certain segments will go for the 20 minute talk and the affable book thick with anecdotes and thin on analysis, those more committed to progress in, or discussion of, a particular field will still look for the serious stuff. And ultimately, the less serious work will need to takes its cues from the more serious, or lose the vital credibility that is a part of their mass-market appeal.

But this process – just in my impression – doesn’t seem new. The rewards could be greater from winning a following, but the segmentation of the world of ideas, and the people from which progress in that world will derive, seem little altered.

5

LFC 08.29.12 at 7:17 pm

This post assumes that everyone knows what TED is and what it stands for. I have seen it referred to before but I have no idea. Haven’t googled it yet.

It kinds of reminds me of several (or a bit more than several) years ago when I had just started reading blogs and spending time online. I was reading something at LGM (see, I can do acronyms do :)) and various people in the thread were talking about Glenn Greenwald. At the time I had no idea who Greenwald was. I posted a question on the thread “who is Glenn Greenwald?” No one replied. Perhaps they thought I was engaging in sarcasm.

On to the substance of the post: How does Drezner know that the Internet “concentrates attention on a few big things”? Doesn’t this claim need substantiation? Couldn’t one equally argue that the Internet fragments attention, and haven’t people in fact argued that?

The Internet permits quasi-public spaces for expression, e.g. very-low-traffic blogs, which are almost as private as old-fashioned diaries, but not quite. Occasionally something from one of these quasi-public quasi-private spaces may get picked up and get some circulation. If the ‘something’ in question is substantive, this represents one way in which the Internet works, or can work, against concentration of attention on ‘a few big things’. Unless, of course, it just some anonymous person’s take on something that’s already achieved the status of a ‘big thing’.

As for the political economy of paid talk-giving, how do you know that it’s reshaping debate over ideas? So Ferguson quits his HBS post to give 4 or 5 extra talks a year. That in itself doesn’t reshape debate much. It just gives 4 or 5 extra audiences the chance to hear his drivel.

6

Substance McGravitas 08.29.12 at 7:18 pm

It made me think of revival tents, but at TED you get to pretend you’re smart instead of godly. Revival tents also interfered with the aims of the local universities.

7

Substance McGravitas 08.29.12 at 7:23 pm

I also recommend Glenn Greenwald’s TED talk on using Google.

8

nvalvo 08.29.12 at 7:23 pm

“Chitinous carapace?”

Damn.

Here’s the repaired URL; it just lacked a colon: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=420680

9

LFC 08.29.12 at 7:27 pm

“I also recommend Glenn Greenwald’s TED talk on using Google.”

Touché.

10

Henry 08.29.12 at 7:28 pm

URL unmangled …

11

LFC 08.29.12 at 7:31 pm

correction @5
> “acronyms too

12

Bob 08.29.12 at 7:50 pm

Interesting points, particularly #2. Although he is not strictly an academic, I noticed that Christopher Hitchens, after he started commanding large speaking fees, became a lot more complacent with U.S. power. The same goes for Thomas Friedman, who moved to the right after he became famous (compare his latest work with From Beirut to Jerusalem).

13

tomslee 08.29.12 at 7:52 pm

A discouraging side effect of the rise of the glib “thought leaders” is thought-followership among some academics, “testing” rubber chicken ideas as if they were serious theories and thereby giving them additional cred. Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail” from a few years back was followed by several serious papers, including at least one from Harvard Business Review, for example. Has this always happened, or is it another depressing new development?

14

The Gonch 08.29.12 at 7:53 pm

Good post.

TED is also addressed here: http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/105703/the-naked-and-the-ted-khanna?page=0,3

“TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering… Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

At the same time it’s always worth pointing that Ferguson is simply just a crap historian.

15

Neville Morley 08.29.12 at 7:53 pm

This, and the two posts you link to, help make at least some sense of the (to me) otherwise baffling success of Ferguson. However, at the risk of waving red rags around gratuituously, what about the success (in selling books, if not in getting lucrative lecture fees from corporations) of writers like David Graeber, or (perhaps less provocatively) Naomi Wolf? At one end of the distribution curve that equates “on average” to dumbing-down and business-friendly ideas?

16

Henry 08.29.12 at 7:58 pm

LFC – sorry for assuming that everyone knew what TED was – it’s kind of ubiquitous in a certain set of conversations but that set of conversations isn’t for everyone. Drezner’s Big Things argument is about the tendency of networked attention economies to produce -power law- long tail distributions in which a few nodes get the lion’s share of attention while most get little to no attention. You can certainly argue it out over whether it applies to celebrity culture more generally – but he’s not pulling it from his ass.

17

Cahokia 08.29.12 at 7:59 pm

Perry Anderson on Habermas:

“Now laden with as many European prizes as the ribbons of a Brezhnevite general, Habermas is no doubt in part the victim of his own eminence: enclosed, like Rawls before him, in a mental world populated overwhelmingly by admirers and followers, decreasingly able to engage with positions more than a few millimetres away from his own. Often hailed as a contemporary successor to Kant, he risks becoming a modern Leibniz, constructing with imperturbable euphemisms a theodicy in which even the evils of financial deregulation contribute to the blessings of cosmopolitan awakening, while the West sweeps the path of democracy and human rights towards an ultimate Eden of pan-human legitimacy. To that extent Habermas represents a special case, in both his distinction and the corruption of it. But the habit of talking of Europe as a cynosure for the world, without showing much knowledge of the actual cultural or political life within it, has not gone away, and is unlikely to yield just to the tribulations of the common currency.””

from NLR via http://habermas-rawls.blogspot.mx/2012/08/perry-anderson-on-jurgen-habermas.html

18

Henry 08.29.12 at 8:04 pm

Neville – I had actually thought of Graeber’s success while writing this. I think he was saying that he’d shifted 60,000 copies worldwide (my memory may be faulty) which is very nice for a lefty book from a small publisher with (I presume) a small publicity budget. But I presume that this is a very different attention economy, with far less lucrative rewards (I can’t imagine Graeber makes anything like what Ferguson, let alone Friedman gets). And while there may be pernicious side-effects to this economy, I’m not sure what they are. It’s possible that there’s a consistent gravitational pull to the out-and-out looney – see e.g. the problems that Doug Henwood has documented at Pacifica etc – that authors have to struggle with (and sometimes, perhaps in Wolf’s case, succumb to).

19

MoXmas 08.29.12 at 8:51 pm

“businesses are highly unlikely to pay for us to come and tell them that they ought to radically democratize their internal structures”

Fortunately or unfortunately, that’s entirely untrue. You just have to “brand” that information so it supports a “culture” of “innovation” and/or “collaboration” using “social media”, and you’re halfway to a golden ticket.

There is a large component of American business management culture that likes to be told on a regular basis how awful they are, and how they should change. In lieu, of course, of ever changing.

20

Henry 08.29.12 at 9:06 pm

bq. Fortunately or unfortunately, that’s entirely untrue. You just have to “brand” that information so it supports a “culture” of “innovation” and/or “collaboration” using “social media”, and you’re halfway to a golden ticket.

But only as the homage that vice pays to virtue. As Doug Henwood puts it in the closing paragraphs of _After the New Economy._

bq. while this book has been rather unfriendly to New Economy dogma, it’s still worth examining its utopian bits. Arising in the midst of what looked like a period of unrestrained capitalist triumphalism, New Economy discourse expressed hopes for something rather different from our predominant economic reality. In a time of massive wealth polarization, it talked about the democratization of ownership. In a time of mass overwork, it dreamt of meaningful, enjoyable work, self-management and flattened hierarchies. In what seemed like a profoundly conservative time, it appropriated language of revolution … Amidst a vast speedup of the social factory’s assembly line, it evoked fantasies of abundance. And amidst aggressive attempts to privatize information, tighten up intellectual property restrictions, and put a meter on almost everything but the air, it stoked hopes for global linkages. ‘Information wants to be free,’ the saying goes, but not as long as AOL Time Warner has its say.

bq. But why did The System’s publicists need the utopian story? If all challenges to capitalism were dead, why did we hear so much about democratization and the overturning of hierarchy? Evidently, the message has appeal, even in conservative times.

bq. Fine. If a little hierarchy-overturning economic democratization is such a good thing, then why not more? As Jack Kemp once said in a very different context, if you’re going to go for it, you should really go for it.

If the project comes off, we’ll be going for it in a pretty comprehensive way (and if we wuss out, people will have every right to call us on it).

21

Chris Bertram 08.29.12 at 9:08 pm

What utter crap that Perry Anderson quote is re Rawls, whose prime intellectual vice, if anything, was being too concessive toward his critics. This is no doubt partly a private animus on my part, but my impression is that Anderson, having failed to complete the trilogy of which _Lineages_ was the second volume (which appeared 38 years ago), has spent the remainder of his miserable life sniping and sneering at others from the pages of the LRB.

22

SamChevre 08.29.12 at 9:32 pm

I think my comment got eaten: I’ll retry without links.

It seems that this model is very related to the 1800’s lecture circuit model. For example, Mark Twain and Dickens both made a large portion of their income as traveling lecturers/readers. TED and Aspen Ideas Festival seem quite kin to the Chautauquas.

23

john c. halasz 08.29.12 at 10:07 pm

@21:

Actually, if you click through to the NLR essay in question, it’s not bad at all, whatever the hauteurs of vocabulary, though it’s not uniquely original.

24

PJW 08.29.12 at 10:51 pm

Fascinating topic. Made me think of Stanley Fish. I like the revival tent/Chautauqua connection, and it’s making me wonder what other parallels there might be going back even further.

25

piglet 08.29.12 at 11:35 pm

Isn’t it simply that people who are well-known enough to matter can make more money by working for the interest of the rich and the establishment than by exposing them? What is interesting and in my view hasn’t been satisfactorily explained yet is the role that faux contrarianism is playing in that game. When we go back to an age where intellectuals were mostly, and almost by definition, on the left, it makes sense that prominently changing sides can enhance both their visibility and their earning power. But how does it work that right-wing conformists manage to pretend to break with received wisdom by becoming even more right-wing conformist, and pull that stunt off successfully? Why is there not more market demand for right-wingers turning left, at least a little bit, in order to enhance their distinction? There has to be some massive market failure at work!

26

piglet 08.29.12 at 11:44 pm

LFC 5 – the missing explanation of TED seems excusable to me – one can understand the rest of the post without knowing TED. But the first sentence: “one of the things I missed was the Niall Ferguson debate.”

If even the OP author missed that debate, maybe he’s not the only one. In a student assignment, you wouldn’t let that pass. Even when the assignment was to write a blog post, I bet everybody here including Henry would insist that the student prepare the context of the post within the first few sentences in a manner that as many potential readers as possible can connect to it. You wouldn’t give a good grade for that post.

27

David 08.29.12 at 11:57 pm

Is this really new? Didn’t Socrates lecture philosophy to get paid? Weren’t the sophists of the times doing the same thing? Is anything truly that new or changing? Or just rinsed and recycled from the (distant) past?

As to credentials, they have only ever meant anything to those who cared… Kindof like the thought that an antique is only worth what someone will pay for it. Those doing the paying no longer place value in the credential of “serious” work. Sharpness of wit now counts for more than deep thinking. And really, is that so bad? At least we don’t worship violent, muscle bound brutes… Oh wait. :(

28

LFC 08.30.12 at 12:00 am

Well, Piglet @26, that may be a fair point, I’ll leave it up to others. But it did not occur to me b/c, as it happened, I had not missed the debate over the recent, outrageous Ferguson piece in Newsweek … people who missed it should Google (or otherwise search on) Ferguson + Newsweek.

My TED complaint was really a bit tongue-in-cheek, but sometimes these tonal things do get lost. (Sigh.)

29

piglet 08.30.12 at 12:16 am

“people who missed it should Google (or otherwise search on) Ferguson + Newsweek.”

All I can say is that it’s bad enough students write that way. Some of us try to teach them better and I’m dead serious about the importance of good blog writing.

30

Jeremy 08.30.12 at 12:27 am

I don’t have anything much to add, but it seems odd that there could be this much discussion of TED/Aspen style thinking and Malcolm Gladwell’s name hasn’t come up at all.

31

Neil 08.30.12 at 12:44 am

Piglet, feel fail to mark down Henry in your head. IIRC, your head has some interesting things in it, but if you want to add some nonsense, that’s your right.

Carl Zimmer has a really nice discussion of the problems with TED here:

http://tinyurl.com/d7uzr87

32

Kiwanda 08.30.12 at 12:53 am

The best explanation for Ferguson’s seriously bogus piece is from Stephen Marche, quoted by Drezner:

…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.

This is not about the winner-take-all issue, or inoffensive blandness. It’s corruption, pure and simple.

Well, at least he’s not like David Broder, who defined himself proudly again and again as a disinterested centrist, but who just happened to have a side job as a highly paid speaker to big business.

33

marcel 08.30.12 at 12:59 am

piglet wrote:

… an age where intellectuals were mostly, and almost by definition, on the left, …

Perhaps I am tired and unusually obtuse this evening, but when was this golden age? Perhaps in the aftermath of WW1, continuing into the Great Depression, and again during the Vietnam War and its aftermath, there were some prominent lefty intellectuals, but a time when members of the intellectual elite were mostly on the left? I must have missed that.

34

derrida derider 08.30.12 at 1:05 am

… an intellectual environment that … keeps rewarding those who make it into the magic circle of top-flight speakers even if they don’t have anything new or interesting to say.

And this is supposed to be something new? Does anyone remember how Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and virtually every senior Victorian scientist made their money? I would only worry if in fact people without previous serious achievements made it into this top flight, but the post asserts but does not really establish this.

35

Henry 08.30.12 at 1:13 am

piglet – OK – you may not have heard about the Ferguson brouhaha, but have you heard about the hyperlink – the other great craze that is sweeping across our internets? It’s pretty cool. What you do is you move your mouse/trackball/trackpad/pointer device of choice until the little arrow thingy is right above the colored text. There are two examples right in the first paragraph. Then _without moving the arrow thingy_ click on the text. It will bring you to an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT PAGE. If you’ve clicked on either of the examples in the first paragraph, by sheer coincidence (what are the odds?) they’ll even bring you to pages that will tell you about the Ferguson controversy! And they have hyperlinks too! To other pages, also talking about the same debacle. It may seem like a weird way of finding out about stuff. Certainly, it takes a little getting used to. But once you do get used to it, it’s awesome! Alternatively …

36

Neil 08.30.12 at 1:25 am

I happened to be present at an invitation-only event held by a right-wing think tank (don’t ask) at which Ferguson gave his patented “apps” talk. I don’t know if he modified it for the audience, or whether that is how it usually goes, but it was patently contradictory and offensive. The narrative was cultural decline of the West: “we” invented all these great things which explain our historical dominance. Education! Competition! Medicine! Hard work! Non-whites knew nothing about any of these. But now they’ve caught on: they work harder than we do, and delay gratification more, so they’re overtaking us. That was the first half. The second half was why this is really bad. The reason is that they’re overtaking us, but they know nothing about hard work, or education, or delay of gratification. We’re soon going to be in the power of hordes of yellow people, who can’t use their power well.

No one seemed to notice that the talk was self-contradictory, but then few people there seemed capable of noticing much.

37

GiT 08.30.12 at 1:29 am

@27 – Socrates explicitly lectured not to get paid. As Plato and Xenophon have it, this was so he wouldn’t have to teach whomever was willing to pay him. It’s the sophists who took money… and ended up comforting the wicked for it.

38

Teafortwo 08.30.12 at 1:37 am

Henry, you know MoXmas @19 is absolutely right. “You’re doing it wrong” is the founding principle of management consultancy, and of all management books, too.

Radical democratization of corporate structures sounds like a much more sober and respectable – and marketable – concept than a lot of what’s out there. You can find people who will try to teach you actionable management ideas from Attila the Hun, or the Grateful Dead.

Take me on as your agent, think of a punchy one-word title, and we’ll clean up.

But seriously… Given that incentive structure, you can see how tempting it must be to parlay your detailed knowledge of 19th century banking history, or whatever, into something more lucrative.

Incidentally, I suspect that at the top end of the market, the visible engagements are just the tip of the iceberg: you might make even more from private command performances, where the top stars make six-figure sums in an evening.

Not that the money is always well spent. A friend of a friend told me he’d been at a private dinner with Ferguson and a bunch of Goldman Sachs partners, who of course were certain that they knew everything and had nothing to learn from this jumped-up teacher. No-one got punched, but the evening ended with bad feeling on all sides. Allegedly.

Another acquaintance, who booked Greenspan – post-retirement – for a similar high-tariff do, said it was the biggest waste of money he’d ever been involved in. That one went the other way: Greenspan was stupefyingly trite in his observations, lulling his audience gently off to sleep.

39

derrida derider 08.30.12 at 1:47 am

Ooh, I see now others made my point before me. Sorry.

Kiwanda’s comment @32 reminds me of JK Galbraith’s line about “nobody ever went broke pandering to the prejudices of rich old men”. That, too, ’twas ever thus.

40

tomslee 08.30.12 at 2:14 am

Jeremy #30: Malcolm Gladwell’s name hasn’t come up at all.

I consistently defend Gladwell in this context, because he explicitly and repeatedly states that he is explaining and popularizing the ideas of others, and doesn’t try to pass the ideas off as his own. I’m sure he earns a pretty penny on the talk circuit but it would be wrong to lump him in with the “credential thinker” category or the TEDists.

41

Teafortwo 08.30.12 at 2:19 am

fn1: “Not that the money is always well spent….”

should read “Not that the money is EVER well spent….”

fn2: Some Goldman Sachs partners, or Niall Ferguson: which is worse? There’s only one way to find out: FIIIIIIGHT!!!!

42

Jim Harrison 08.30.12 at 3:42 am

Guys like Ferguson have a choice: they can opt to make a great deal of money and fame by pandering to the wealthy and powerful or they can remain legit even though the rewards of intellectual integrity are either decent obscurity or a long shot at actual being remembered as serious thinkers who made a lasting difference. I’m reminded of some essays of Pierre Bourdieu that concern the well known names of the Second Empire in France—you’ve never heard of these men, though they were the Fergusons and Friedmans of their time. Wait a minute. Strike that. You’ve never heard of these men because they were the Fergusons and Friedmans of their time. Of course, looking at things dispassionately, it’s hard to make a case against choosing present benefits against the dubious rewards of the alternative, especially in an era such as our own in which, as was also true of the Second Empire, virtue and idealism seem decidedly old fashion, an eccentric and objectionable form of vanity.

43

Harold 08.30.12 at 3:42 am

Socrates gave up being a sculptor to lecture for free and was impoverished as a result. That is probably what drove Xanthippe to being a shrew. He criticized the Sophists for taking money.

44

Harold 08.30.12 at 3:45 am

Some prominent leftists (but not too leftist) intellectuals were paid by the CIA during the Cold War to keep the real left in check. (Plus ça change.)

45

Bloix 08.30.12 at 3:49 am

#34 – Dickens and Wilde talked to paying audiences of middle-class readers. Ferguson, Friedman and the like speak at sponsored events. Their audiences do not pay to hear them – the sponsors, generally large corporations or associations, pay them to be the high-brow entertainment at business meetings. It’s an entirely different phenomenon.

46

Rich Booher 08.30.12 at 4:18 am

@39. Malcolm Gladwell gave one of the most louche TED talks that I have heard. He argued that the guy who convinced Ragu to market chunky spaghetti sauce did more than any other recent human being to make the world a happier place. That was the argument. I kid you not.

47

kiwanda 08.30.12 at 4:22 am

Gladwell makes a million a year speaking to corporate clients, and (a surprise to me) has the ideology you’d guess would go with it.

48

peterv 08.30.12 at 6:51 am

Neil @ 36:

Self-contradiction is an old schtick of Ferguson: He wrote an article after 9/11 saying that the West’s problems were caused by the lack of respect for religion of today’s immoral youth, while the Arab World’s problems were caused by the religious fundamentalism of today’s too-moral youth. His article gave no indication that he was aware of the inconsistency of his argument.

Made me wonder if he secretly thought there was a Laffer curve for the effects of religion in society – too little or too much belief being bad, the optimum level being somewhere in the middle. Perhaps this would even be an interesting idea to explore, but far too subtle, it seemed, for the sloganeering mind of Ferguson.

49

ajay 08.30.12 at 8:20 am

He wrote an article after 9/11 saying that the West’s problems were caused by the lack of respect for religion of today’s immoral youth, while the Arab World’s problems were caused by the religious fundamentalism of today’s too-moral youth.

Sounds interesting – link?

50

derrida derider 08.30.12 at 9:46 am

Ah, so it’s “the best lack all intention, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” line.
Yeats was a reactionary too, but at least not a sellout.

51

dsquared 08.30.12 at 10:15 am

Is this really new? Didn’t Socrates lecture philosophy to get paid? Weren’t the sophists of the times doing the same thing?

Just to make it clear, this is the audition thread for “CrookedTimberFest ’12: A Festival Of Ideas”, to be held in some out-of-season holiday resort or other as soon as I have got a sufficiently good deal on the beds. Ticket prices on application, although do not expect pricing to be reasonable or even sane.

52

Alex 08.30.12 at 10:34 am

Great idea. Let’s hold it in a US state with a concealed carry statute, so Tedra can deal with trolls in reality in much the same way as on the Internet.

53

Chris Bertram 08.30.12 at 10:37 am

_Just to make it clear, this is the audition thread for “CrookedTimberFest ‘12: A Festival Of Ideas”_

Since we already have our first YouTube video, it shouldn’t be hard to set ourselves up in competition to TED. But why the resort? With today’s technology, regular monologues from a pub in Camden Town should be perfectly feasible. We’ll have to think hard about what punters get for the gold-plated “premium” version though.

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dsquared 08.30.12 at 10:57 am

the premium version isn’t going to be called “gold”. My schedule of pricing is going to run: Platinum: Rhodium: Plutonium: Mendelevium. Any corporate partners wishing for a “Buckminsterfullerene” sponsorship, contact directly. The main benefit of the corporate sponsorship is that it gives you all the benefits of high-level individual access, but your participant badge doesn’t decay within 87 minutes or give you radiation poisoning.

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belle le triste 08.30.12 at 11:47 am

“Split a pickled egg with Scott McLemee”

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Mike 08.30.12 at 12:50 pm

There is a large component of American business management culture that likes to be told on a regular basis how awful they are, and how they should change. In lieu, of course, of ever changing.

Exactly. Henry needs to find some country where corporate structures bear a vague resemblance to what he’s trying to encourage, and phrase everything in the form of “Thanks to democratization, this country that you are somewhat aware of is a hotbed of innovation and who knows, just might eat your lunch.” I don’t know anything about corporate structures but I would recommend Turkey. Maybe you can throw in some stuff about how Islamists are threatening these innovations and trying to send things back to the Stone Age (Stone Age depicted as what US corporations are like).

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tomslee 08.30.12 at 1:22 pm

#45: Gladwell makes a million a year speaking to corporate clients, and (a surprise to me) has the ideology you’d guess would go with it.

I trust the link was put in casually. I know almost nothing about Gladwell’s background (or views), but even I know enough to see that the Shame Project expose is a load of bollocks and half-baked insinuations. A four-month undergraduate internship while at the University of Toronto turns into “trained by the tobacco-funded far-right National Journalism Center” and so on….

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Niall McAuley 08.30.12 at 1:47 pm

Can anyone clear up the difference between contrarianism and faux contrarianism?

Is a faux contrarian someone who argues against something they only pretend is a majority opinion, or someone who only pretends to argue against what is really a majority opinion? Are non-faux contrarians always sincere?

I always associated contrarianism with people who argue against majority views because they are majority views rather than because they are incorrect.

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Alex 08.30.12 at 2:13 pm

I always associated contrarianism with Christopher Hitchens.

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piglet 08.30.12 at 3:43 pm

Henry 35, it’s a great strategy to pretend to miss the point. I didn’t say that I haven’t heard about “the Ferguson brouhaha”, although you stated that you had missed it. What I said was that if your post had been a student assignment, you would mark it down for failing to properly introduce the reader to the topic. I wonder if you are willing to dispute that.

marcel 33: ” a time when members of the intellectual elite were mostly on the left? I must have missed that.” I missed it too but the history books say there was a time, post WW II, when almost all prominent intellectuals were either communists or socialists. Admittedly that is more true in Europe than the US but even in here it was assumed that intellectuals are at least liberals and not reactionaries. Of course this depends in part on how you define intellectual.

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piglet 08.30.12 at 3:46 pm

Niall 56: “Is a faux contrarian someone who argues against something they only pretend is a majority opinion”? Yes, that’s how I use the word. Somebody who argues in favor of the Iraq war, for example, while pretending to be the lone voice of dissent in a desert of anti-war sentiment when in truth he’s just rehearsing the establishment line. Christopher Hitchens, in other words.

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Chris Bertram 08.30.12 at 3:46 pm

piglet: if your comments were student assignments, we’d kick you out the class.

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Henry 08.30.12 at 3:47 pm

piglet – if you want to stick around here, it’s really not a particularly good idea to accuse the lead posters of deliberate dishonesty. When you throw a drink into your host’s face, you’re liable to get escorted out the front door sharpish.

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bianca steele 08.30.12 at 3:57 pm

Observation suggests that among the best ways to make a career as a speaker include: get tenure at Harvard, write a book that describes what US liberals ought to do (in the persona of a US liberal) while oneself being on the right, write a book that links anecdotes and the research of others without clear transitions, write on a trendy topic that lends itself to HR style consulting (here, any POV will work, even a nominally anti-business one). Others may have other ideas. These may not help you much.

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bianca steele 08.30.12 at 4:25 pm

Gladwell also arguably paid his dues at great length. Unlike Ferguson, Jonathan Haidt, or Shawn Achor (whose book is actually not bad), or even George Lakoff, he wrote his journalistic book after working in journalism for a long time, and unlike the first two in this list, didn’t actually switch his career focus in any way in order to make his name with a broader audience. (Unless writing popular books is now part of a psychologist’s expected career path.) He still reliably churns out the same kind of article he’s been writing for years, doing the same kind of research and transforming some of it into books. He started out in popular publishing and that’s where he still is. The others seem to have put in a lot of work to break in close to the top of an industry in which Gladwell had gradually worked himself up.

That I think Gladwell’s books don’t deliver on what they promise and require more work from the reader, to get something really interesting from them, than a journalist’s work really has the right to require (it’s not even a matter of right, really, it’s whether you’re going to find putting in that work was, at best, a huge waste of time), is a totally different issue.

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LFC 08.30.12 at 6:11 pm

Gladwell also arguably paid his dues at great length.

I have no opinion on Gladwell, but this is a red herring, IMO. Ferguson could argue that he “paid his dues” by doing the archival research and the historiographical reading for the ‘serious’ books that, whether you like them or not, gained him his academic posts. Dues-paying is irrelevant here; it’s what your current activities are.

Btw it is possible of course to be both an academic and speak to a broader public without sacrificing integrity. The problem, as the post and thread suggest, comes in when ‘the public’ you specifically want to speak to is high-paying associations, corporations, well-endowed right-wing think tanks, etc.

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Zamfir 08.30.12 at 6:39 pm

I still don’t get this high-paying speaking circuit. No one ever pays a ‘thought leader’ (however minor) to speak to me, or to people I know. Hardly anyone I know could even afford such fees on their own, even shared with an audience of hundreds. Are these circles simply beyond my orbit, or is lecturing just big in America?

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novakant 08.30.12 at 6:44 pm

#67

Same here – and frankly I wouldn’t want to listen to anyone who is getting paid for it.

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Substance McGravitas 08.30.12 at 6:55 pm

The local outlet:

http://www.bonmotclub.com/vancouver/vancouver_series2012-2013.html

Past hits include Cheney, Gladwell, Palin, Ferguson…

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tomslee 08.30.12 at 7:44 pm

Hardly anyone I know could even afford such fees on their own, even shared with an audience of hundreds.

Trade shows and business conferences are also regular spots. Get a few thousand people in at a few thousand a pop and you can afford to throw in a high profile keynote.

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piglet 08.30.12 at 8:56 pm

“if you want to stick around here, it’s really not a particularly good idea to accuse the lead posters of deliberate dishonesty.”

Which I didn’t. I criticized your writing style. I notice that criticism isn’t welcome around here but that’s not to my disgrace. Your overblown offense at a reasonable but (initially) minor point of criticism is unfortunately rather typical and only for that reason warrants my third response. I have made it my principle to always stand up to bullying.

CB 62: That’s fine but at most institutions, you have to give a reason for kicking somebody “out of class”.

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Henry 08.30.12 at 9:25 pm

bq. Which I didn’t.

“Henry 35, it’s a great strategy to pretend to miss the point.”

In re: yr response to Chris, ‘generally low quality of interventions’ suits quite nicely. Check out our guidelines for commenters under ‘contributors who persist with marginal debating points.’ In re: your response to mine, you can make it your principle to always stand up to bullying in other places than my threads from now on, kthxbai. I wish you the best of luck in your future career.

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Friendly Bombs 08.30.12 at 9:59 pm

The focus on nifty catchphrases is what I think many of us find annoying in Matt Yglesias. He has coined any number of good ones, and is obviously bright and well informed, but the style leaves an analysis that is too often superficial. I think we can see now that this rhetorical stance — and not his choice to be a generalist — was the problem all along. Now that he has a specialty, he comes across as more superficial (and dogmatic) than he used to.

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RSA 08.31.12 at 2:10 am

But even so, the world of non-fiction publishing is going through a lot of changes, which I’m busy trying to figure out.

I hope you write about what you discover. I’ve just finished writing a popular science book (my first, maybe only), but all my experience is with the trade division of an academic publisher. It’s been hard to understand the bigger picture.

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David 08.31.12 at 4:11 am

Oh surely, no one has ever accused Tom Friedman of “dense, serious work.” There has to be another explanation.

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Torquil Macneil 08.31.12 at 2:03 pm

“Drezner’s Big Things argument is about the tendency of networked attention economies to produce power law long tail distributions in which a few nodes get the lion’s share of attention while most get little to no attention. “

But isn’t this true of all ‘attention economies’ (if I am understanding the phrase correctly) all the time? Was there ever a time when a few big ideas (or nodes) didn’t dominate public discourse to the (near) exclusion of others and wasn’t the sorting/selecting process a function, at least in part, of the dominant social networks? In fact, it seems to me to have been more emphatic in the pre-internet days than it is now.

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Barry 08.31.12 at 4:26 pm

Mike @56: “Exactly. Henry needs to find some country where corporate structures bear a vague resemblance to what he’s trying to encourage, and phrase everything in the form of “Thanks to democratization, this country that you are somewhat aware of is a hotbed of innovation and who knows, just might eat your lunch.” I don’t know anything about corporate structures but I would recommend Turkey. Maybe you can throw in some stuff about how Islamists are threatening these innovations and trying to send things back to the Stone Age (Stone Age depicted as what US corporations are like).”

Just make up a country: TheyreGoingtoGetYouia.

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Metatone 08.31.12 at 5:28 pm

Semco is the usual example for bringing democracy to harassed US corporate leaders. Throw in a slice of WL Gore too.

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nick s 09.02.12 at 2:07 pm

For example, Mark Twain and Dickens both made a large portion of their income as traveling lecturers/readers.

Although in the latter case, that was mainly because the intellectual property regime in the United States was, shall we say, not quite so highly evolved as it is today.

I’d be interested in learning a little more about the business of speakers’ agents, because it’s the shift from submitting talks to events that you’d pay to attend, to have an agent that books you up for keynotes at events you’d never even know existed until — how much? — that seems to be significant here. A hint of the Cowell to it.

Ferguson could argue that he “paid his dues” by doing the archival research and the historiographical reading for the ‘serious’ books that, whether you like them or not, gained him his academic posts.

He was a college Fellow before his big Rothschilds books, and was courting a broader audience even then, given that he was writing weekly newspaper columns throughout and spending more time with media people than academics; I think it’s genuinely arguable whether NYU and subsequently Larry Summers at Harvard hired him on the basis of his ‘serious’ work as opposed to his media profile.

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ajay 09.03.12 at 11:36 am

surely, no one has ever accused Tom Friedman of “dense, serious work.”

– Tell me, Glaukon: is Tom Friedman’s work hilariously funny?
— No, Socrates, it is not. Not deliberately anyway, and generally not even accidentally. Enraging, yes, but not normally funny.
— And would you not say that it was, therefore, serious on the whole?
— I would indeed, O Socrates.
— As for the intellectual content: how would you describe that, in comparison to, say, this stuffed vine leaf that Thrasymakhos has just passed me?
— I would regard the stuffed vine leaf as superior both in knowledge and in clarity of expression.
— Indeed.
— And how would one describe an entity so lacking in intellectual worthiness?
— I would describe him as “dense”.
— And therefore one can describe most of Friedman’s work as both dense and serious?
— One can indeed, O Socrates.

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Nicodemus 09.03.12 at 2:02 pm

After Hitchens’ appropriation of the label ‘contrarian’ the term has been somewhat overused, but it’s interesting to note that someone like Zakaria can pass himself off as an “independent” foreign policy commentator writing books like “The Post-American World” – not something to please most on the right – and yet represent the core of the American neo-realist IR establishment. The key trick is to appear to be provocative and ‘contrarian’ to someone browsing through the non-fiction bestseller section of your local bookstore, but to effectively say nothing that truly criticizes or displeases policy-makers and businessmen and continue to garner their speaking fees.

And connecting Ferguson and Zakaria is the figure of Henry Kissinger (an old sparring partner of Zakaria’s who has given Ferguson exclusive rights to write his biography), himself someone who’s proven to know how to tread through the corridors of power while rattling off the occasional book or lecture, all while receiving accolade after accolade from various elite audiences. Ironically, Hitchens made his reputation as a contrarian by excoriating Kissinger, but in that sense this was more of a quarrel between two equally powerful thought leaders (each with his own flawed ideas on how to conduct American foreign policy) than a lone and courageous intellectual speaking truth to (former) power.

And by the way, don’t you think it’s quite hard for a historian like Ferguson to write books on famous banking dynasties (which, admittedly, contain some sound work, unlike his apologetics for Western civilization, the finance industry or the British Empire) and not be seduced by the opportunity to earn serious money wherever the wind takes him? Maybe the financial historian earning five-digit speaking fees is simply the victim of his own subject matter.

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Kramer 09.04.12 at 6:58 am

re 75, 80: I’m no expert in the Middle East but (when I read it several > 15 years ago) Friedman’s first book “From Beirut to Jerusalem” seemed both dense and serious. It was always my understanding that he had really floated away (you know, due to the lack of density) starting with “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” thereafter.

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LFC 09.05.12 at 1:04 pm

Nicodemus@81
connecting Ferguson and Zakaria is the figure of Henry Kissinger
Ferguson is teaching a course on Kissinger this fall, it so happens. Perhaps it’s connected to the biography. Not that the world needs another biography of Kissinger, esp. not the one that Ferguson is likely to write.

Hitchens made his reputation as a contrarian by excoriating Kissinger, but in that sense this was more of a quarrel between two equally powerful thought leaders
I’m not sure Hitchens was as “powerful” a “thought leader” as HK, though this is admittedly debatable.

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Roger Gathman 09.06.12 at 12:43 pm

I’m surprised that the Internet is mentioned as the focal point of this phenomenon. To my mind, it is business schools, and the model of the catch-phrase pundit was pioneered by Tom Peters in the 80s, who discovered that the worse he wrote and the more slogans he put in, the more he made.
This however is simply the book part of the vector. The other part was the merger of biz inspiration and managment seminars that businesses would host. This not only created a world of catch phrase believers, but even more, it created a world of upper level management types who were on the lookout for catch phrase entrepreneurs. What did these entrepreneurs have to sell? Many of them began with some specialty – journalism, history – but they made the leap when they began to sell their sensibility. They had no particular expertise except in being connected, and being connected meant that they could relay a certain sensibility and to an extent ‘nudge’ it.
The interesting thing is when the catch-phrasers have to confront something they know nothing about – as in 2002, when they had to confront Iraq without any Arabic, any sense of Iraq’s history, customs, tensions,etc. What they opted for was expertise by connection – connection to Ahmed Chalabi. It was one of the truly comic aspects of the war that the major media mentioned Chalabi hundreds of times more than any other Iraqi politician, confidently expecting that he’d be De Gaulle and Pinochet rolled up in one, and it turned out that he could garner all of 1 percent of Iraqi’s vote when elections came. Why did he come to loom so absurdly big in America, when he was so absurdly small in Iraq? Partly, because he was the kind of guy they liked to connect to – businessy. It never occured to the pundits, for instance, that Chalabi’s fraudulent bank endeavor in Jordan would actually be known far and wide in Iraq, or that the expectation that he would be popular there is a little like the expectation that Enron’s Ken Lay had a good shot at the American presidency in 2004.
That said, I doubt that the public intellectual is really in any danger at the moment. The pundits have always been pretty bad.

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Magnus Ramage 09.06.12 at 2:02 pm

I’d missed the Ferguson/Newsweek brouhaha (didn’t make that much play in the UK anyway), but I was annoyed and embarrassed by Ferguson’s recent Reith Lectures on the BBC. He used to come across as a decent and thorough, if somewhat rightwing, historian; in that series he came across as a polemicist and an apologist for the right. We come from the same city, and I almost wanted to write a piece entitled “As a native of Glasgow, I apologise.”

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