Scialabba viewed from the Antipodes

by John Quiggin on September 6, 2009

Thanks to the continued tyranny of distance as regards the transport of books, my copy of George Scialabba’s book, What are Intellectuals Good For arrived about the time the CT seminar on the topic went live. I had a variety of thoughts on reading the book, but in a lot of ways they reinforced the point made by the transportation delay: the public intellectual business, even now, is quite nationally specific. This is not to say that Scialabba is in any way parochial: on the contrary, his cosmopolitan outlook is a striking contrast with the insularism that characterises many metropolitan intellectuals, not to mention their eponymically provincial counterparts.

Still, reading his discussion of the New York intellectual scene is rather reminiscent of looking at a map of the NYC subway system. It’s fascinating, I’ve visited some of the stops and heard a lot about others, and there are some big achievements to admire, but as regards getting around Brisbane, it doesn’t have a lot of immediate use to me.

Why is this? Partly, I think there is a big element of localism. As I said in my review of Richard Posner’s book on the same topic, each country wants to hear its own policy problems discussed in its own accent. Then there’s the distance in time and the fact, pointed out by Henry, that Scialabba is mostly talking about literary intellectuals, who don’t overlap all that much with economists.

Finally, a point that’s struck me a few times, and recurred when I read Scialabba. Much more than in most other countries I’m familiar with, there’s a deep gulf in the US between ‘left’ intellectuals and the more leftish of the major political parties, that is, the Democrats. In part, of course, this is because, even after Blair, Keating and others, the Democrats are a long way to the right of their counterparts in other countries. I think this is in part what the netroots people are on about when they deny being leftwing: by the standards of mainstream party politics in the US, they take a consistent leftwing position, but that doesn’t resemble the viewpoint of people who would be considered, and consider themselves leftwing. The difference between being engaged with mainstream party politics, even from a highly critical viewpoint, and regarding it as an irrelevant sideshow put on by the ruling class fundamentally affects intellectual debate.

This is all off at a tangent from the actual book of course, and much of it may reflect the distortions that arise when a provincial looks at the metropolis, but I’d be interested in comments and reactions.

{ 10 comments }

1

evil is evil 09.06.09 at 7:33 pm

You want a perfect example of intellectual parochialism, look no further than the health care nonsense.

We can adopt the policies of ANY one of the 35 best counties in the world and we will be ahead. Oh, no. The intellectuals’ can’t even conceive of simply copying a system that works better. Foreign, not made here, yup, you got more parochialism than I can stand.

2

stostosto 09.06.09 at 7:57 pm

Speaking of which, did you see Krugman’s new piece on where economics went wrong? A bit curiously – considering it is him – he doesn’t mention international developments although it would clearly serve to strengthen the overall Keynesian position. Not least the Japanese experience in the 90s.

3

Salient 09.06.09 at 8:27 pm

The intellectuals’ can’t even conceive of simply copying a system that works better.

You are a more generous person than I: I would not call the sign-wielding protesters, such as these fine folks, intellectuals.

(I am fond of the sign that says IF CONGRESS LIKES OBAMACARE SO MUCH WHY DON’T THEY TEST DRIVE IT 1^ST^ and would like to send the protester a response sign that says BECAUSE THEY WANTED TO TEST IT ON OLD AND POOR PEOPLE / WHAT DID YOU THINK MEDICARE-MEDICAID WAS / WAKE UP SHEEPLE.)

In fact, I’m pretty sure most American intellectuals are completely in sympathy with you. Thomas More had something to say about us staying indoors during a rainstorm?

I think this is in part what the netroots people are on about when they deny being leftwing

Isn’t this just to avoid marginalization? In my non-pseudonymous life I spend copious amounts of time expressing my un-left-wingness, my mainstreamularity, my centerosity. It’s a standard means for shifting the population in your political direction, especially the mushy-middle folks who don’t pay much attention to politics and can’t understand people who do, who vote with whoever makes ’em feel kinda good and can’t understand people who don’t.

The netroots proclaiming themselves not-left-wing is standard gut-realignment: “Hey, I’m not all that different from you, and so-and-so is a good person.”

Eh, but you know that. Guess I just want to throw in my thought that, when netroots folks call themselves not-left-wing, they are not first evaluating their own opinions relative to some world-wide scale of left/right and checking to see where they lie.

4

Salient 09.06.09 at 8:41 pm

Much more than in most other countries I’m familiar with, there’s a deep gulf in the US between ‘left’ intellectuals and the more leftish of the major political parties, that is, the Democrats.

And this didn’t used to be the case, even one century ago!

(We can blame A. Mitchell Palmer and J. Edgar Hoover for the divergence.)

5

Phil 09.06.09 at 10:10 pm

A century ago – or any time up to about 1912 – you could make a good case that the GOP was the more leftish of the major political parties; they were certainly closer to ‘left’ intellectuals than the Democrats.

6

E 09.07.09 at 5:40 pm

An amusing example is the “deep” debate among US legal scholars about whether quoting (!) foreign decisions should be verboten.

7

John Emerson 09.07.09 at 11:07 pm

What I meant to say was:

The Non-Partisan League in North Dakota, in 1918 America’s nearest approach to an actual soc*al*st party and an influence on the Progressive Party in Canada, was formally Republican.

If soc*al*sm gives you an erection lasting more than four hours, get an additional girl friend or see your doctor.

8

gd wall 09.08.09 at 2:44 am

Have intellectuals always been propagandists for the ruling class or has there been a time or place that the intellectuals’ concerns were to shed light on objective realities and the consequences of historical events? It seems that the modern approach to expanding the knowledge of others is to insert as many manipulative arguments to bring people around to conclusions that are patently false or misleading.

9

geo 09.08.09 at 7:05 pm

Have intellectuals always been propagandists for the ruling class or has there been a time or place that the intellectuals’ concerns were to shed light on objective realities and the consequences of historical events?

The first chapter of What Are Intellectuals Good For?, and especially the first eight or ten pages, address this question, more or less. The overall argument is that, for the most part, intellectuals weren’t important enough to be coopted until the advent of mass production, which necessitated mass literacy, which in turn necessitated the manufacture of consent. The response of the ruling class was public relations, advertising, and business/government funding and monitoring of the university.

10

lemuel pitkin 09.15.09 at 1:45 am

Just got a copy of WAIGF myself recently, and I can’t remember the last nonfiction book I found so un-put-downable. Good stuff.

One thing does bug me tho: No black people. It’s not just that the subjects of the essays are all white: He doesn’t have to admire anyone non-white if he doesn’t want to (tho it might be nice; he does at least manage to shoehorn in Ellen Willis and Martha Nussbaum) but he doesn’t even mention anyone black except with curt dismissals. bell hooks is unreadable, Toni Morrison should never have won a Nobel, etc. (And there isn’t even much etc.) As far as I can tell, race as a factor in American politics and and culture just doesn’t figure at all, except (again very briefly, and in passing) as something that shouldn’t influence the curriculum or that working class whites might have legitimate grievances over.

Which again, doesn’t change the fact that Scialabba’s style and sensibility are hugely praiseworthy. But it is a little puzzling. Maybe there just weren’t any African-Americans in the New York intellectual world where his roots are. (Weren’t there?) But it does seem unfortunate that insofar as race actually is an important part of American history, Scialabba is no help in thinking about it.

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