Friday, August 24, 2012

Campaign season and intellectual integrity

When I'm in campaign mode, as I am now, I'm a warrior. My responsibility is to focus all my energies and capacities on winning the current electoral contest. It's both draining and oddly relaxing. I have nothing extra for anything else; I can only plow ahead with the necessities of the moment. Most of life is now on hold until after November 6.

But the paradox here is that I'm an effectual warrior because the rest of the time I have broad interests and curiosities that expose me to diverse intellectual and ethical possibilities. At least, I aim to place myself to force such exposure.

All this meandering is introduction to some clarifying thoughts whose origin requires some explication. Here goes: a pretentious British historian at Harvard, Niall Ferguson, has published a trashy, lying attack on Barack Obama in Newsweek. No, I haven't read it. I've tried some of Ferguson's books and he did not impress -- and besides, I'm in a campaign so I don't have time for the latest pseudo-intellectual sludge. But lots of good academic liberals and journalists -- Paul Krugman, Ezra Klein, James Fallows -- have taken Ferguson to the woodshed. There's a school of thought that Ferguson is just trying to inflate his speaking fees before business audiences rather than make any serious intervention in political debate.

Okay -- so this is just about greed and the excesses of campaign season. But Sir Charles at Cogitamus pointed to a more interesting commentary that reminded me of who I want to be when I am not in campaign mode. Here's some of what Timothy Burke, a professor in the Department of History at Swarthmore College, had to say about the Ferguson flap:

...I still think you can’t afford to treat communities and groups that you politically oppose, however fiercely, as if their motivations and habitus aren’t as complex and historically intricate as any other community or group. You have to be curious about everything or you might as well be curious about nothing. That doesn’t mean I like some of them, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t think some of them are dishonest, manipulative or motivated by goals other than the ones they claim to be pursuing. But I can’t come to rest on the easy certainty of any of those interpretations, and my own convictions and views have to be always subject to the skeptical thought, the unforeseen fact, the surprising experience, the persuasive counterthrust.

Sure, I get frustrated too and blow off steam at times. We’re all human. But when we’re trying to be both (or either) scholars and intellectuals, at least, we have some other responsibilities that kick into gear.

…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.

I hope I remember those verities, even when I'm in campaign mode. When this season is over, I'll be letting myself be grilled by my partner's public policy grad students on issues of campaign ethics. It will be an important conversation, I think.


Ronni Gilboa said...

Just trying to get on the Koch brothers payroll, if he isnt already.

Classof65 said...

Something I've run across recently on a couple of sites is that Romney/Bain has or had a sizeable chunk of stock in a company called Stericycle that disposes of medical waste, more specifically fetal parts and pieces and "products of conception" and that it is that ownership that will come to light if/when Romney releases copies of his income tax. The fact that Romney was profiting from abortion clinics might upset some of his followers would be a better reason to keep his tax returns secret than any worry about how much tax Romney was actually paying. Any chance you could follow up on this?

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