Saturday, July 26, 2003

What does it mean to be educated? Does it mean you've become smarter or that you've merely gained a skill? If one can string together large numbers of references and quotations, is that intelligence? Is Posner intelligent or does his programmatic inflexibility imply something else? I've been reading around the blogs for over a year, and I've read and continue to read absolute dreck by people who confuse erudition with intelligence, surrounding their simple and unimaginative thoughts with references in an attempt to give them weight.

Josh Marshall is good at pointing out what's right in front of him, and us, but in trying to come to terms with larger issues, he's always been more thoughtful than he needs to be. This was true on the war, where he tended to defer to Kenneth Pollack's expertise rather than to look clearly himself at the risks involved. He thinks too much. Thoughtfulness and clarity are not contradictory. The combination needs to be learned, but can't be taught.

In a sense Marshall's story of his mother's death and of his visit to the site where it happened, which I commented on a month ago (the story is here), and the tone of Berube's piece about Keller are related. And I don't say this just because Berube has written about his developmentally disabled son. I hated Berube's writing on the war. There was a sense that he was trying to force thoughtfulness and circumspection onto a situation that didn't deserve it. And the same as true as I've said of Marshall's writing. Some people do this merely as a means of demonstrating their control over a situation when in fact they have none. Like the man who stands up during a crisis and says 'Now everybody, calm down!" when everyone is already quiet: a gesture of concern masking a claim to authority. I got that impression from Berube's writing on Iraq and from altogether too many of the academic bloggers I read. With Marshall however I think it's more simple caution, but a caution I don't agree with. Yet in both cases that caution -forced or not on other occasions- is what gives depth to their more personal and apolitical pieces. The false reportorial 'objectivity' they both lean towards, even if they don't subscribe to it, falls away. When both write outside of any pressing need for a political response, with an obligation not so much to be objective as observant, their attempts at objectivity have more force.

Sometimes distance gives clarity, sometimes it describes avoidance. If you go into a situation with a predetermined response you'll have problems- even, or especially, if that predetermined response is not to have one. If you go into that situation with the intention of using it to prove to the world the correctness of your predetermined response, that's something else, and far worse. What we've seen far too much of in this country is the educated adherents to the former logic giving the adherents to the latter the benefit of the doubt.

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