The professors respond to Kristof’s complaint!


We think about Susan Rice:
On Sunday, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column which sounded familiar and accurate.

Kristof lodged a complaint against the academic world. “These professors today” just don’t get involved, the New York Times columnist said:
KRISTOF (2/16/14): Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.


“All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public,” notes Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and now the president of the New America Foundation.

There are plenty of exceptions, of course, including in economics, history and some sciences, in professional schools like law and business, and, above all, in schools of public policy; for that matter, we have a law professor in the White House. But, over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.
We've often made this complaint. Our Daily Howler keeps getting results! Or so thousands of people said when they read Kristof’s column.

Today, several letter-writing professors respond to Kristof’s complaint. Two professors seem to agree with his analysis of academic isolation through hyper-specialization. Two others say it ain’t so.

We’d have to say that it’s very much so. We thought of Susan Rice as we read these letters, as we increasingly do.

Increasingly, we’ve come to see the Susan Rice episode as one of the most striking markers of our society’s ongoing intellectual breakdown. And yes, we blame the professors for this.

Here’s why:

On September 16, 2012, Rice went on five Sunday shows and gave a preliminary explanation of what occurred in Benghazi. Instantly, John McCain created an absurd paraphrase of what Rice had said.

McCain’s paraphrase was inane, absurd, straight from a Washington gong show. Needless to say, his paraphrase stuck, then became standard issue.

Simply put, the modern press corps isn’t up to the task of diagnosing and rejecting clownish paraphrase. Simply put, the task lies well beyond their intellectual horizons.

Nor are “journalists” willing to complain about foolish conventional wisdom. Once a Standard Story gains traction, it will have lifetime tenure.

Without the ability to paraphrase, you can’t conduct a public discourse. That said, did you see a single professor complain about the gong-show paraphrase built out of Rice’s remarks?

Not fair, you may insist! The professors were in the south of France! Your analysis may be correct. But isn’t that part of the problem?

McCain’s clownish paraphrase quickly went viral, as such nonsense frequently does. We’ll note three obvious problems with the way Rice’s remarks were reinvented:

Don’t bother with nuance: Rice noted, again and again, that she was giving a preliminary assessment of what had happened. Asking journalists to react to such qualified statements is, to quote from the early Maher, a bit like asking a troupe of gorillas to clean themselves with bidets.

Our journalists don’t understand the concept of a qualified statement. Presumably, professors do.

Unable to walk and chew gum at one time: Rice told a two-part story about what happened in Benghazi. According to Rice, a spontaneous protest had occurred. Then, extremists armed with heavy weapons came and did the killing.

She didn’t say that the spontaneous protestors launched the killing attacks. But two-part stories are too complex for the modern journalist. McCain collapsed her two parts down to one. Inane ridicule ensured.

Unable to reason at all: On Face the Nation, Rice was specifically asked if al Qaeda was behind the attack. She said it might have been local extremists. She also said it might have been al Qaeda affiliates, or “al Qaeda itself.”

It might have been al Qaeda itself! Despite that statement, McCainiacs swore that Rice had said it wasn’t a terrorist attack. The modern press corps lacks the skill, and the nerve, to react to such burlesques.

Intellectually and morally, the mainstream press corps wasn’t equipped to challenge McCain’s inane paraphrase. Did you see a single professor stand up to assume this task?

As time has passed, the attack on Rice has stuck in our mind as a defining cultural event. Without the ability to paraphrase sanely, you simply can’t conduct a public discourse.

That skill is well beyond the reach of our modern “press corps.” Somewhere in the south of France, our “logicians” sneer at this proletarian task, for reasons Kristof described.

In case you’re wondering: Rachel Maddow don’t mention Rice’s name all through the fall of 2012. As the attacks congealed and took their toll, neither did Lawrence O’Donnell.

On weekend duty, Chris Hayes actually mouthed the standard attack, then took it back one week later. (Everyone makes mistakes.)

MSNBC abandoned Rice completely, totally and wholly. Can you see why we suspect that the children today are just no damn good?


  1. Bravo! In three paragraphs you correctly described Ms. Rice's discussion.

    1. Yes, that was the most succinct defense of Rice I have heard or read to date.

      And that's the problem. Bob sets up this odd comparison. On the one hand we have McCain, a politician on the Republican side going on the attack. On the other hand he blames professors and our elite media for not defending her. To this day I have not heard such a clear concise defense of Rice coming from Obama or his administration or the Democratic leadership.

      Yes, the media sucks. We know that. That's not the point. The defense of Rice should have been coming from Obama first and foremost.

      It's just the same thing with what happened to Gore. I've been reading Bob for a long time and in real time he made such compelling and articulate defense of what was being done to Gore during that campaign. But I kept having this nagging question in my mind, Why isn't Gore saying this?

  2. One of the reasons professors are not omnipresent on television cable shows is we have taste. Sorry, I had to fling that out and now I feel better. As a college professor (communication, University of Toledo) I do not speak bullet point very well. Real issues take real explanations and real thought. First, you have to be capable of rational thinking and then you have to have an audience that is capable of the same. To succeed on cable, you have to be an entertainer and few of us fall into that category. And, while this may sound cowardly, entering today's public arena does not mean you will be able to actually express any of your ideas with the completeness necessary to make people understand your position. You are then subjected to those folks who have far more power than you do. I have been libeled. It is not pleasant.

    1. Weak. One can explain real issues in a rational but quick way. Krugman, to name a rare exception, does it all the time. Its called being cogent. I'm afraid the problem is, those who can, do. Those who can't teach.

    2. That's total nonsense. Those who can't do, can't teach either. Krugman's short columns don't attempt to explain anything complex. Most people are unfamiliar with basic economics.

    3. Mutaman, I was with you right until the gratuitous anti-intellectual slam at the end.

      Krugman is indeed a rare example of a person who is both gifted in his chosen field, and gifted as a communicator. Those are entirely separate gifts.

      Those who are gifted in their field, but not gifted as communicators do not need to feel ashamed. But neither should some of them blame others for their failure to communicate, to borrow from Strother Martin.

  3. "The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant."

    That is not what the phrase "that's academic" means. It does not mean that scholarship is irrelevant. It means that the point at hand is so specific that it would take expert scholarship to decide it. Academics do such scholarship. It does not mean the point is irrelevant or the people who care about such points are irrelevant. It does mean that the discussion cannot be resolved without recourse to scholarship which may or may not be present in the discussants or may be difficult for an audience to follow. People set aside such points because they cannot resolve them, not because they are irrelevant or do not matter.

    Today's academics are working at universities that do not reward them for participation in the public arena. Many are working at universities where funding is limited, salaries are being cut, resources are lacking and professors are being expected to do "more with less" when it comes to both teaching and research. Expecting them to spend buckets of time in unpaid public work that contributes nothing to their evaluation and promotion but has the potential to make them targets of ire, and thus can hurt their careers, is unreasonable.

    Look at the trolls here. Imagine if a professor were to attract such trolls and had to spend more time fighting their influence as well as do the day-to-day job. Some professors who have waded into public battles have attracted death threats, pickets and protests, and so on. Some have been summarily fired by craven administrations fearful of controversy. A professor would have to be very stupid to take on such risks today.

    It is easy to target professors for remaining silent, because they can tell the difference in what is being said. Today, a letter to the editor of a magazine such as New Republic will be indexed together with actual publications in databases and follow that professor for the rest of his or her career. So, submitting such letters can punish without helping anyone academic and jobs are just too hard to come by to jeopardize them.

    1. "Academic" started its life as a simple attributive, meaning "associated with a scholarly institution." It then added a connotation of theoretical and advanced learning as opposed to the practical or the vocational. A short step took us to the meaning of so theoretical as to be wholly impractical and thus useless. All three usages abide. As you note, the first two apply to institutional scholarship in general, while the third is reserved for a specific argument. But in that third sense, it certainly means that the point is useless to discuss.

    2. Useless to discuss =/ irrelevant.

    3. You have a broader definition of "relevant" than I do.

      Suppose your car wouldn't start, and you were discussing the problem with your friend, but he kept talking about the history of the internal combustion engine. I suppose you could say his words were relevant in that you both were talking about engines.

  4. Seems to me the specialization is not in academia, but in politics. We no longer have citizens who participate in civic life. We have career politicians and cadres of political workers who support their efforts. Why are these professionals not doing their jobs? Suggesting professors have a duty to correct errors in public arenas is akin to suggesting that English teachers should be correcting grammar on the internet and guys who work in auto shops should be fixing break downs on the highway in their spare time.

  5. And yet, "those damned kids" were pretty effective in stopping the whole Benghazi pseudo-scandal in its tracks, as well as the birther, Muslim, socialist, IRS, Rev.Wright and a host of other pseudo-scandals while our blogger lamented that the press said mean things about Al Gore and Bill Clinton.

    To our esteemed professor, sorry if that identifies me as a "troll" but I do find it interesting that you state your case in a combox on what truly is nothing more than a vanity blog.

    You see, blogs are where people go to read opinions they already hold, to borrow from John Oliver.

    They quickly divide themselves into two tribes, pro or con the vanity blogger, then they spend their days throwing spitballs back and forth.

    Oh, they think they are brilliant and even adding to a brilliant discussion. But minds are never changed. They just lock themselves deeper in their own positions.

    But it can be good fun and good sport if you hold no illusions of grandeur and take it only for what it is, which isn't really very much in the grand scheme of things.

    You see, as much as we think technology has opened new worlds and new people to us, the back-and-forth of a combox isn't where serious human discussion occurs. It takes place face-to-face, with real voices than can be heard, and with real people communicating in ways far beyond mere words, with body, with expression.

    Blogs and comboxes are where people go to take on a persona, to become more brilliant and more accomplished than they actually are, and to rail endlessly against all those people who don't seem to want to follow our rigid rules, which seem to only apply to them, never to ourselves.

    So if I were you, I would also fear the public arena, where you actually have to think on your feet and express yourself to real people.

    But it's not because you are so brilliant and the genius of your ideas can't possibly be expressed in language that all us dumb "rubes" could understand easily.

    It's because, judging by what you have written, your just another self-impressed stuffed shirt boor, whom reasonable people will walk away from rather than put up with your endless bullshit about how brilliant you are.

    1. No chip on your shoulder.

      1. The push back against the birthers was so ineffective the President had to release his birth certificate to the public several years into his presidency.
      2. I've changed my mind on several things as the result of blog reading.
      3. That said, people rarely convince each other of anything in face-to-face conversations either. Opinions do change, but over time and with repeated exposure to a message, not all at once.
      4. Don't confuse stupidity with ignorance. One is curable, the other isn't.
      5. Academics work hard at being less ignorant in their area of specialty. That doesn't mean they walk about claiming to be brilliant -- that is your low self-esteem talking. It takes hard work to understand complexity. People who have invested that energy may have difficulty explaining the results of their to people who haven't. It has little to do with being dumb or a rube. It has to do with time spent and work done. It takes 5+ years to get a PhD which would qualify someone to be a professor, and that is just the beginning of the study a person puts in. Why should you be able to follow a technical argument without training? Why does it make someone a boor or stuffed shirt to point that out?

    2. 1(a). The birther pseudo-scandal never really took off except for the looney tunes who wanted to "prove" that Obama was "not like us good Amuricans!" The more likes of Orly Tait and Donald Trump appeared on Fox with this bullshit, the less they were believed, and that's because the "pushback" produced the short form birth certificate (long released by the Obama campaign(, as well as birth notices in the Honolulu papers. When Obama went to the extent of releasing his long form birth certificate, it was merely to shut Trump up and expose him as a loon lest he dare bankroll his own run for the presidency. It worked quite well.

      1(b). You don't mention the other pseudo-scandals where the pushback was quite effective, including Benghazi, so I take it you agree that the pushback was quite effective.

      2. Sure you have. Only you don't name a single one.

      3. Perhaps you are as stubborn and unyielding in face-to-face conversations as you are online, but that doesn't mean other people are. Face-to-face requires a degree of respect for the other person, and that opens the mind to learning.

      4. Oh, I never confuse stupidity with arrogance. I merely am not impressed with self-proclaimed geniuses who look down their noses at -- what does Bob call them? Oh yeah -- "rubes." Oh, what a wonderful world we would live in if everybody were as brilliant and insightful as we are!

      5. I do not begrudge any academic their expertise in their chosen field. But I do point out again that no idea is worth a thing unless it can be communicated, and beyond the tiny circle of fellow academics with equal expertise.

      But I do note how you appreciate the work that goes into earning a PhD. Perhaps you can remind our own dear Bob of this the next time he sees fit to mock "our own Rhodes Scholar," Dr. Rachel Maddow.

      But it certainly does make someone both a boor and a stuffed shirt to think he is so brilliant that he is far beyond the ability to communicate with us mere mortals of "average" intelligence.

      So he goes to a vanity blog combox to tell us that.

      And that is rich.

    3. No chip on your shoulder.

  6. What were "the professors" supposed to say about Benghazi and Rice? She said one thing, politicians and journalists pretended she said something else. Why would it be a professor's duty to write an NYT op-ed reprising what Rice said?

    And when academics do try to address the broader issue -- why are some people birthers? why do people believe Fox (or MSNBC)? -- Bob only cites that stuff to ridicule it. (Often justifiably.)

    It's fine to question why academics involved in policy issues don't publish more in public forums and/or why they can't write it more clearly. The obvious example to try to beat up "the professors" with is the health insurance legislation, not Rice.

    Bob is annoyed with "the professors" for not doing the job of journalists and politicians ... and then, on the occasions they try to, he's annoyed when they can't boil down the complexities to single sentence paragraphs written for an 8th-grade reading level and sound bites.

    It's true there aren't enough Krugmans out there in academia but it's also true that the NYT would rather publish Dowd anyway.

    And as flawed as academics are, at least none of them have wasted the last month fixating on a traffic jam.

    1. What is the point of having universities full of people who have spent their lives to understand things if they can't use that knowledge to help us (who haven't spent our lives that way) understand when we are being deceived by our leaders?

  7. Bob deriding people for their narrow interests. Ponder that one for a moment.

  8. Many professors spend their days producing rigorous, peer reviewed research. Some bloggers spew whatever axes they have to grind in a meandering fashion with no rigor but much name calling. Many professors complete and publish their dissertations. Some bloggers start writing books with no research or interviews, tire of it, and set their projects aside, never to be seen again.

    Some do hard work. Some spew evidence free venom from the cheap seats.

    1. "Some bloggers start writing books with no research or interviews, tire of it, and set their projects aside, never to be seen again."

      Ouch! But true.

  9. Bob the Rice deal was like months ago. It passed. Let it go. And please make these posts shorter and easier to read.

    1. And funnier and include pictures. And some sexy stuff wouldn't hurt and leave out those annoying big words.

    2. Correct, 11:12, and I can't help wondering that if Obama had picked the 2000 presidential nominee instead of the 2004 presidential nominee to succeed Hillary Clinton, would Bob still be obsessing about Susan Rice?

      The Susan Rice episode was no more than a footnote to the entire Benghazi deal. It's practical usefulness as a campaign issue ended with Romney's faceplant. Then Hillary herself nailed the coffin shut, sealed it and threw it into the ocean during her appearance before Congress.

      Yes, it still gets pimped occassionally on Fox, just like "global cooling" does every now and then. There are also still "birthers" out there who believe against all logic, reason and evidence that Obama's birth certificate, both short and long forms, are obvious forgeries.

      Bob continues to obsess about minutae, details, and incidents that the rest of the world has long moved on from as if they are evidence of some grand, larger point he fails to articulate. Then he blames those damned kids in the media or those damned professors in academia for failing to do the job for him.

      Well, maybe those professors have more important things to do than explain what Susan Rice really, really said on Face the Nation going on 18 months ago.

      By the way, Rice is also a Stanford/Oxford educated Rhodes Scholar. Funny how that never seems to come up here in a mocking manner.

    3. "Bob continues to obsess about minutae, details, and incidents that the rest of the world has long moved on from as if they are evidence of some grand, larger point he fails to articulate."

      Reading comprehension is clearly not your strong suit, so I'll keep it concise as to the "grand, larger point he fails to articulate," which he of course articulates constantly:

      Our national discourse is broken.

      The "minutae, details, and incidents" constitute powerful evidence that this grand larger point is in fact correct. You're right --we've moved on from the details. And buried the dead larger point.

      If I have a beef with Somerby -- and I do! -- it is that he too often neglects the role of money in maintaining the degraded mental landscape in which we all live. It is not enough to simply point to the large salaries enjoyed by the whores, er, "anchorpersons and top columnists" and media owners, as he often does. There is much, more to the story.

    4. "By the way, Rice is also a Stanford/Oxford educated Rhodes Scholar. Funny how that never seems to come up here in a mocking manner."

      Perhaps it is because Rice does not embarrass herself in public the way Maddow does. Much of what Maddow does on her show violates what she was taught as a doctoral student at Oxford. That is a big turnoff for academics watching her.

    5. Yes, as opposed to the Harvard-educated blogger who mocks her whose teaching career hit a dead end when he failed to earn a master's, whose stand-up career never got off the ground, and who tried op-ed journalism but that didn't work out either.

      So he sits on his fat butt every day blogging and complaining about people who are younger, smarter, more successful and far better educated.

      And he even blew that career which got off to a very promising start.

    6. "Our national discourse is broken."

      Oh, I see. So the cure to our broken national discourse then must be to blog every day about what Rachel Maddow said last night, throwing in what Chris Matthews said 15 years ago, and finding new non-clever ways to say "vile" and "clown."


      Yes, our national discourse can use some work. Politicians say mean things about each other. Pundits say mean things about politicians. And bloggers say mean things about pundits.

      But doggone that democracy anyway that makes this all possible, where people get to hold their own opinions, as loony as they may be, and even express them vigorously.

      Everybody who doesn't agree that "our national discourse is broken" should be rounded up and put in a concentration camp with Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins and all those we determine have broken our national discourse.

      Then we can return to a sane national discourse, not bothered by opinions with which we disagree.

    7. Whoa, whoa! How did you get from TDH's mentioning the obvious facts that Maddow is a clown and that Matthews is vile to concentration camps?

      Quite the drama queen, aren't you?

    8. Let's see. The blogger

      Had a teaching career that dead ended
      Failed to get a masters degree
      Had a stand-up comedy career that never got started
      Failed at op-ed journalism
      Has a fat butt
      Is comparatively old, dumb, unsuccessful, and uneducated
      Failed as a blogger

      It's always fascinating to hear from intimates of Bob Somerby about the details of his life.

      Did you have any cogent observations on what he writes?

      I didn't think so.


    and links there to more

    really, kristof long ago joined friedman, dowd et al. in the realm of irrelevant. not news to "liberals" (not to mention the world left of liberal, though bob doesn't seem to know about that world -- he's a good DLC generation guy).

    The public intellectual business is old and tired, as is bob's knee-jerk hostility to academics. many of whom do all sorts of public intellectual work, from talking on local NPR's to talking with local church groups, serving on local boards, and, hey, just devotedly teaching those citizens called students. If these folks aren't in the rolodexes of David Gregory, that's their fault? wow.

    mch (still occasionally checking in here, to "keep my disgust alive") -- a nj girl, btw, who finds bob utterly clueless on the realities and journalism of the Christie bit. Too hopeless to bother commenting on.

    1. Good comment. Excellent link.

    2. "Too hopeless to bother commenting on."

      "Good comment"

  11. Kids today, reporters today, professors today.

    Fatuous nonsense from someone who fantacizes real people made a real difference back when he was younger and yet, he did not.

    Our intellectual culture isn't collapsing Bob. You are just getting older and more bitter.

    What happened to Susan Rice is no symbol. It is an object lesson at what happens when an event is seized upon as an opportunity to turn around a failing poltiical campaign.

    1. Hate to generalize about an entire generation.

      But . . . the so-called "millennials"? The ones who do not know a world without the Internet and various digital devices to tap into and store information?

      They are, by far, the best educated, best connected, most inclusive and most passionate generation in human history.

      They are going to change everything. Radically.

      And thousands more of them are reaching voting age in the United States every day,

    2. "They are, by far, the best educated, best connected, most inclusive and most passionate generation in human history."

      You are the funniest writer at work in comedy today, sir or madam. Hilarious!

    3. How could "those damned kids" be smarter than Somerby and his brilliant tribe?

      Not hard. That bar is mightly low.

    4. It's been a long time since I have been called a stuffed shirt. You must have talked to my wife. You assume an awful lot from a brief response. Remember the old statement to to assume will make an ass out of you and me. You may also find it interesting I teach a class in critical thinking. I guess just another example of the blind leading the blind. Real ideas, facts, beliefs etc. take time and effort on everyone's part to understand. I do not speak "bullet point" very well nor do I encourage my students to do so. It is also why I rarely respond to blogs.

    5. You should perhaps continue to respond rarely to blogs until your vast critical thinking skills can help you figure out this computer thingy and you actually post in the thread you want to post in.

      But since you teach a class in critical thinking, perhaps you taught your students that one sure way to detect bullshit is the logical fallacy of "appeal to authority."

      In case you haven't, it goes like this: "My argument wins because I teach a class in critical thinking."

      Quite often, especially in blog comboxes, such appeals are often false as well as logically fatalm since we can take on any persona we want to take on, even as a professor of critical thinking.

      So in case you are still wondering, yes I do find it interesting that you CLAIM to teach a class in critical thinking. But not for the reason you think.

    6. Please tell me 9:21. Are you the same person who began this discourse at 5:40 yesterday?

  12. House Republicans cut the security budget of overseas missions.
    The "deaths of Americans at Benghazi!" is what happens when we make believe the richest nation in the history of the world is flat broke.