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.We've often made this complaint. Our Daily Howler keeps getting results! Or so thousands of people said when they read Kristof’s column.
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.
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.
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?