Saturday, April 26, 2003

# Posted 8:16 PM by Patrick Belton  

BEING DONE WITH PRESS CONFERENCES FOR THE DAY: Our friend Jeff Hauser poses one of his always provocative questions by pointing out this quote by Josh Marshall, which he presents as a challenge to neo-cons: (This is a quick response, incidentally, written over a hasty pb&j being quickly consumed in the leadup to a birthday party.)
"For intellectuals, however, there is always a temptation to take momentous, morally serious questions and make them out to be slightly more momentous and world-historical than they really are. Call it the Orwellian temptation. George Orwell not only epitomized what an intellectual can and should be. He has also become the symbol of the role the best intellectuals played in those critical mid-century years. Along the way, however, the image he cast--or rather his ghost, or his shade--has also become part of the pornography of intellectuals

First, I should be impelled by a certain requisite amount of humility to disclaim that I, personally, am not an intellectual - but rather, at absolute best, a pseudo-intellectual. However, I do know several intellectuals - for instance, my good friends and coauthors (one of whom also, incidentally, is a scholar-athlete).

Second, I think the answer lies in the recognizing that there are important turning points in intellectual and (more obviously) political history, and intellectuals write to attempt to bring these about, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. They do so by attempting to change the way in which we conceptualize the social and political universe in which we live - and in particular, the extent to which we're willing to view as acceptable particular dimensions of the status quo by which we're surrounded. We tend to categorize portions of the status quo as alternatively problematic or acceptable, and to different degrees, and important shifts in intellectual and the ideational aspects of political history often happen by prominent thinkers (Thomas Paine, Betty Friedan) shifting the ways in which we categorize particular aspects of the status quo - and the relative priority we give to aspects of the status quo we agree are unacceptable. For instance, it is historically largely up to writers and crafters of ideas to fashion competing arguments about which of these are acceptable, or, conversely, problematic - transitions from religiosity to secularism in liberal democracies (less so in the U.S.); the lack of democracy and respect for individual political rights in much of the developing world; or the legal-political protections given to labor migrants across particular international boundaries, such as Mexican nationals laboring in the United States, or Europeans within the Schengen area.

What a Kissingerian realist may claim is acceptable - a lack of democracy in large regions of the world in the service of stability, prioritizing with Goethe order over justice - a neo-con may not, believing that only a foreign policy of democracy promotion truly fulfills both the United States's ethical ideals and secures its long-term security. And changing our categorizations of acceptability versus unacceptability (a postmodernist would have written something along the hideous lines of "un/acceptability" - but, then again, I could live with that since it's on second glance a rather nice disparagement of the UN), in this case about the acceptability of a lack of democracy remaining in large portions of the world, generally can't be done without making strong cases. To impute a questionable "pornographic" or "Orwellian" label to neo-cons for attempting to make what's actually a quite large change in our way of viewing the rest of the world seems to me, somehow, unwarranted. I grant that it would be irresponsible to treat minor political decisions as though the future of the world somehow hung in the balance on its outcome, but conversely, minor political decisions are generally the linchpins for broader pervasive changes in the political moment, when the latter occur (eg, the colonial response to the Stamp Act) - and rhetorical considerations aside, in this case the degree of weight being given to these issue does seem to me to be truly concomitant with the significance of the matter.

There's much more to be said, but friendship duties must temporarily prevail.
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