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July 29, 2008

The Folly of Intellectual Abstinence

As it has been some time since I last expressed disillusionment with anything but my own woeful inadequacy, I thought I might take the opportunity to disabuse cherished readers of the notion that I have abandoned the contempt in which I hold most of society to pursue hating myself full time. Nothing could be further from the truth, and today, I turn to a topic that never fails to dole out soul-crushing disillusionment to any who seek it: politics. Tomorrow's Times (brought to me today by the magic of the internets) features an interesting article on Senator (and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee) Obama's twelve years as a professor at The University of Chicago Law School, and I highly recommend a read. While the piece covers a lot of ground, I would like to focus on one point in particular that is brought to the forefront: Obama never published a single piece of scholarly work while a faculty member at Chicago. My first thoughts: seriously? How is that possible?

Perhaps some clarification is required to explain my disbelief. Amongst those who concern themselves with such inanities, the fact that any ranking of law school faculty productivity would include Chicago Law high upon the list is not seriously in dispute.1 Indeed, if there is anything I have gathered about the faculty in my time there so far, it is that scholarship is both expected from and valued by professors young and old alike. Why, then, would Obama in twelve years have not published a single article?

Certainly, not for a want of ability: his books as well as what former students say suggest quite the opposite. No. As most people might suspect, and as the article even not-so-subtly suggests, the real answer probably lies in his dormant political aspirations. Putting one's name to a scholarly paper that advocates a novel theory may win one accolades in academia, but in the ever-articulate world of the marginally literate morally superior idiots who dominate this country and its political discourse, it buys you nothing but suspicion and contempt. Elitist. Egghead. Out of touch. Not like you and me. As though being in touch with the culture of incompetence, or those who subscribe to its inept ways, ought to be something that invokes pride. Please.

Worse still, you give fodder to your political enemies who will not hesitate to construe your work in its worst and most unreasonable light so that they may skewer you over a pyre of easily-digested sound bites. Nor does one party hold a monopoly on this unpleasantness: lib'ruls are just as quick to label someone a racist as conservatives are to label someone unpatriotic. The game is simple. By branding someone with a emotionally and politically charged label, one need not deal with the subtleties that riddle any issue of import. Why bother explaining how your opponent is wrong on a theoretical level when you can just as easily win by claiming he hates black people, 'merica, or maybe (gasp!) both.2

Do I blame those politicians who engage in such shenanigans? Not really. In an arena in which nice guys are not even allowed to finish, one cannot be faulted for resorting to fighting fire with fire, cynical though it may be. Do I lament that it happens? Absolutely. Serious problems do not have simple solutions. Those who seek to solve these problems ought not be judged on the basis of Cliff Notes prepared by disingenuous hacks.

The idea marketplace does not operate any differently than the financial one: nothing ventured, nothing gained. But when politics is added into the mix, suddenly, risk aversion is not so much the name of the game as is risk avoidance. The result may be no fodder for political hit jobs, but it also means no substantive contribution of any sort whatsoever.

What is truly shocking is that these days, a sex scandal may not necessarily end your political career, but an idea scandal most likely will. Cheat on your spouse if you must, but dare not question the prevailing opinion with respect to any hot button issue lest you destroy your career before it starts is the message we are sending to the politicians of the future. Is this result desirable?

To me, not in the least. From an information standpoint, neither scandal is particularly helpful in and of itself for judging a candidate. The only thing a sex scandal tells me is that the individual in question cannot keep his dick in his pants (Clinton) or out of other men (most of the moronic fervently anti-gay Republicans).3 An idea scandal tells me even less. So someone said something or wrote something once which may have challenged the prevailing opinion. OK. So fucking what? So did Copernicus. And Galileo. Would we have rather that they did not?

Of course, perhaps after looking at the specifics I might decide that this is not an idea or candidate I can support, but that is a far cry from writing it off entirely. I spent my undergraduate years studying engineering and science, and as a result, law school has been the first time I have been seriously exposed to academic debate over social problems that ail our nation. In that short time, I have rarely, if ever, encountered a theory that was so downright idiotic as to warrant ridicule and outright dismissal—or one that was easily condensed to a single catchy phrase.

If this were the business of writing song hooks, we could just outsource the work to Timbaland and be done with it. Mercifully, it is not. Perhaps it is time that we stopped acting as though it were.

^ 1 One such study places Chicago at number one overall.
^ 2 To be clear, I do not hate either. My hatred is much more amorphous than that, better characterized as misanthropy. Whoops. There goes my political career.
^ 3 Sorry ladies, but you ain't got nothing on the men with respect to sex scandals. Thus, the gendered sentence, which I generally try to avoid.


It's suprising that Chicago didn't force Obama to publish something.

I've always been disheartened by the historical dearth of academics in the oval office. Then, I think about Woodrow Wilson and get even more depressed.

By the way, "Fighting Fire with Fire" is a classic. While the post itself is legendary, one of the funniest parts is the comment. The person obviously had not visited the site before.

"Compassion...God...human dignity..." Who does he think he's dealing with?

It's been too long Rohit.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I see glimmers of concern and humanity (especially in your footnotes) when I read your blog these days. The reference to women was an added touch of Rohit flare that is both missed and appreciated these days.

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