Chris Blattman

Our intellectual cowardice

“There is often to be found in men devoted to literature,” declared Samuel Johnson several centuries ago, “a kind of intellectual cowardice.” Writers and professors parade their toughness, their credo of “speaking truth to power.” But when it comes to talking truth to mini-power, the magazines in which they might publish and editors who might allow it, laryngitis strikes. Who criticizes the professional journals or the general book reviews? Few or no one. The reason is obvious. We all hope to be reviewed or noticed. Even the most specialized sociologist of adolescent dating patterns harbors dreams of a major book review. Some public words about the dismal quality of reviewing in this or that journal may not help that cause. Less courage is required to attack the architects of American foreign policy than the editors of Foreign Policy.

That is Russell Jacoby writing in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. His target is the New York Review of Books, which “gave space to important figures—but only once they were already important” and for 50 years “withdrew from the cultural bank while making few deposits.” Hat tip to @BostonReview.

In case you are wondering: self-censorship on this blog is rife. I’m not so worried about criticizing journalism or news outlets. But I’m an untenured professor who would like to see his work appear in top journals, and I exercise extreme caution when it comes to academics and their outlets. Fortunately for readers, suppose, I am shortsighted or carefree enough that “extreme caution” still means “unwisely mouthy”. But self-interested cowardice is alive and well here.

4 Responses

  1. I don’t know about the NYT Review of Books, but I have to say that publishers/editors might enforce this too. I had most of my critical comments excised from several book reviews I wrote (which is why I post the full versions on my website). I guess they also have their careers to worry about.

  2. Great post. Two reasons your strategy is right:

    Some people critique by critiquing, others critique by creating. By creating your own, top-quality research, you’ve implicitly critiqued those who don’t—more effectively than any explicit critique. So your strategy is a brilliant one for reasons other than the pragmatic.

    A separate benefit is that staying out of explicit critiques keeps you focused on the big issues. Sayre’s Law (named for a predecessor of yours in the Columbia poly sci faculty), as formulated by Charles Philip Issawi: “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.”

  3. This was very honest — and why I stopped blogging mostly.
    I doubt it will help me if I’m honest, but it might well hurt. And writing without being honest is too hard for a politics oriented libertarian Republican. But being truthful while not writing all the honest truths is a reasonable slightly censored honesty.

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