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A FIRST BRUSH WITH GREATNESS! We freshmen sneered at the young professor—then learned how very wrong we had been: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 2008

THEY JEERED, WE CHEERED: Watching Keith Olbermann’s post-debate session, we cheered John Damato when he mentioned the moment no one else would ever have mentioned. Quite correctly, the audience had booed and jeered Wolf Blitzer when he “asked” that late-debate “question,” the one in which he let us know what he so brilliantly thought. Good for that audience—and good for John! Of course, Keith and his other guests wouldn’t have mentioned it if they had chatted for years.

MADDOW MIND-READS MOTIVE: Quick disclaimer: We have an extremely low opinion of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, a “progressive woman” who was willing to pander to Chris Matthews to land a key media spot. Disclaimer offered, let us say this: Appearing on Olbermann’s post-debate show, Maddow gave us an excellent look at the role of “motive journalism.”

Simply put: Pundits typically attribute “motive” to candidates whom they disfavor.

At issue was Obama and Clinton’s discussion of the way illegal immigration affects working-class wages, specifically for African-Americans. (This issue was specifically raised by a question. Sorry: Transcripts aren’t available yet.) To simplify things a bit (but not much), Obama said that illegal immigrants don’t harm working-class blacks all that much. Clinton said she disagreed, and she said that all such groups will gain from comprehensive reform.

Why did the solons state these views? Let’s start with an obvious possibility; it may be that they stated these views because they actually believe them. (As far as we know, academic research is a mixed bag on such questions.) But when Maddow was asked to share her views, she quickly began to trash Clinton’s motives, using extremely unpleasant code language. Clinton had been deliberately “driving a wedge,” she informed us, over and over. That’s right, Rachel—and Chris Matthews may well be the most brilliant man in the world.

Let’s understand how this works.

A mind-reader could have attributed “motive” to either Clinton or Obama. You could say that Obama was kissing up to Hispanic voters, for example, or that Clinton was courting African-Americans. But in the world of people like Maddow, “motive” is typically dumped on the head on the candidate who is disfavored. In saying that Clinton was driving a “wedge,” Maddow engaged in some ugly race-baiting—and she said that Clinton had a motive for her remarks. Obama’s “motives” were never considered, as was completely appropriate.

By the way: It’s widely held that Clinton needs major support from Hispanic voters next Tuesday. Why would she want to “drive a wedge” in a way which might offend these voters? To us, Maddow’s “analysis” didn’t even make sense. But so what? Typically, pundits like Maddow will mind-read and trash the “motives” of those they disfavor.

Sometimes a disagreement is just a disagreement. In assessing a disagreement like this, decent people will typically start with the thought that candidates may simply believe what they’ve said. But Rachel Maddow adores Chris Matthews—and she repeatedly, nastily said that Clinton was driving a wedge.

Good girl!

It would be hard to convey the contempt we hold for this brilliant young mind-reading pundit, who lied in your faces a few weeks ago to get the media spot she wanted. And yes, we’re mind-reading motive here. Sometimes (not often), conduct is so baldly transparent that motive becomes quite hard to miss.

REPETITION: We know, what follows is repetitious—but then again, that’s the whole point. In today’s column, Gene Robinson offers a balanced assessment of the “electability” of Clinton and Obama. “[N]either has a lock on electability,” he says—and we agree. But when he compared the two candidates’ prospects, a basic consideration was once again AWOL. Can you spot the basic problem these people never discuss?

ROBINSON (2/1/08): Clinton's big problem is The Whole Clinton Thing—the specter of Bill's return to center stage, the all-too-familiar politics of triangulation, the psychodrama of the marriage, the fact that they've already had eight years in the White House. The prospect of a Restoration so energizes Republicans that the party would try its best to forgive McCain's transgressions or Romney's artificiality in the interest of unity against a clear and present threat. It would be total war.

Obama has the magic, no doubt about it. Of all the major candidates, I believe he has the most crossover appeal; I know dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republicans who are so mesmerized by his oratory that they say they would actually vote for him over McCain or Romney. But the "experience" question is real, and if he's not careful, it has the potential to sink him. One bad stumble during the fall campaign could be enough to convince voters that he's not ready.

Obama may have the best chance to win big in November and receive a broad mandate. But if he were to make mistakes, he may also be more likely than the others to lose big.

We think that’s abundantly fair—and we agree with Robinson’s final sentence. (We view that as one of Obama’s down-sides.) But in accord with Hard Pundit Law, Robinson dropped a major consideration from this discussion. Here it is: The mainstream press corps loathes one of these candidates—and it doesn’t loathe the other. That too is part of “The Whole Clinton Thing”—but it’s a part of the “The Whole Clinton Thing” mainstream pundits are sworn to ignore.

Surely, Robinson understands this problem. He’s a regular guest on Hardball, which is world headquarters for MSM Clinton-loathing. Indeed, Chris Matthews was recently raked over the coals, in a very public way, for his gruesome Clinton-trashing, which has gone on for the past dozen years. And Robinson’s colleague, E. J. Dionne, recently noted an obvious fact—“the old irrational Clinton hatred is alive and well in certain parts of the media.” But E. J. simply forgot to say which parts of the media he might have meant—and Robinson completely avoids this point. “The Whole Clinton Thing” energizes Republicans, he says. And no one else.

But then, the liberal, Dem and mainstream press worlds have played it this way for the past sixteen years. Eight years ago, for example, we all pretended not to know that the mainstream press was savaging Gore. Eight years later, Hard Pundit Law is still in place—and Robinson is still avoiding the obvious. Omigod! When we consider the role of the mainstream press, Obama gains an edge in electability. But even Robinson knows he can’t go there; Hard Pundit Law makes him quit.
Republicans are energized! At the Post, you’ll be told nothing else.

Special feature: Philosopher Fridays!


A FIRST BRUSH WITH GREATNESS: It was September 1965. We freshmen huddled, twice weekly, in a fairly small room; we were taking the philosophy department’s introductory course—the course designed to help us decide if we wanted to be philosophy majors. It was called “Philosophy 3: Problems in philosophy.” During that fall semester, we examined six classic philosophical “problems,” guided by a very young assistant professor. As it turns out, the gentleman was only 26 years old as the semester began.

Many of us were a bit puzzled by the “problems” we were asked to study. (“Who were these ‘problems’ problems for?” we would ask, decades later.) At this late date, we can only remember one of these problems: How do you know that 7 plus 5 makes 12? Our graduate assistant, Mr. Hurt, seemed to be in agony as he tried to puzzle it out.

Miss Cummings told us? In second grade? That didn’t satisfy Mr. Hurt. No, no, students, he could say—and he’d then emphasize one crucial word. How do you KNOW that 7 plus five equals 12? he would ask, clearly in torment.

Mr. Hurt was taking it hard, trying to solve those six classic problems. And we freshmen were starting to learn the scope of academic philosophy. Meanwhile, we were doing one more thing; we were grumbling among ourselves about how god-awful our young professor was. Discontent grew as the weeks crawled by, leading to major embarrassment.

In those days, you see, we young Harvard lads were expected to applaud at the end of every lecture. (Radcliffe women too!) And not only that: After the semester’s final lecture, we were expected to author a real ovation, letting our professors know how much we appreciated access to their vast erudition. But in this class, tradition was failing. Midway through the semester, the applause began to peter out; fairly soon, it stopped altogether. No one even applauded the final lecture, creating a truly embarrassing moment. Our professor seemed like a very nice guy. But we assumed we were watching a hapless young fellow as his career flamed out.

But wouldn’t you know it? Within a few years, that young assistant professor was one of the biggest stars in all of philosophy.

Because yes, that young assistant professor was the late Robert Nozick, a handsome and thoroughly decent young guy who published Anarchy, State and Utopia in 1974, after which he belonged to the ages. Despite our failure to applaud, Nozick somehow soldiered on—and became a giant star. Indeed, here’s how they describe his career at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

INTERNET ENCYCLOPEDIA: A thinker with wide-ranging interests, Robert Nozick is one of the most important and influential political philosophers, along with John Rawls, in the Anglo-American analytic tradition. His first and most celebrated book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), has brought about, along with his Harvard colleague John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971), the revival of the discipline of social and political philosophy within the analytic school. Rawls’ influential book is a systematic defense of egalitarian liberalism, but Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia is a compelling defense of free-market libertarianism.

Unlike Rawls, Nozick neglected political philosophy for the rest of his philosophical career. He moved on to address other philosophical questions and made significant contributions to other areas of philosophical inquiry.

Maybe you’re the type who’s inclined to doubt the pronouncements of an Internet encyclopedia. Fair enough. But when Nozick died of cancer at age 63, early in 2002, the New York Times referred to him as “the intellectually nimble Harvard philosopher whose critique of America's social welfare system 25 years ago continues to define the debate between conservatives and liberals.” The Associated Press ranked him “among the most famous philosophers of the late 20th century,” noting that Anarchy, State and Utopia “won the National Book Award and was named by The Times Literary Supplement as one of ‘The Hundred Most Influential Books Since the War.’” (Since World War II. The Times of London assembled the list in 1995.) The Los Angeles Times said that he had “dazzled liberal and conservative thinkers alike with his daringly original critique of the welfare state more than 25 years ago.” And across the pond, the Times of London called Nozick “one of the leading political philosophers of the 20th century.” The Telegraph was less restrained: “Professor Robert Nozick, who has died aged 63, was the greatest American philosopher since William James; his influence extended far beyond the academic world.”

For us, this raises some questions:

First, a fairly simple question: With intellectual giants like Nozick and Rawls defining the world of “political philosophy,” how can it be that our daily political discourse seems to be drawn from the world’s largest sandbox? If giants like these have been striding the earth, consuming themselves with political theory, how can it be that the world’s dimmest, most childish, most unbalanced minds define our public discussion?

When their nonsense drags on for year after year, why do no giants intervene?

But a second set of questions comes to mind when we read about Nozick’s brilliance. To capture them, we’ll start with this: By all accounts, Bob Nozick was a superlative person. But if he was “among the most famous philosophers of the late 20th century;” if his famous book “continues to define the debate between conservatives and liberals;” if he’s “the greatest American philosopher since William James,” if “his influence extended far beyond the academic world”—if all these statements are true, why is it you’ve never heard of the man? Why do you have no earthly idea what Nozick said in that book?

Why is he never mentioned or quoted? Why have you never heard his name pass lips? Why is he so hard to find when you run his name through Nexis? If Bob Nozick is so famous, why is he also unknown?

An essential point, before we dismiss, looking ahead to next Friday’s venture: We don’t think we ever spoke with Nozick after that awkward first semester, although we had other brushes with greatness as the years dragged by. But he seemed like a thoroughly decent person, even when we all thought he was hopelessly failing; we’ve never heard anyone say a word to contradict that assessment. That said, we’ll leave you with one final question, a question we’ll visit in Fridays to come: Is there any chance that we freshmen were right, back when we sullenly stopped our applauding? Is there any chance that the greatness of Nozick (and Rawls) might be a scripted illusion?

COMING SOON: About that “accessible style.”

EXTRA READING: For links to extra credit reading, you know what to do—just click here.