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Daily Howler: Big journos rarely examine press bias. Robinson helps us see why
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GUILD CARD EARNED! Big journos rarely examine press bias. Robinson helps us see why: // link // print // previous // next //

GUILD CARD EARNED: Big mainstream journalists rarely address the vexing question of “media bias.” The Post’s Gene Robinson goes there today. The result is predictably gruesome.

“Are the news media being beastly to Hillary Clinton?” he asks as he starts. “Are political reporter and commentators...basically in the tank for Barack Obama?” Robinson tilts the discussion a bit through his use of the language of ridicule (“beastly”). But these are very good questions to ask, and Robinson asks them from the front lines. He is, after all, a Hardball regular, and he’s a regular panelist during MSNBC’s long-winded primary coverage. He has therefore been on the front lines in one of the battlegrounds of this alleged beastly media conduct. Just how silly has it gotten on the programs where Robinson works? On this morning’s Post op-ed page, Charles Krauthammer, citing Paul Krugman, gives the short answer:

KRAUTHAMMER (2/15/08): You might dismiss as hyperbole the complaint by the New York Times's Paul Krugman that "the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality." Until you hear Chris Matthews, who no longer has the excuse of youth, react to Obama's Potomac primary victory speech with "My, I felt this thrill going up my leg." When his MSNBC co-hosts tried to bail him out, he refused to recant. Not surprising for an acolyte who said that Obama "comes along, and he seems to have the answers. This is the New Testament."

As everyone knows, Matthews was forced to apologize, just last month, for his endless gender-trashing of Clinton. Another MSNBC regular, David Shuster was forced to apologize, just last week, for engaging in more of the same.

Robinson has been on the front lines as this network’s strange Clinton-trashing has unfolded. For that reason, few people are better positioned than he to evaluate the questions he has asked.

But there’s one problem. Gene Robinson is part of the mainstream press corps, and as we have told you for many years, there is no group on the face of the earth that’s quite so disingenuous. You see, the press corps controls what is said in the press; given that unique power, they are almost never forthcoming about their own conduct and motives. And so it is with Robinson’s column, in which he refuses to discuss the specific media conduct which has produced the questions raised in his column. For openers, Matthews is MIA from this piece, as is Shuster; indeed, the entire dispute about MSNBC makes no appearance here. But then, none of the press corps’ unfortunate conduct has found its way to Robinson’s column. We first told you this in 1999, and it’s baldly true today: These people simply refuse to be honest when judging their own cohort’s work.

How “slick”—how “Clintonesque”—is Robinson’s column? Let’s begin with paragraph 5, where he finally stops “softening up” Bill Clinton and summarizes the pair of charges his piece will pretend to address:

ROBINSON (2/15/08): The theme of press bias, however, is woven through the Clinton campaign's narrative of the story thus far. There are two basic allegations: that journalists look at Obama uncritically while subjecting Hillary Clinton to microscopic scrutiny; and that we react with hair-trigger reflexes when attacks on Obama have the slightest whiff of racism but don't seem to notice, or care, when Clinton is subjected to rank sexism.

Give him credit—Robby is slick. His headline says this: “The Clintons’ Beef With the Media” (our emphasis). By narrowing his field in that way, he gets to discuss what the Clintons have said—and he gets to ignore what has been said elsewhere, by people who may be less constrained in what they can say on this subject. Result? He offers a (paraphrased) pair of allegations, while ignoring the much more pungent claims made just this week by Brother Krugman, in our most famous American newspaper. (Krugman is a famous fellow; surely, if Krauthammer read what he wrote, Robinson must have noticed it too.) If Robinson wanted to get on his hind legs and behave like a man, he could have spoken to Krugman’s highly-quotable critique. In what follows, ignore Krugman’s brief reference to “Obama supporters.” Focus instead on what he says about the mainstream press:

KRUGMAN (2/11/08): What's particularly saddening is the way many Obama supporters seem happy with the application of ''Clinton rules''—the term a number of observers use for the way pundits and some news organizations treat any action or statement by the Clintons, no matter how innocuous, as proof of evil intent.

The prime example of Clinton rules in the 1990s was the way the press covered Whitewater. A small, failed land deal became the basis of a multiyear, multimillion-dollar investigation, which never found any evidence of wrongdoing on the Clintons' part, yet the ''scandal'' became a symbol of the Clinton administration's alleged corruption.

During the current campaign, Mrs. Clinton's entirely reasonable remark that it took L.B.J.'s political courage and skills to bring Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream to fruition was cast as some kind of outrageous denigration of Dr. King.

And the latest prominent example came when David Shuster of MSNBC, after pointing out that Chelsea Clinton was working for her mother's campaign—as adult children of presidential aspirants often do—asked, ''doesn't it seem like Chelsea's sort of being pimped out in some weird sort of way?'' Mr. Shuster has been suspended, but as the Clinton campaign rightly points out, his remark was part of a broader pattern at the network.

I call it Clinton rules, but it's a pattern that goes well beyond the Clintons. For example, Al Gore was subjected to Clinton rules during the 2000 campaign: anything he said, and some things he didn't say (no, he never claimed to have invented the Internet), was held up as proof of his alleged character flaws.

Krugman tells a sixteen-year story about those “Clinton rules.” According to Krugman, the mainstream press has applied these rules all the way back to the early 1990s. They applied the Clinton rules in ginning up the Whitewater pseudo-scandal. They applied these rules for two solid years in savaging Candidate Gore. According to Krugman, the same Clinton rules are now being applied when Hillary Clinton is widely trashed for “entirely reasonable” statements. And uh-oh! The Clinton rules are being applied as part of a “broader pattern” at MSNBC—the network where Robinson kills time while making himself so famous.

In that passage, Krugman summarizes a decade-long body of work which has widely appeared on the liberal web (and, occasionally, elsewhere); for example, the claim about those “Clinton rules” predates, by many years, any current dispute about the coverage of Clinton/Obama. (For the record, we’re talking here about the press corps—not about Obama.) If Robinson really planned to address the actual charges against his cohort, he could have cited Krugman’s quotable claims—charges which appeared just this week, in our most famous newspaper.

But true to the ways of his coven and clan, Robinson chose not to do that. Instead, he pimped up his own (paraphrased) pair of claims. Then, he pretended to address them.

How bogus is Robinson’s attempt to address the (paraphrased) pair of complaints he permits? Sadly, here’s how he tackles the first of his points—the allegation that “journalists look at Obama uncritically while subjecting Hillary Clinton to microscopic scrutiny.” We apologize to Robinson for reproducing such embarrassing work. But readers, please cover the eyes of the children. Don’t let them see such things yet:

ROBINSON: The first charge is just bogus, in my view. Like Clinton, Obama has developed position papers on all the major issues. Clinton has been able to highlight the differences between her proposals and Obama's—for example, the fact that her plan for universal health insurance includes a mandate, whereas Obama's does not. In debates, she has had the chance to challenge his approach and defend her own. It is not the media's fault if voters do not agree with Clinton that nominating Obama would be a "leap of faith."

It is true that the candidates' stump speeches are markedly different: Clinton's is about competence and diligence, Obama's about hope and change. But journalists didn't write those speeches, campaign speechwriters did. And any reporter or commentator who failed to note that Obama is an exceptional public speaker would be guilty of journalistic malpractice.

Reporters are busy combing through Obama's personal, professional and financial history, just as they have examined the lives of the Clintons. Obama has facilitated this process by releasing his tax returns, which Clinton has declined to do. It is not unfair to point this out.

As an attempt to judge the claim that the press has used a double standard (microscopic scrutiny versus uncritical review), those three paragraphs are so clownish that they cause a thrill to go up the leg and straight back down the other. Skillfully, Robinson fails to cite any claim of specific press misconduct; instead, he uses these paragraphs to repeat the view which is under complaint: Obama’s just better than Clinton! Since Robinson can’t seem to recall any incident which might fit the complaint which is under review, let us help him out a bit. To do so, let’s review today’s column by E. J. Dionne.

In our brief part of his column, Dionne summarizes the things which harmed Clinton’s campaign starting on October 30, when she was still riding high in Dem Party polls. As he’s done at least once before, Dionne cites a slightly peculiar example:

DIONNE (2/15/08): In addition to the Clinton camp's original sins, there were also the mistakes that typically happen in long campaigns. After performing almost flawlessly in the 2007 debates, Clinton offered a convoluted answer during an Oct. 30 encounter to a question about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. This single lapse proved costly.

Dionne is certainly right on one point; Clinton’s decline tracks back to that October 30 debate, largely to that single answer. But something is odd about this account, as we noted the first time Dionne chose to pimp it (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/20/07). It’s weird! If Clinton had “perform[ed] almost flawlessly in the 2007 debates,” why would a “single lapse” have proved so costly that it deserves a paragraph all its own in Dionne’s three-graf account of Clinton’s decline? The answer is obvious, and Dionne knows it well—although, true to the coven and clan, he just keeps refusing to state it. Why was Clinton’s “lapse” so costly? Duh! Because the press corps began to jump up and down when she offered her (perfectly sensible) answer. In the days which followed, they subjected her remark to “microscopic scrutiny”—and to unvarnished ridicule. Indeed, that gruesome, unprecedented “gang bang” debate was the start of the press corps’ move in this campaign; the corps’ reaction to Clinton’s brief answer would be Exhibit 2 in any discussion of same. (Exhibit 1 would be the behavior that night of moderators Russert and Williams, who happen to work for the same news org which Robinson forgets to discuss.)

Meanwhile, how about the allegation that Obama doesn’t receive such scrutiny? This, of course, is the perfect example. Two weeks later, in the next Dem debate, Obama was asked about driver’s licenses, as Clinton had been—and he gave an answer so similar to Clinton’s previous answer that the audience laughed out loud at one point! In fact, Obama’s remarks were perfectly sensible (if somewhat clumsy), just as Clinton’s had been two weeks earlier. But the laughter came for an obvious reason; after seeing Clinton ridiculed for her remark, Obama oddly gave an answer that was remarkably similar. But uh-oh! Where Clinton was subjected to “microscopic scrutiny” (and high ridicule) for her answer, Obama’s answer drew little comment. Or, to quote a famous Post pundit: Faced with two strikingly similar statements, “journalists look[ed] at Obama uncritically while subjecting Hillary Clinton to microscopic scrutiny.” Again, this is what critics have meant through the year when they’ve cited the press corps’ “Clinton rules.”

Dionne is certainly right in one way. That “single lapse” began the deluge; starting that night, there have been many examples of the “microscopic scrutiny versus high ridicule” cited in Robinson’s (paraphrased) complaint. But Robinson is very careful not to cite any particular incident. And of course, when he hit his second complaint, our analysts laughed right out loud:

ROBINSON: The contention about racism vs. sexism is harder to dismiss out of hand. Being unapologetically racist or sexist is no longer acceptable in this country, at least in most settings. The social censure for being publicly racist, though, is well codified; the perpetrator must recant and repent, and may never completely eliminate the taint. There's also a pretty solid consensus on what's racist and what isn't. The views on sexism are less settled.

When John Edwards, in one of the early ensemble-cast debates, mentioned Hillary Clinton’s attire, I think everyone agreed he had made a mistake. Yet it's not always out of bounds to comment on a presidential candidate's wardrobe and appearance, or else we wouldn't have chuckled at Edwards's $400 haircut or Mitt Romney's game-show-host mien.

When people refer to Hillary Clinton as strident, is that a sexist code word? I think it probably is.

But when her speaking voice is described unfavorably, is that blaming her unfairly for physiology that's obviously beyond her control? Are male journalists just not used to hearing a woman's voice speak with presidential authority? Or are they making a valid observation about dynamics and tone, which are within her power to modulate?

Is sexism in the coverage of the Clinton campaign excusable? No, and we deserve to be called on it. But it wasn't the media that decided she should take for granted all those states that Barack Obama has been winning.

That’s the end of Robinson’s column. And readers, let’s go ahead and admit it. You can’t get dumber than that.

First, note again the type of move Robinson makes at the end of his piece. In a column which is supposed to examine the media, he ends up critiquing the Clinton campaign—not the press.

Note too the (quite typical) sleight-of-hand near the start of this passage. Pretending to examine the press corps’ sexism, Robinson instantly turns instead to a remark by John Edwards. (Tapped’s Sam Boyd did the same thing this week, substituting John McCain for poor Shuster. But then, “journalists” constantly do this.)

In the passage about Edwards, note the perfect gong-show logic when Robinson discusses the treatment of wardrobe and appearance. It must be OK to do this, he reasons, because we have been doing this.

In Robinson’s penultimate paragraph, note the way he simply asks three questions about sexist press coverage—then makes no attempt to answer them.

Note, again, the masterful way Robinson disappears Matthews and Shuster (and of course, Tucker Carlson). A big, real controversy is actually raging about the questions he claims to be raising—a controversy about his own TV network. But trust us: Most of his readers don’t know that. And Robinson, pretending to stage a discussion, is careful to keep it that way.

But the most ridiculous thing Robby says in that passage lies in its very first paragraph. According to Robinson, there’s “a pretty solid consensus on what's racist and what isn't.” But that statement is almost surely false—and this problem lies at the heart of what has happened to Clinton. As Dionne notes today, her downfall began on October 30, but it was the later claim of race-baiting by her campaign that truly drove her decline. (“[T]he numbers tell the story,” Dionne writes. “Before South Carolina, national polls gave her leads as high at 15 to 20 percentage points; by Super Tuesday, her advantage was almost gone.”) In large part, those numbers changed because the press corps kept accusing the Clinton campaign of racially inappropriate conduct. But, as Krugman’s column suggests, there plainly isn’t “a pretty solid consensus on what's racist and what isn't.” Once again, here’s Krugman’s view about one of Clinton’s comments:

KRUGMAN: During the current campaign, Mrs. Clinton's entirely reasonable remark that it took L.B.J.'s political courage and skills to bring Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream to fruition was cast as some kind of outrageous denigration of Dr. King.

To Krugman, the remark was “entirely reasonable.” Yet many in the press corps did present it “as some kind of outrageous denigration.” What does Robinson think about this? We don’t have the slightest idea. As usual, he just doesn’t say.

Mainstream journos are almost never honest when they discuss the ways of their guild. Today, Robinson plays it very dumb. Robinson proves he’s a part of the guild—part of the NBC boys club.

THE CLINTON RULES IN ACTION: Robinson knows all about those “Clinton Rules;” during Campaign 2000, he helped enact them in much the way Krugman described in his column. Al Gore? He was “the vanilla pudding of the species.” He had a “reputation as Wooden Man Walking.” He and his wife were (headline) “In Love For Their Country.” (Just like the Clintons?) He was “best known for his statue imitation”—what with “his steel-trap brain and steel rear end.” He “even giggled like a girl;” but then, Tipper Gore was “his blonde co-host.” Indeed, “maybe the nicest thing you can say about the Vice President is that he’s remarkably lifelike.” These comments, and a host of others, appeared in a stunning trio of profiles published in the Post’s “Style” section in June 1999, as Gore prepared to formally launch his White House campaign (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/23/01). Three profiles like this in the course of two weeks! We doubt that any big newspaper has ever subjected so major a figure to such a major campaign of ridicule. And these mocking profiles were all published by Style’s brilliant editor—Robinson.

So you’ll better know who these idiots are, here’s part of Kevin Merida’s profile, the first of the three to appear:

MERIDA (6/7/99): Part of Gore's reputation as Wooden Man Walking comes from the geeklike enthusiasm with which he embraces subjects such as reinventing government, suburban sprawl and ozone depletion. Add to that his sometimes awkward use of language—"controlling legal authority"—the clipped cadence, the robotic moves onstage, and you've got the package.

Today, Gore holds the Nobel Peace Prize for “the geeklike enthusiasm with which he embraces subjects such as...ozone depletion.” Back then, morons like Robinson were working hard to ridicule Gore for this conduct. The United States is in Iraq because of the service they rendered.

Back then, Robinson understood the Clinton Rules—and he worked to put George Bush where he is. As such, he earned his way into the club, and seems to have no plan to leave it.

Special feature: Philosopher Fridays!

ABOUT THAT “ACCESSIBLE STYLE:” By the time Robert Nozick died in 2002, the critics had largely agreed on a story; among the gentleman’s claims to fame, he was said to have had an accessible style, one aimed at the general reader. That would have surprised us miserable freshman back in the fall of 1965; we had huddled together in a dimly-lit hall, finding his work obscure and god-awful. (He was only 26 years old at the time; for the record, he was thoroughly pleasant to us. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/1/08 for our account of this brush with greatness.) But when Nozick died, at age 63, he was widely praised as a man of the people. Writing in a chatty style of his own, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt put it this way in the New York Times:

LEHMANN-HAUPT (1/24/02): Robert Nozick, 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, died yesterday in Cambridge, Mass. He was 63.

He died of complications from stomach cancer, the university said.

In his first book, "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" (Basic Books, 1974), Professor Nozick starkly and vigorously attacked the forms of paternalistic government that "forbid capitalistic acts between consenting adults."

Writing in a chatty style that was praised for its accessibility to a wide readership—his work won a National Book Award—Professor Nozick took off after the liberal orthodoxy that had created and nourished the modern welfare state.

Granted, Lehmann-Haupt only said that Nozick was chatty and accessible in Anarchy, State and Utopia, his first and most famous book. But writing in the Washington Post, Richard Pearson expanded the brief. “His first book and those that followed were simply and elegantly written, with charm and wit, all of which made them accessible to the general reader,” Pearson said (our emphasis). In the Times that graces the City of Angels, Elaine Woo said “accessible” too:

WOO (1/26/02): As a former liberal who embraced libertarianism, he brought impressive credentials to the debate over how far government should go. His imaginative grappling with issues of social justice and individual rights was conveyed in a style that most critics found elegant, accessible and frequently funny. "Capitalist acts between consenting adults" was an oft-quoted line from his audacious defense of laissez faire economics.

Granted, Woo was back on Nozick’s first book. Across the pond, the Times of London said the same thing about it: “In a discipline known for impenetrable prose, the book was admired by critics from all ideological backgrounds for its accessible writing style (there were many diverting parentheses) and its inventive examples.” Indeed, even the Harvard University Gazette agreed to go along with the “accessible” story. “Whether they agreed or disagreed with the political implication of the book, critics were nearly unanimous in their appreciation for Nozick's lively, accessible writing style,” the official broadsheet said. “In a discipline known for arduous writing, Nozick's approach was hailed as a breath of fresh air.”

As noted, most of these writers focused on Anarchy, State and Utopia, the book which made Nozick a star. But praise for Nozick’s accessible style had also been bruited when his second book, Philosophical Explanations, appeared in 1981. Publishers always like to pretend that their authors are aimed at the masses, of course; but the blurbs on the back of the paperback edition suggest that this theory of Nozick’s style had been present in reviews of his second book. Philosophical Explanations “will attract intelligent people of all backgrounds,” the New Republic had allegedly said. (The review is not available on line.) Another blurb, sourced to Fortune, agreed with this assessment: “His prose style is insouciant, his manner is whimsical, and he gives every indication of having lots of fun.” As we’ll see, that quote had been clipped out of context a bit. But when the New York Times reviewed Nozick’s book, Alasdair MacIntyre went on at some length about his inspiring everydayness. Here are his opening paragraphs:

MACINTYRE (9/20/81): Philosophers these days have every inducement to write only for one another. The conditions of academic appointment and reappointment coerce them when young into acquiring the style and idiom of the professional journal. Failure to publish in such journals generally spells professional disaster, while success generally produces a style of writing and a concentration upon topics inaccessible to the larger reading public. By so writing, philosophers reinforce the image of philosophy's irrelevance to the concerns of plain, practical people who in modern America tend anyway to believe that a hardheaded involvement in practical affairs precludes them from taking seriously what they perceive as the mere spinning of conceptual cobwebs. Thus the idiom of the mandarin and the prejudices of the philistine reinforce each other. It is unsurprising that philosophy has become ingrown, and that while John Stuart Mill and William James felt able to address the general educated public on the central problems of philosophy, Professor X now writes for Professor Y.

There is good reason then to take notice when a first-rate philosopher writes an important book on these problems addressed simultaneously to his professional colleagues and to the common reader. When moreover the book is written in crisp, elegant prose and communicates its author's own excitement about both the problems and his solutions, as Robert Nozick's new book is and does, the common reader will be the poorer if he or she does not pay uncommon attention.

When the paperback publisher blurbed this review, this (misrendered) fragment appeared: “It is important for you, whoever you are, to read...this book.” In fact, that isn’t quite what MacIntyre said, as you can see at the end of this post. But we’ve faithfully rendered “Big Mac’s” first two grafs. They help us see how the world came to know about—and affirm—that “accessible style.” Pearson would say it again, more than two decades later: “His first book and those that followed were simply and elegantly written, with charm and wit, all of which made them accessible to the general reader.”

By then, everyone had agreed to say it. But uh-oh! As we freshmen could have guessed back in 1965, this assessment was basically bunk.

How accessible was Nozick’s style? Please note: A book of philosophy doesn’t have to be “accessible to the general reader” to have major professional merit. But good grief! Robert Nozick’s various books were hardly a day on the swan boats. For starters, just consider chapter 2 of Philosophical Explanations—a book which reviewed a wide range of topics from the philosophical canon. “[T]he common reader will be the poorer if he or she does not pay uncommon attention,” MacIntyre claimed.

Indeed, there were promising moments. Chapter 2 of Nozick’s book bore the following title: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Why is there something rather than nothing! It’s the kind of “philosophical question” which stirs so much late-night dorm room debate. Beyond that, Nozick says this in his opening paragraph: “So daunting is the question that even a recent urger of it, Heidegger, who terms it ‘the fundamental question of metaphysics,’ proposes no answer and does nothing toward showing how it might be answered.” This brings up one of our most commonly-asked questions: Is it true, we’re constantly asked, that you took Terry Malick’s “cult classic” Heidegger seminar at MIT in 1968 and 1969? (Second semester: Kierkegaard.) Took it? We practically financed the venture! Plus, we and our girl friend and our good friend JM dined with the professor every week at a Mass Ave diner before trudging across the street and settling in for the three-hour session. But that’s a later “brush with greatness,” one we’ll postpone to another time. Let’s just say we had no recollection of Heidegger’s view of this daunting question, or his view of anything else for that matter, which hardly distinguishes Malick’s seminar from other classes we took in those street-fighting years. We did derive one winsome joke from those salad days: “If you think Malick’s movies are a bit slow, you should have sat through his Kierkegaard lectures!” In fact, Malick’s films have been exceptionally good, as you already have heard.

At any rate: Why is there something rather than nothing? Nozick’s general readers lean forward, piqued by so engaging a question. Until they reach paragraph four of this chapter, that is, where Nozick’s chatty, accessible style seems to give way just a tad:

NOZICK (page 116): The question about whether everything is explainable is a different one. Let the relation E be the relation correctly explains, or is the (or a) correct explanation of. One partial analysis of E is the Hempelian analysis of deductive nomological and statistical explanation, which we may view as providing necessary but not sufficient conditions for two types of explanation. The explanatory relation E is irreflexive, asymmetrical, and transitive. Nothing explains itself; there is no X and Y such that X explains Y and Y explains X; and for all X, Y, Z, if X explains Y and Y explains Z then X explains Z. Thus, E establishes a strict partial ordering among all truths, or (alternatively) within the set of true sentences of English plus contemporary mathematics whose length is no more than 20,000,000 words. (I assume that anything of scientific interest can be expressed in such sentences, and I shall treat their number as in effect infinite.) Notice that we are not talking only of what explanations are known to us, but rather of what explanatory relations hold within the set of truths.

Because we hold a philosophy degree from a major university, we can’t speak for the general reader. Our erudition is far too vast to let us accept such an honor. But this is Nozick’s fourth paragraph on this engaging old topic, and it doesn’t strike us as especially “chatty;” nor does this seem like the sort of prose a general reader might regard as “accessible.” Simply expressed, this isn’t beach reading, no matter how much Nozick’s chroniclers might want to persuade us. And a similar problem quickly presents when one looks at his work in chapter 1, which is titled “The identity of the self.” Indeed, this topic starts out sounding even more like the sort of thing you explored in your dorm room. “What am I? What kind of entity?” Nozick asks as the chapter begins. “The dictum from Greece, ‘Know thyself,’ courses through western philosophy,” he soon adds; “it echoes in calls from gnosticism, Vedanta, and Samkhya yoga to uncover our own true nature.” And yet, by the time we hit this chapter’s third paragraph, we feel the buzz-kill approaching again. This time, the problem isn’t excessively technical writing. The problem is the presentation of unfamiliar types of concerns—concerns which won’t grab general readers:

NOZICK (pages 27-28): We each want to understand not only the kind of being we are, but also what constitutes our individual identity as a particular being of that kind. If what we are is persons, to use a relatively neutral term, we want to know what differentiates or individuates one person from another. Even things as basic as how to count persons can be baffling. If an exact physical replica is made of you, with the same exact psychology and (apparent) memories, are there two persons or one? When “multiple personalities” are exhibited in alternation by one human body, how many persons are there? ...

Once again, this is just the professor’s third paragraph, but he has already wandered to questions and claims which may drive the general reader away. “Even things as basic as how to count persons can be baffling,” he tells us. In fact, few general readers have ever been “baffled” by something “as basic as how to count persons,” and Nozick has to go far afield—he has to imagine a futuristic technology—before he can even imagine a case where such bafflement might ensue. And by the way: In his example about those exact replicas, Nozick raises a question which seems suggestive of silly semantics. (Though it’s not entirely clear what he’s asking.) If we lived in some sort of world where “exact physical replicas” could be made, we would first have to decide if we thought they were “persons” at all; if we were able to make that assessment, we would inevitably devise new language suitable for describing this new situation. There’s nothing deep or philosophically challenging about this first question—and we’ll guess it would leave general readers cold (perhaps to their credit). But in fact, people aren’t baffled by how to count persons—unless those people are professional philosophers—and few others will be drawn in by this question. Nor will the general reader be happy when he reaches just the eighth paragraph in this once-promising chapter:

NOZICK (page 31): If y at time t2 is (part of the same continuing individual as) x at t1 in virtue of standing in some relationship R to x at t1, then there could not be another additional thing at t2 also standing (along with y) in R to x at t1. If there also were this additional thing z at t2, then neither it nor y would be identical to x. If that z could exist, even if it actually does not, then y at t2 is not identical with x at t1—at least, it is not in virtue of standing in the relationship R.

Why not just buy and pretend to read Finnegans Wake and say that you’ve gone all the way?

Please note: None of this speaks to the technical merit of Nozick’s work in these chapters. We’re only wondering why so many critics were willing to accept an odd Group Story, a story which is quite hard to sustain. Nozick had an “accessible style?” At the time of his death in 2002, an array of writers all agreed to say the same thing, using that identical two-word phrase, as elite writers now agree to do so in such a wide array of settings. But even when Philosophical Explanations first appeared, MacIntyre, in the New York Times, praised the volume’s “crisp, elegant prose,” saying further: “There is good reason then to take notice when a first-rate philosopher writes an important book on these problems addressed simultaneously to his professional colleagues and to the common reader.”

For the record, Anarchy, State and Utopia was perhaps a bit less off-putting. But when we review its “famous Wilt Chamberlain argument” in our next post, we’ll notice another type of problem, another problem which might leave general readers cold. And just two pages after this “famous” passage, Nozick pens a section sub-headlined “SEN’S ARGUMENT.” Soon, the general reader is pondering this:

NOZICK (page 165): For suppose that person A has the right to decide among (X, Y) and person B has the right to decide among (Z, W); and suppose their individual preferences are as follows (and that there are no other individuals): Person A prefers W to X to Y to Z, and person B prefers Y to Z to W to X. By the unanimity condition, in the social ordering W is preferred to X (since each individual prefers it to X), and Y is preferred to Z (since each individual prefers it to Z). Also in the social ordering, X is preferred to Y, by person A’s right of choice among these two alternatives...

There’s more there, but you get the point. Again, this may be excellent technical work. But the phrase “accessible style” does not come quickly to mind.

Remember the point of our curiosity. Nozick, along with his colleague John Rawls, was routinely said to be one the greatest political philosophers of the last century. At the time of his death, one major publication said he was “the greatest American philosopher since William James.” Our question: With such intellectual giants roaming the earth, how did our political discourse fall to the level it now maintains? Why is our discourse so plainly driven by fools, when giants like these must still be working in our numerous departments of philosophy?

Why is our discourse driven by fools when such “thinkers” still walk the earth? We’ll offer you this one small hint: The people who said that Nozick and Rawls were great thinkers—well, they’re the same people who agreed to praise Nozick’s “accessible style.”

In memory, we freshmen sit huddled—we grouse and complain. We’ll ask you again: Who was right?

COMING NEXT: Taxing Wilt Chamberlain

INVENTIVE BLURBING: Nozick’s publisher cheated a tad in taking that blurb from the New York Times. Here’s what appeared in the paperback blurb, versus what appeared in the Times:

PAPERBACK BLURB: “It is important for you, whoever you are, to read...this book.” —New York Times Book Review

MACINTYRE (9/20/81): Is this demanding too much of the common reader? I think not. Anything less demanding would not take that reader seriously. Perhaps one good way for the serious general reader to attack this often difficult but always rewarding book would be to begin at the end. First read the fine last chapter on ''Philosophy and the Meaning of Life,'' for the moment putting to one side whatever gets in the way of grasping its central thread of argument. It should then be very clear why it is important for you, whoever you are, to go back and read the rest of this book.

Say what? This “often difficult” book? It’s clear what that didn’t make the blurb—a blurb which has been mis-transcribed.