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March 16, 2006

Fukuyama and BHL on intellectuals

Thanks to reader Joe Sinatra, here's an interesting dialogue between Francis Fukuyama and Bernard-Henri LÚvy (two political theorists who write best-sellers). It ends with an exchange about the role of intellectuals. BHL criticizes neoconservatives--who supported the Iraq intervention for reasons of principle--for lining up with Bush on all other issues (e.g., the death penalty, gay marriage, stem-cell research). Since they are educated and worldly people, surely they can't be against gay rights. BHL suspects they have compromised their principles to gain access to power.

Fukuyama suggests that neoconservatives sincerely agree with Bush on these questions of social policy, much as this might shock a European. And then he makes a more general comment about intellectuals who work in institutions:

The idea that an intellectual must always speak truth to power and never compromise means for ends seems to me a rather naive view of how intellectuals actually behave, and reflects in many ways the powerlessness of European intellectuals and their distance from the real world of policy and politics. Of course, the academy must try to remain an institutional bastion of intellectual freedom that is not subject to vagaries of political opinion. But in the United States, to a much greater degree than in Europe, scholars, academics and intellectuals have moved much more easily between government and private life than in Europe, and are much more involved in formulating, promoting and implementing policies than their European counterparts. This necessarily limits certain kinds of intellectual freedom, but I'm not sure that, in the end, this is such a bad thing.

Fukuyama describes his own time at RAND, where there was no intellectual freedom but many opportunities to influence policy and learn. To which BHL replies:

That's it. I think we have come to heart of what divides us. ... The problem lies with the definition of what you and I call an intellectual, and beyond its definition, its function. Unlike you, I don't think an intellectual's purpose is to run the RAND Corporation or any institution like it. Not because I despise RAND, or because I believe in Kubrick's burlesque portrayal of it. No, I just think that while some people are running RAND, others no more or no less worthy or deserving should be dealing with, shall we say, the unfiltered truth. ... America needs intellectuals with a selfless concern for sense, complexity and truth.

Four observations:

1. One does not have to choose between working in powerful institutions or being fully independent and providing the "unfiltered truth." One can also work within organizations that represent ordinary people or marginalized groups or that grow at the grassroots level. Dewey spent a lot of time in schools and settlement houses. Jane Addams' thought was grounded in even deeper experience. Or consider Dorothy Day or various Marxist intellectuals who have worked inside independent socialist and labor organizations.

2. The independence that BHL prizes is quite hard to find. If you teach in a university, then you work for a powerful institution whose social function is subject to criticism. If you write a best-seller, then you are paid by a big media corporation. Working at RAND is not necessarily more problematic.

3. I believe in truth, but it requires method. Truth doesn't just pop into one's mind, even if one has graduated from the Ecole Normale SupÚrieure. Many methodologies are helpful--among them, what Fukuyama calls the "discipline" of operating in "the real world of power and politics." I haven't read BHL's new book, American Vertigo, but presumably his method there is to travel and observe for short periods. I find that method quite problematic. (See Marc Cooper's first-person description of BHL in the field.) If BHL developed a complex and novel social theory or collected data (qualitative or quantitative), I would be more impressed by his claim to "truth."

4. Tony Judt is very insightful about "the demise of the continental [European] intellectual.* On May 31, 2003, Jacques Derrida and JŘrgen Habermas (together), Umberto Eco, Richard Rorty, and several other leading intellectuals published coordinated essays about Iraq in distinguished European newspapers. The result "passed virtually unnoticed. It was not reported as news, nor was it quoted by sympathizers. No-one implored the authors to take up their pens and lead the way forward. ... The whole project sputtered out. One hundred years after the Dreyfus Affair, fifty years after the apotheosis of Jean-Paul Sartre, Europe's leading intellectuals had thrown a petition--and no one came."

Judt suggests several explanations. Intellectuals can no longer get fired up about social-liberal causes, because their position prevails across Europe. Capitalism remains a target of criticism, but no one knows what to do about it. I would add that most European intellectuals lack the discipline of working inside institutions. Such work would give them more access to truth as well as more credibility.

*Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York, 2005), pp. 785-7

March 16, 2006 10:19 AM | category: revitalizing the left | Comments


From David Airth via email:

The exchange between Fukuyama and BHL was very interesting. However, I believe neocons, especially those who lined up with Bush, are not that intellectual. They tend to be like MBAers, like Bush is, who think the the world can be improved or corrected with just a few tweaks. (They are suspicious of intellectuals and they get in the way.) If they had thought more deeply about Iraq they would have taken a different approach in trying to establish democracy there. Democracy is contingent on may things. The Bush neocons thought it would be a cake walk, done with a few broad strokes. (It took the West centuries to try and get it right.) That is why Fukuyama stands out, because he is a more complex thinker. I don't think of him as a neocon in the conventional sense, but as a pragmatist. If Bush and his neocons had practiced pragmatism - which they detest, - in Iraq, that mess would probably not exist.

Fukuyama may also be a fault here with his "end of history" idea (I tend to agree with him). He may have wrongly embolden neocons by postulating that. It made them hubristic and cocky in that they thought they could easily throw America's hegemony around and it would stick.

Larry Diamond of Stanford University's Hoover institution was quite exited about going to Iraq at the beginning to help establish democracy. He is an expert on Democracy and he was on a mission, a new frontier mission. He naively thought democracy was doable in Iraq. He soon had his eyes opened and realized that if you don't have a stable and secure environment, democracy is not possible, which is only half of it. He soon returned to America.

America and the world has been trying to establish democracy in Haiti for years. Things there are not any better there but worse. That shows how little we know about what generates democracy and keeps it afloat.

March 17, 2006 10:52 AM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

Thanks for the post Peter. I wonder though how Judt's explainations for the "demise of the European Intellectual" explain the lack of public response re: the coordinated essays.

It seems that if they published joint/coordinated essays then they were fired up and wanted to influence the events. Perhaps however, the coordination was not with the all the right teammates (citizen's organizations) and thus they could not link their publicized statements to citizen action. Or perhaps this event speaks to more the demise of the European citizen...

Fukuyama does distance himelf from some "neoconservatives" (i'm not sure how he would term himself). A good view into his current thinking is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/19/magazine/neo.html?ex=1142917200&en=cff3e8350803c3db&ei=5070
I think some liberal bloggers like Matthew Yglesias had trouble distinguishing between what Fukuyama describes and liberal internationalism.

Re: Haiti, I'm not convinced that the US and the world have been trying to establish democracy in Haiti for year. It seem that they would prefer a regime friendly to the US than a democracy.

March 19, 2006 12:58 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Joseph Sinatra

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