Thursday, August 17, 2006

On Age and Authority

A note: this entry really isn’t about me. Really. It's about the punditocracy taking themselves very seriously, and who are taken seriously by others. So stick with it.

This is something I think about quite a bit; it's something about which Derek and I have commiserated many times. Those occasions have usually been triggered by the odd tendency among our journalistic friends, the opinion manufacturers at prominent and not-so-prominent websites, magazines, and newspapers, to ignore, utterly ignore, anything we send them for consideration. Derek and I both hold Ph.D.s; we both have been published in a number of formats. We're reasonably well-informed individuals who write reasonably well. And we can’t even get an acknowledgement of receipt for an op-ed to, say, any mid-level newspaper in the continental United States. Mind you, we’re not necessarily asking for a comment on the op-ed, let alone a clear decision on whether they will try to publish. All we want, for now, is for some sort of proof of life for our baby—evidence that it arrived in one piece. This is frustrating, because for the few minutes out of the day when we’re not talking about shotgunning beer and tossing midgets, we are serious people who want to be taken seriously.

Now look at the list of columns at Most days I peruse this list, read two or three of the columns, maybe link one, and ignore the rest. The same goes for Real Clear Politics. Townhall and RCP are more conservative sites, but the same could go for any list of daily or weekly columns. For a variety of reasons, most opinion pieces by established opinion writers simply aren’t very good. Maybe they have been at it for so long that they feel like everything is a repetition. Maybe they lose clarity in their pursuit of the clever turn of phrase. Maybe they just don’t have anything new or different or interesting to say about the issues of the day.

Look, writing a column is not shoveling coal or plowing fields or anything like that, but it can’t be easy, especially over the long term. So I am more than willing to cut columnists some slack for writing boring pieces, especially when the columnists are older. I assume, perhaps out of naivete, that established columnists did hard work back in the day to earn their relatively comfortable current jobs. No doubt that is the case for many of them.

But I wonder. Folks like Ben Shapiro, Megan Basham, and Ross Douthat make me wonder. Stephen Glass gives me, and should have given everyone, pause. I'm a big fan of Jonah Goldberg, and he obviously was in the midst of a productive career when he got his big break, but it is worth noting that his current position stemmed from the notoriety that came from his mom telling Linda Tripp to record her conversations with Monica Lewinsky. Obviously, and as with anything, there is quite a bit of luck and who you know in entering the land of the pundits.

This sounds petty, and truthfully there is no small amount of sour grapes to what I've written. I would love to know the right people. A little luck wouldn't be bad either. But--here's where it gets interesting, maybe--who the hell am I to tell people what to think about the most important issues facing the world today?

Sure, I have a Ph.D. And I am certainly an expert in my areas of study and research. That means a lot, but I am also well aware that my degrees did not bring unlimited knowledge. In fact, one of the most important lessons I learned in graduate school was just how little I knew and know. On the practical side, the everyday life stuff, I'm married with kids, I've got a house, and I've lived and traveled and worked all over the country. I still feel like I haven't experienced anything. And I seriously doubt that there will ever come a time when I'll wake up and my education sand experiences will have combined to reach the level where I'll feel like I've got it all figured out. But I could be wrong.

So I wonder sometimes about the authority with which younger pundits, especially those in my age range, speak. Again, I'm only going after conservative types here, but what did Ben Shapiro pick up at UCLA and Harvard Law that I do not know about to give him the confidence to assert unequivocally that Israel's ceasefire with Hezbollah was "the most ignominious defeat in Israeli history"? Did something in Meghan Basham's personal experiences or education at Arizona State give her the confidence to be so sure that the movie Old School was an assault on the institution of marriage? Is a Harvard undergraduate degree so thorough that Ross Douthat can so blithely judge the approaches of two popes to Christian morality in the modern world? Does Tom Bruscino really think that reading about events on computer screens in Ohio, Washington D.C., and Kansas gives him the wisdom to insist that we are winning the war in Iraq?

Obviously speaking with authority is part of the game--people will only pay attention if you sound like you know what you are talking about. That said, I can only speak for myself, but no matter what happens and no matter where my work gets published and no matter how much authority with which I seem to speak, I want to make one thing very clear: I am always well aware that I could be wrong.

No education, no experiences, and no age will ever give me absolute authority. Just a humble call to remember humility when bouncing around the opinion world.


Blogger montana urban legend said...

Yep. Ross Douthat's book says it all. Connections and the prestige they might bring matter, at least in terms of gaining notoriety. And you're completely right about emphasizing the difference between that and intellectual authority. But I never held the presumption of such a concept in much esteem anyway. The extent to which we hold intellectual authority in high esteem almost inevitably sanctions the extent to which we invite notoriety to follow.

4:19 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home