« Health Care Reform Options | Main | Good Productivity News... »

November 09, 2005

Public Intellectuals

Tim Burke on Juan Cole:

Knowing: Juan Cole spoke here last night, courtesy of War News Radio, and I was fortunate enough to have dinner with him as well. I thought his talk was terrifically clear, informative and useful.... [T]he useful ordinariness of what Cole is doing: he’s providing a model of how scholars could and should engage the world.... What he does isn’t a substitute for his scholarship, but it makes his scholarly knowledge useful, even if you disagree with it. I get tired of the churlish spirit that seems to demand that the only experts worth having are the ones who happen to accord with one’s own views. I’d rather see most academics rise to the standard of public accessibility that Cole charts out as a basic attribute of their professionalism, and then worry about whose knowledge is most authoritative after we get to that point....

He’s a guy who knows a great many useful things about the modern political history of Iran and Iraq and has the scholarly discipline to organize what he knows in various ways, coupled with an ability and will to clearly communicate what he knows.... Cole knows less about subjects outside his specialized knowledge.... [E]ven within his specialization, of course, he has his pet readings and theories about what has happened and what will happen that collide squarely with the understandings of other specialists with equal experience in the region. What of it? That’s the challenge to any educated, critical-thinking person.... Gain information, gain perspective, use the tools you’ve got and if you need other tools, go get them....

One thing that Cole does contend, and I think he’s right to contend, is that many of the people who shaped the early American occupation of Iraq knew almost nothing about the political or social history of the place they were occupying, and more importantly, didn’t care to know.... A position that says there’s nothing to be gained by knowing the history that Cole knows, that it would have made no difference for American planners to understand the history of Shi’a Islam, or the political history of the Dawa Party, or the internal architecture of Hussein’s Ba’athist state, or any number of other topics, strikes me as an acutely self-defeating position, a cutting off of the nose to spite one’s face....

The curious thing about Cole’s account... is that it’s potentially very positive about the occupation.... [T]he United States actually did liberate some Iraqi communities, did make it possible for them to achieve democratic self-determination. It’s just that... the end result of democratic self-determination, at least in southern Iraq, may be a state that looks less like Morocco and more like Iran...

Posted by DeLong at November 9, 2005 02:28 PM