Perils of Public Intellectualizing

Anthony Giddens, Col. Qaddafi's BFF?

The news from Libya is breathtaking. For example, here is a New York Times headline posted today, Feb. 24:

BENGHAZI, Libya — Mercenary and irregular forces fought rebels around Tripoli on Thursday, as Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi blamed “hallucinogenic” drugs and Osama bin Laden for the violence.

(Boldface mine, and irresistible.)

There is a great deal to be said, by people far more knowledgeable than I, about the Qaddafi (or Gaddafi, or Gadafy) regime, now in its  fifth decade of brutal rule. A couple of facts might suffice for openers.  According to the Freedom House dishonor roll, Libya ranks in the “least free” category on civil liberties and human rights. Qaddafi rules a country with 21-percent official unemployment. I expect that in the weeks to come we will be hearing a good deal about the considerable numbers of the Colonel’s subjects who exult, fight, and die in the hope that his regime may come swiftly to an end.

In search of background about the latest Arab domino to teeter, spin, fall, and/or go up in flames, I spent some time rummaging around online and came up with this penseé about the man officially known as “Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution,” published in 2006, amid the Brother Leader’s charm-the-West offensive, by one of the most renowned of living sociologists:

Gaddafi is interested in the debates and policies involved in social democracy in Europe, which is the reason he has invited me. He likes the term ‘third way,’ because his own political philosophy, developed in the late 1960s, was a version of this idea. It has been written up in the form of The Green Book, authored by Gaddafi, on display almost everywhere in Libya….

“In theory,” this prominent scholar continued, “Libya has self-government without a state.  Gaddafi’s economic theory holds that everyone should receive the fruits of their labour.” He got “the strong sense that” Qaddafi’s reform impulse was “authentic and that there is a lot of motive power behind it.”

The author of these words doubled down six months later with a Guardian op-ed that concluded by asking:

Will real progress be possible only when Gadafy leaves the scene? I tend to think the opposite. If he is sincere in wanting change, as I think he is, he could play a role in muting conflict that might otherwise arise as modernisation takes hold. My ideal future for Libya in two or three decades’ time would be a Norway of North Africa: prosperous, egalitarian and forward-looking. Not easy to achieve, but not impossible.

The author of these words is Anthony Giddens—Baron Giddens since 2004—formerly director of the London School of Economics, author of some three dozen books, and for a time in the Tony Blair years, tireless promoter of the idea of “the third way.”

Giddens is gifted, no question about it. At Berkeley, I once heard him give an entire lecture without consulting a single note. There are public figures who impress by speaking in whole sentences; Giddens spoke in whole paragraphs.  His early work was no-nonsense, Weber-inflected sociology, but as he rose, he grew both more sweeping and puffier. I never could understand why his signature notion of “structuration” was taken as a major achievement when it was so vapid and tautological—promoting the incontrovertible notion that “”social structures are both constituted by human agency, and yet at the same time are the very medium of this constitution.” (Whether sociology has matured since one of its founders famously wrote, “Man makes history, but not in conditions of his own making,” others may wish to debate.)

There is a long and not-so-illustrious history of fatuousness committed by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. H. G. Wells visited Stalin in 1934 and chatted with him about the theory of socialism, noting that though he’d only just touched down in Moscow, “I have already seen the happy faces of healthy men and women and I know that something very considerable is being done here.”

It’s just as well that I spark my first Brainstorm with this cautionary tale about smart people spouting appalling nonsense.  In a chaotic world, we lunge around for wisdom, and take credentials seriously. Big-thinking theoretical brains can be the most treacherous. One reason why brains have gotten a bad rap is that smart people can be so fatuous, idiotic, and clueless.

(Photo from Policy Network at Flickr Creative Commons)

Update:  Much more on hired intellectuals in David Corn’s Mother Jones article.

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