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By Michael J. Smith on Thursday March 27, 2008 01:48 PM

I'm still brooding over the Barbara Ehrenreich paradox, discussed here yesterday: Why do smart people fall into the same dumb lesser-evil trap, year after election year?

With some helpful references supplied by readers who commented on the earlier post, I did a little prowling. Back in '04, Barbara had a guest stint on the New York Times op-ed page, replacing the egregious Thomas Friedman, who was off writing one of his pestilent books.

Perhaps the New York Times has a stultifying effect, not just on readers, but on writers as well. That is, perhaps the Times is dull and banal not only because it hires dull and banal writers, but also because it exercises some Upas-tree effect on formerly smart and lively writers.

Or perhaps it's a function of ascent. When you move from the steerage class of American journalism, as represented by The Nation, right up onto the bridge of the mighty vessel, you must feel a certain impulse to comport yourself like the rest of the gold-braid boys -- to arrange your once-frisky features into a stern responsible expression, to scan the horizon with exaggerated vigilance for icebergs, to believe that weighty matters lie in your hands and the fate of millions, perhaps, may hang upon your words.

Here's Barbara, during her tour in officers' country, giving advice to candidate Kerry:

I'd like to present a brand-new approach to terrorism, one that turns out to be a lot more consistent with traditional Democratic values... one glaring moral flaw in this [Islamist] insurgency, quite apart from its methods, is that it aims to push one-half of those masses down to a status only slightly above that of domestic animals....

So here in one word is my new counterterrorism strategy for Kerry: feminism. Or, if that's too incendiary, try the phrase ''human rights for women.'' ... Announce plans to pour dollars into girls' education in places like Pakistan, where the high-end estimate for female literacy is 26 percent, and scholarships for women seeking higher education in nations that typically discourage it. (Secular education for the boys wouldn't hurt either.)

We keep coming back to this, with the Pwogs, don't we? This sense of the mission civilatrice, alongside the notion that it can be achieved by "education" or social work rather than by aerial bombardment. The Hobbits dream that they can take -- or counsel a Kerry or Obama how to take -- the Ring of Power, and use it (of course!) in a good, moral, enlightened way, and for good ends.

Perhaps the core of the problem is that these academic and journalistic Pwogs, having achieved some success and renown in their fields, just can't realize or admit that when push comes to shove, they are as thoroughly sidelined and irrelevant as the mute inglorious rest of us. Hell, they're on the bridge, aren't they? Their names are known? Their books are published, bought in modest but often profitable numbers, and sometimes read? Surely those levers of power, so tantalizingly near, might be graspable. Would the Pwogs not be terribly remiss to spurn the opportunity?

Perhaps we should revise an old adage, and say that nothing fails like success.

Comments (5)

Tim D:

Hey MJS, speaking of books, your book writing seems to have stalled a bit! When will SMBIVA the book come into full blossom!?



Tim -- Alas, the book seems to be ineligible for publication. I can't even get an *agent* interested, much less a publisher. I thought I had an agent for a while there -- he was going through an episode of disillusionment with Obama -- but I think the charmer from Illinois must have reeled him back in again.

It says something about how flippant these famous people are about their own core issues, too. I severely doubt Ehrenreich would ever be dumb enough to believe her recommended policy of pugilistic one-dimensional "feminism" would ever work, even if adopted.

You have to hand it to Chomsky on this level. He has never thrown water on his own analysis, for any reason. When he says something about voting or "supporting," it's always with open eyes and firmly pinched nose.

Tim D:

i don't know MD, i think chomsky does come off as rather unserious when he begins signing petitions making a case for voting democrat despite their many faults. i mean at the end of the day one is still affirming state violence by voting for the democrat. chomsky's point in the past has been that the seemingly insignificant difference between them could translate into thousands of lives saved, but as allen nairn recently pointed out, that's all pretty silly as far analysis goes:

Michael Hureaux:

I've not thought Chomsky was so tight for a long time. His take on the Bolshevik revolution is a bunch of orthodox anarchist crud, which is no more helpful then orthodox marxist crud. So I think it's fair to assume there were bound to be hitches in his thinking somewhere else. I actually find it sort of reassuring.

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