This Is Not a Drill

Times like these, part of me wishes I studied microbes or aeronautics or modern American fiction.

One of the most significant crises in international relations of the past 20 years is unfolding right now in Ukraine, but it is impossible to talk or write publicly about it without engaging in a political act that can have significant personal and even public consequences. There is no political science in real time, only politics. When analysis overlaps with practice, the former becomes part of the latter. Sometimes the stakes are high, and I’ve found recently that more people are listening that I had anticipated when I started blogging about current events, among other things.

Or, more accurately, I just hadn’t thought that part through. I think I started blogging because I had time to do it, I enjoyed and benefited from the mental exercise, and I hoped it would advance my career. Best I can recall, I did not think much about how it might eventually entangle me in public conversations with significant consequences, and how I would handle those situations if and when they arose.

In case it isn’t obvious, my last post, on Ukraine, is the catalyst for this bout of introspection. That post had ramifications in two spheres.

The first was personal. Shortly after I published it, an acquaintance whose opinion I respect called me out for stating so unequivocally that Yanukovych’s ouster was “just.” His prodding forced me to think more carefully about the issue, and the more I did, the less confident I was in the clarity of that judgment. In retrospect, I think that statement had as much to do with not wanting to be hated by people whose opinions I value as it did with any serious moral reasoning. I knew that some people whose opinions I value would read my calling the ouster a “coup” as a betrayal, and I felt compelled to try to soften that blow by saying that the act was good anyway. That moral argument is there for the making, but I didn’t make it in my post, and to be honest I didn’t even make it clearly in my own head before asserting it.

The other sphere is the political one. I still don’t believe that my opinions carry more than a feather’s weight in the public conversation, if that. Still, this post has forced me to think more carefully about the possibility that it could, and that I won’t control when that happens and what the consequences will be.

Before I wrote the post, I queried two scholars who have studied Ukrainian politics and law and asked them whether or not Yanukovych’s removal from office had followed constitutionally prescribed procedures. Both of them replied, but both also asked me not to make their views public. As one explained in an email I received after I had already published my post, the risk wasn’t in being wrong. Instead, the risk was that publicizing a certain interpretation might abet Russia’s ongoing actions in the region, and that potential political effect was more important to this person than the analytical issues my question covered. Of course, it was impossible for me to read that email and not feel some regret about what I had already written.

One irony here is that lots of political scientists talk about wanting their work to be “policy relevant,” to have policymakers turn to them for understanding on significant issues, but I think many of the scholars who say that don’t fully appreciate this point about the inseparability of analysis and politics (just as I didn’t). Those policymakers aren’t technocratic robots, crunching inputs through smart algorithms in faithful pursuit of the public interest.  When you try to inform their decisions in real time, you step out of the realm of intellectual puzzle-solving and become part of a process of power-wielding. I suppose that’s the point for some, but I’m finding it more unnerving than I’d expected.

If you work in this field and haven’t already done so, I urge you to read Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics for much deeper consideration of this fraught terrain. I picked up Lilla’s book again this morning and found this passage (p. 211) particularly relevant:

Some tyrannical souls become rulers of cities and nations, and when they do entire peoples are subjugated by the rulers’ erotic madness. But such tyrants are rare and their grip on power is weak. There is another, more common class of tyrannical souls that Socrates considers, those who enter public life not as rulers, but as teachers, orators, poets—what today we would call intellectuals. These men can be dangerous, for they are ‘sunburned’ by ideas. Like Dionysius, this kind of intellectual is passionate about the life of the mind, but unlike the philosopher he cannot master that passion; he dives headlong into political discussion, writing books, giving speeches, offering advice in a frenzy of activity that barely masks his incompetence or irresponsibility. Such men consider themselves to be independent minds, when the truth is that they are a herd driven by their inner demons and thirsty for the approval of a fickle public.

In the 2010s, a lot of oration happens in cyberspace, and a public intellectual is more likely to blog than to give a speech. In other words, scholars who blog about politics in real time must recognize that we are “offering advice,” and must therefore guard against the risk of becoming the “sunburned” intellectuals whose urge to speak drowns out our “incompetence or irresponsibility.”

But what does that mean in practice? Lilla isn’t trying to write a self-help guide for bloggers, but he does go on to say this (p. 212):

The philosopher-king is an ‘ideal,’ not in the modern sense of a legitimate object of thought demanding realization, but what Socrates calls a ‘dream’ that serves to remind us how unlikely it is that the philosophical life and the demands of politics can ever be made to coincide. Reforming a tyranny may not be within our power, but the exercise of intellectual self-control always is. That is why the first responsibility of a philosopher who finds himself surrounded by political and intellectual corruption may be to withdraw.

I do not consider myself a philosopher, but I take his point nonetheless.

Leave a comment


  1. yeah when the political types start paying attention, it can feel like getting caught in a shit storm surrounded by dervishes dancing with knives.

  2. Jay, keep up this thoughtful work. I hope we get to meet in person one of these days.

  3. You should take a look at Kaufman and Jackson’s piece on Weberian Activism. Not sure that it resolves any of these issues, but it does lay out the relevance of Weber’s distinction for contemporary engagement.

  4. Great article. Thanks!

  5. Please let me buy you a martini at ISA 2014, Jay. This post has resonated with me profoundly and it is an incredibly thoughtful read. Your careful self-analysis and introspection provides me with much needed advice. As I noted on Twitter, my scholarship on water governance seems somewhat mundane given unrest worldwide. But given that I too, provide reflections on my blog on my scholarship, I should also reflect on the consequences. Amazing post.

    • Thanks very much, Raul. And don’t sell your field short. Water governance might seem mundane to some, but it’s far more essential than a lot of the ephemera we usually hear about.

      • Why yes. The other day I was talking to a friend of mine who is an expert on the treatment and disposal of waste-water. I asked him if his field didn’t give him a sense of superiority over other academics. After all, everything the rest of us whose work focuses on humans study could be grouped under the heading “Production of Waste-Water,” while he and his colleagues study the other two thirds of the topic.

  6. I am grateful for your blog. I’m not a scholar or a writer or anyone whose opinion is heard beyond my own head but after taking a MOOC course on American foreign policy, your blog has helped me to be even more aware of the world we live in and how different countries respond to each other and why some things are allowed to continue when they make no sense in terms of human rights. I can understand how you would question your own position when you take a middle road and get called out by others who prefer one side or the other. But the middle road is where most sensible world leaders direct their foreign policy, perhaps most especially here in the US. It isn’t, in my opinion, the most helpful road to take, especially when it means sitting on our hands and watching people be killed for no good reason. Hasn’t it always been that the enemy of our enemy is our friend? And then, a few years down the road, we discover that the enemy of our enemy is also our enemy. Is there no middle ground between being isolationists and (I hate it when I lose words) whatever the word is for butt-inskies? Even if there is, can we live with ourselves if we let mass murderers go on unobstructed? I’ve gone off-track now when I only really wanted to say how much your blog means to me and, I would guess, to a lot of people like me who only want to understand the world we live and dream of making it a little better.

  7. Philip Lakka

     /  March 2, 2014

    Chill out with the guilt!

    Your previous blog post was considered and reasonable.

    I love reading your posts and am very happy I subscribed to your musings and data.

    With thanks –

    A reader from England – who spent some time in Crimea…

    An alternative to sticking your intellectual neck out: “Ours is not to reason why…”

    Sent on the move


  8. Rex Brynen

     /  March 3, 2014

    I would have had quite a different interpretation of the significance of your previous blog post, actually. Far too much of the media analysis, out of quite understandable sympathy for the transition, has ignored how the Russians almost certainly see events in the Ukraine–namely, an illegal, Western-inspired coup that not only has geostrategic implications, but which has also placed Ukrainian russophones at risk. (The Ukrainian parliament’s decision to overturn the law that permitted regions to use Russian as an official second language hardly helped.) This failure to appreciate Russian perspectives undoubtedly hampers the effectiveness of Western policy responses.

    In short, I don’t think you were “publicizing a certain interpretation might abet Russia’s ongoing actions in the region” (since, lets be clear, the Russians really don’t care what you say in your blog). Instead, you were reminding everyone of an underreported reality, namely that the transition was not entirely constitutional.

    • Thanks, Rex. I think I would not have any regrets about the post if I had stopped at the point of comparing events to the criteria for a coup. What bothered me in retrospect was my attempt to have that cake and eat it, too—to claim objectivity about the nature of the events and then a breath later to make a rushed political judgment about what they meant. And I wonder about the value of making that coup/not coup assessment publicly in real time, even if (as you correctly imply) it’s just another exhalation in a gale. I think it would be possible to accomplish what you describe without making that assessment so unequivocally.

  9. Oral Hazard

     /  March 4, 2014

    Observer Effect. Carry on bringing the awesome, Jay! 🙂

  10. Shlomo

     /  March 5, 2014

    Jay, I am a lay-reader of your blog, as I appreciate your studied and measured approach. In fact, I really did appreciate the previous post–the intellectual honesty you portrayed by invoking the label of ‘coup.’ I thought your final summation, was a nod to the complexity of the situation as well as a proclamation from your gut–and personally i was ok with that when i first read it. And i think although you criticize yourself in this post, I think if you realize you’re doing it, its okay to give real-time assessment and then say: “stay with me for more follow-up as my analysis evolves.”

    But here is a question i have been asking myself: If the impeachment did not follow the correct procedure, is it possible for the parliament to admit that and then go back and do it the right way…? I’m guessing that that has NEVER happened in the history of government… but as a thought experiment, would it even be legal?

    thanks for blogging,

    • Thank you. On the legal question, I don’t know enough to say. I can’t think of a case where that’s happened, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t.

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