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.

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