From the Comments: The Troubling Philistinism of American Libertarians

Dr Khawaja, back from his summer escapades in the West Bank, the Pine Ridge Reservation, and Ohio, takes some time to riff off of my complaints about libertarian criticism of the arts and humanities:

I think you’re being much, much too kind to Caplan. The connection between the Morson essay and the Caplan post is actually pretty clear: Caplan is explicitly defending the sort of philistinism that Morson is worried about. I know that Caplan comes out and insists that he’s not a philistine. But he’s actually the walking paradigm of one.

“The fact that most of the books failed to minimally pique even my interest reflects poorly on them.” Uh, not really. Maybe he should walk over to the psychology section and read up on “projection” and “attribution error.” It doesn’t even occur to him to ask whether his reaction is just an idiosyncratic response to this particular library.

“Could the problem be my lack of expertise?” Gee, there’s a toughie. I looked up the Fenwick collection. Here’s one item at random from their electronic databases:

Kotobarabia Arabic eLibrary Campus Faculty, Staff and Students only Some full text available
This Arabic-only database contains a wide range of Arabic content ranging from contemporary novels to national heritage scientific treatises.
[East View Information Services]

What are the chances that Bryan Caplan could read even the first sentence of the first ten items of any search of this database? Are Tayeb Salih, Ghassan Kanafani, Neguib Mahfouz, or Abderahman Munif embarrassing? Is the secondary literature on them embarrassing (whether in Arabic, English, French, or any other langauge)? Or is Caplan’s ignorant, off-hand dismissal of the contents of his university library what’s really embarrassing?

I looked up the works of Charles Issawi, Albert Hourani, George Hourani, Clifford Geertz, Edward Said, Annemarie Schimmel, Michael Cook, Patricia Crone, Fouad Ajami, and for that matter, Mansour Ajami–all there. These are just random names I remembered off the top of my head from my undergraduate study of Near East Studies. (Mansour Ajami was my Arabic teacher. His name came up randomly because I searched for Fouad Ajami. I had no idea he’s written three books, but he has. Should I be embarrassed by that discovery?) My degrees are in Politics and Philosophy, so NES is way outside of my official areas of expertise. But you’d have to be a moron to be embarrassed by the presence of such work in a library, and it’s all there. You’d also have to be a moron to be embarrassed by the presence of more contemporary work in NES (or Geography, or Anthropology….), especially if, like Caplan, you knew nothing about it.

Just for fun, I did a search on my own last name, not because I expected anything of mine to show up, but just because that’s as random a search as you can imagine. The first hit is a guy named Mahboub Khawaja who’s written a book “Muslims and the West.” I don’t have the book here, but wouldn’t a person of average curiosity be tempted to take a look?

I did a search on my first name, too. Suroosh Irfani’s book on the Iranian revolution looked interesting.

I then clicked one of the Subject Headings underneath, “Europe-Relations-Islamic Countries.” You’d have to be brain dead not to be intrigued by half of what comes up. You could spend a lifetime reading that stuff. Oh wait. That’s kind of what scholars of the field do.

That’s just one casual set of micro-searches of one sub-field by one amateur follower of that field. Imagine multiplying searches of this kind simply for comparative politics and area studies. As you did, you’d multiply counter-examples to Caplan’s ridiculous claims. Then imagine you branched out to other fields. Same result.

Doing all that would be a waste of time, but don’t assume that because I’ve restricted my searches to one field or sub-field, my results are idiosyncratic. I probably could have done the same for Romantic poetry, the history of Reconstruction after the Civil War, Beethoven, Hannah Arendt’s views on Zionism, the luminist school of American landscape painting, American Indian law, Thomism, or literary studies of the works of the Bronte sisters–to name a totally random set of topics. My ex-wife Carrie-Ann Biondi is an indexer (actually the French language indexer) for The Philosopher’s Index. Every month or so, TPI would ship a box of philosophy journal articles to our house for her to index, and I’d spend part of an hour looking through them. Some of it was crap, but most of it was not. I NEVER had Caplan’s response to it. I was awestruck at how much good stuff was being produced. I’ve organized the Felician Ethics Conference for seven years in a row, and have probably read over 200 papers for it. I’ve mostly had the same reaction–curiosity, gratification, sometimes admiration, sometimes even awe.

The bottom line is that Caplan has no idea WTF he’s talking about. The interesting questions are not the ones he ignorantly poses, but rather: Why have libertarians so adamantly and resolutely come to valorize the all-out philistinism and ignorance of people with views like his? Why are we expected to take views like his seriously? If there is a “waste of paper” involved here, why doesn’t that phrase apply to what he’s written on this subject?

Back to prepping for class. The semester begins tomorrow.

I can only add that Irfan is right when he says I am “much, much too kind.” If only more people would come to realize this…

Also, I don’t think this philistinism is limited to Dr Caplan. There is a troubling trend within American libertarianism that is leading towards a kind of cultural chauvinism. Luckily, we live in a polycentric community here in the States and thus have lots of access to other ways of thinking about the world. I want my federal government to be much more libertarian, and I want more polities participating in my more libertarian federal government, and I want Washington to be more like my type of libertarianism. But that doesn’t mean I think those that disagree with me in matters of taste are a waste (of paper, of space, or of anything else).

If anything, those that disagree with me make my life that much more fulfilling, as I am an argumentative son of a bitch. My tolerance is not an endorsement of the status quo, either; any money going from Washington to the arts and humanities (and the sciences) should stop flowing immediately. I still think, despite Dr Khawaja’s excellent point, that libertarians like Caplan and Brennan are subtly attacking this latter notion, that government funding of the arts and sciences is not that bad. They’re just doing a bad job.

Or maybe they’re just philistines.

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One thought on “From the Comments: The Troubling Philistinism of American Libertarians

  1. Thanks for the shout out. Just to be clear, I was commenting on Caplan, not Brennan. Brennan’s view is different, more complex, more debatable, and not obviously philistine. It also depends on a paper that I haven’t yet read, and it’s keyed specifically to philosophy. But Caplan’s view deserves everything I dished out.

    While you’re at it, take a look at the comments on Caplan’s post. To be fair, some commenters (very mildly) dispute his claims. But a fair proportion repeat the party line that one increasingly finds in libertarian circles–the humanities are worthless, the hard sciences rock, universities are merely subsidized cartels, let’s shift everything paper to digital, let’s drive universities out of existence and replace them with online substitutes with “market-driven” quantifiable metrics, blah blah blah. The ur-source of such views is Charles Murray’s 2008 book, “Real Education,” which, though less philistine than Caplan et al, opened the flood gates to the New Philistinism. The book was roundly criticized by the liberal establishment when it came out, but for all the wrong reasons. In retrospect, I wish someone had driven a stake through it then and there. But to my knowledge, no one did. And so, we’re left with the results.

    Caplan is not merely opposed to government subsidies to education. If he were, the charge of philistinism would be misplaced. He wants to reduce the gains from education to quantifiable outputs that causally promote productivity on the job. I haven’t seen him, or anyone on his side, produce anything I would call an argument for this proposition, but that hasn’t deterred them from talking as though it was the most obvious way of discussing the subject. The more that such views dominate contemporary libertarianism, the less interest I have in contemporary libertarianism (present company excepted–but of course those views don’t dominate NOL). The truth is, I think I reached escape velocity a long time ago.

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