Scholars shouldn’t read the New York Times

If Noam Chomsky had done nothing else, he would have given us one of the strongest critique of the New York Times as the guarantor of nationalist ideology for the U.S.’s professional-managerial classes. But there’s another good reason to not read the Times besides its obvious ideological problems. Namely: that it promotes an intellectual monoculture. Too many scholars and academics read it to the exclusion of anything else.

I’ve long had a memory of having seen this complaint crop up in earlier decades, and I just stumbled back across its source in a 1969 paper by Donald Campbell (in which he critiques the “ethnocentrism of disciplines” and advocates a “fish scale model of omniscience,” but that’s another story). Here’s Campbell critiquing the “scholarly ego ideal”:

While on the theme of recreational reading and the duplication of fish scales, it seems appropriate to deplore the tendency of social scientists to feel that they all should read current newspapers, particularly the New York Times. Certainly the collective perspective would be better if most spent the equivalent time with newspapers of other epochs or with historical, anthropological, archaeological, or literary descriptions of quite other samples of social milieus. Rather than the ego ideal of keeping up with the current worldwide social developments, the young scholar should hold the ideal of foregoing current informedness for some infrequently sampled descriptive recreational literature. Too often our ego-ideals settle for uniform omniscience, knowledge of both past and present, of both here and there, and too often we settle for the same pattern of compromise all our colleagues are settling for. Compromise from the Leonardesque aspiration there must be, but even in leisure reading, one can hold as ideal the achieving of unique compromises.

Source in Google Books.

Why deviate?

One time a friend of mine, Mike Bishop, asked me an interesting question about the ethics of deviating from norms:

“In what sense is deviance important for its own sake, rather than merely being necessary (perhaps even regrettably necessary) because “the good” is not socially acceptable in all contexts?”

A few ways of thinking about this came to my mind:

1. Deviance is always morally necessary because all (known) social systems are imperfect, so it’s just guaranteed that some good things will come across as deviant, no matter what social context you inhabit. Thus, deviance gives flesh to the inevitable clash between normativity and virtue.

2. Deviance is necessary as a way of demonstrating anti-authoritarianism, that is, as a counterforce pushing back against social discipline and authority. While some kinds of authority are admittedly better than others, every authority structure needs to be reminded constantly that it is not absolute or without flaws. Thus, deviance expresses a primordial resistance to domination.

3. Deviance is a good thing because vast seas of cultural likeness are just hideous. Thus, deviance expresses a basic aesthetic of diversity. Continue reading Why deviate?