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The " Amateur" and the " Expert": Intellectual Journalism and International Affairs

Review by: Benjamin Schwarz
World Policy Journal, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Winter, 1997/1998), pp. 97-99
Published by: The MIT Press and the World Policy Institute
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B##KS
Benjamin
Schwarz is executive editor
of
the World
Policy Journal
and a senior
fellow
at the World
Policy
Institute.
The "Amateur" and the
"Expert"
Intellectual
Journalism
and International Affairs
Benjamin
Schwarz
In
1956,
cultural critic
Dwight
MacDonald
surveyed
the condition of American intellec-
tual
journalism
and did not like what he
saw.
Dismissing
the commercial
magazines
as a
wasteland,
he went on to
judge
The New
Republic
and The Nation as
"clinging
to the
platitudes
of liberal
orthodoxy...
shrunken,
drearily predictable
and of little interest to
most American intellectuals." Not
surpris-
ingly, given
his
loathing
of
anything
that
smacked of
"midcult,"
MacDonald devoted
his
strongest
criticism to what he called the
"middlebrow"
journals
that tried to
pass
as
intellectual
magazines
-
The
Atlantic,
Har-
per's,
and the now-extinct
Reporter
and Satur-
day
Review
-
which,
in
trying
to reach a
general
audience, consistently
underesti-
mated their readers'
intelligence,
and thus
produced pieces
that were at once
preten-
tious and
insipid.
To
MacDonald,
Britain had what the
United States needed.
Americans,
he ar-
gued,
write as
professionals,
either as schol-
ars concerned with advancement in the
academy
-
who
produce
the
jargon-riddled,
cautious,
and
overspecialized
articles of the
academic
journals
-
or as
journalists
con-
cerned with
attracting
a
large
and
profitable
audience
-
who write the
pandering
and
slick articles of the commercial
press.
In
contrast,
intellectual
journalism
in
Britain,
he
maintained,
was imbued with the
spirit
of amateurism. Intellectuals there were nei-
ther
writing
for academic
colleagues
who
they
had to
impress
(and
not
offend)
nor for
a
general readership
to whose lowest com-
mon denominator
they
had
constantly
to
appeal.
A
Narrowing
Field
With the
periodic mourning
of the
passing
of the
"public
intellectual,"
MacDonald's in-
dictment has become familiar
(although
he
was somewhat ahead of his
time,
since he
wrote his
survey
when that breed was still
supposed
to be
walking
the
earth).
Since the
time of MacDonald's
diatribes,
the
pressures
of academic
professionalism
on the one hand
and the
marketplace
on the other have be-
come far more
intense,
further
hemming
in
intellectual
journalism.
The New Yorker
may
or
may
not be
transforming
itself into
Vanity
Fair;
it is
clearly, however,
far less interested
than it was in
publishing lengthy, complex
essays.
Even those
objects
of MacDonald's
scorn,
The
Reporter
and
Saturday Review,
which were
at least outlets for some serious
writers, long
ago
became extinct in the Darwinian world
of
for-profit magazine publishing. Moreover,
a number of the more
widely
read
quarter-
lies
-
the Yale and Antioch reviews and the
South Atlantic
Quarterly,
for instance
-
that
once
published essays
on
biographical,
his-
torical, political,
social,
and economic
topics
have become
exclusively literary publica-
tions,
and more
academically
oriented.
In at least one
way, though,
the situation
has
improved
since MacDonald's
essay.
The
Atlantic and
Harper's,
which,
for
peculiar
rea-
sons,
have been less
subject
to market
pres-
sures, long ago
shed their middlebrow
earnestness.
(Today,
the Wilson
Quarterly,
de-
scribed
by
the
leading
historian of American
publishing
as an
"upper-middlebrow
Reader's
Digest,"
is similar to what those
magazines
were in the
1950s.)
Within broad limits
The "Amateur" and the
"Expert"
97
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they
are
quite open
to
ground-breaking, pro-
vocative,
and "difficult" articles.
But the
primary purpose
of The Atlantic
and
Harper's
is not to serve as a forum for
original thinkers; rather,
it is to
report
exist-
ing
trends
-
to
serve,
as
Harper's
editor Lewis
Lapham says,
as "a
monthly
review of the
trend of events and the tendencies of the
public
mind." Still less is this the function of
the
opinion
weeklies. MacDonald bemoaned
the absence of an American New Statesmen or
Spectator,
but for all their
verve,
the contents
of these
journals was,
and
is,
pretty
thin.
Two thousand
words,
the
upper
limit for
the
length
of most articles
in,
say,
The Nation
or The New
Republic,
is
just enough
to
express
a
point
of view on some
topical subject;
it is
not
enough
to
present
and
argue
an unortho-
dox idea. At their
best,
such
pieces
can be
provocative,
but that
length
often seems to
encourage
a snide and
glib style
and articles
that
are,
perforce,
little more than extended
opinion pieces.
This
type
of article
hardly
advances intellectual life.
The American Tradition
Rather than extol the mid-twentieth-cen-
tury
British
weeklies,
MacDonald should
have
championed
the British intellectual
quarterlies
of the nineteenth
century,
the Ed-
inburgh
and Westminster
reviews,
which
pub-
lished
long, well-written,
and
widely
read
theoretical and
practical essays.
In
fact,
the
United States need not look across the Atlan-
tic for models because America had a tradi-
tion of intellectual
journalism
as
impressive
as
Britain's, dating
from the nineteenth cen-
tury's Atlantic, Harper's,
The
Century,
and
North American Review and
flourishing
well
into the twentieth
century.
As Lewis Mum-
ford remembered
nostalgically:
"Until the
Great
Depression
there was a
sufficiently
wide
variety
of weeklies and
monthlies,
some like The Dial and The American Mer-
cury paying
a modest two cents a
word,
some like
Harper's
and Scribner's
paying
more,
so that I never was
compelled
to un-
dertake a
project
that did
not,
in some
way,
further
my purposes....
It would seem almost
sadistic to
give
the
present generation
of
writers an account of the liberated state of
publishing
then." MacDonald could have
looked back at a
time,
before he started writ-
ing,
when a far
greater
number of
magazines
published lively, serious,
and
well-developed
articles for an
intelligent general
audience,
for in addition to
Scribner's,
The
Dial,
and
The American
Mercury,
The
Century,
The Out-
look,
The World's
Work,
The
Forum,
The
Masses,
and Review
of
Reviews had
long
since
passed
from the scene.
Even when MacDonald was
writing,
The
New Yorker and the more
general quarterlies
such as the
Yale, Antioch,
South
Atlantic,
Par-
tisan,
and
Virginia Quarterly
reviews contin-
ued to
publish long,
ambitious,
nonacademic
pieces.
While these intellectual
quarterlies
always paid
little and had small
circulations,
they
mattered. In the
1930s,
Yale Review
published John Maynard Keynes's
literate,
accessible,
and heterodox
essays
on the world
economy.
In the
1940s,
Antioch Review
pub-
lished
Carey
McWilliams's and
Ralph
El-
lison's
pioneering essays
on race in America.
In the
1950s,
I am
told,
there were
young
account executives and
lawyers
in New York
who
eagerly
awaited the next
Kenyon
Review.
Virginia Quarterly
Review
-
which continues
to offer
fiction, poetry,
and
literary
criticism
as well as social criticism and
essays
on
poli-
tics and even economics
-
played
a
promi-
nent role in the
country's
intellectual and
cultural life.
Indeed,
from
Henry
Adams,
Frederick
Jackson
Turner,
and Mark Twain to Waldo
Frank, Mumford, Randolph
Bourne,
H. L.
Mencken,
Edmund
Wilson,
C.
Wright
Mills,
and C. Vann
Woodward,
American
intellectual
journalism's highest
achieve-
ment
was,
and
remains,
the
lively yet
seri-
ous
essay
written with
lucidity, style,
and
what Allen Tate called "leisured
thought"
and "considered
depth."
(To
appreciate
these
last
characteristics, compare Henry
Adams's
annual reviews of
politics,
"The
Session,"
published
in the North American
Review,
98 WORLD POLICY
JOURNAL

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which
brought
events in
Washington
into
the
perspectives
of
history
and
philosophical
statesmanship,
to,
say,
The New Yorkers
"Letter from
Washington,"
which has be-
come
merely high-level Washington gossip.)
These
pieces, dealing
with
history, poli-
tics, foreign affairs,
and cultural criticism
display
a
depth
of
knowledge
and an infor-
mal and
personal style
that
emerges
when
the writer is
trying
neither to
appease
nor
impress
the
reader,
but
regards
him or her as
an intellectual
equal.
For this kind of writ-
ing
to
thrive,
the writer must
recognize
the
reader to be "the cultivated
layman
who felt
...that the
high places
of literature were not
beyond
his reach: he saw himself and the
author in a communion of
understanding
in
which the communicants were
necessary
to
each
other,"
as Tate described the ideal.
This tradition is almost
entirely
dead.
Only
The American
Scholar, Virginia Quarterly
Review,
The
Atlantic,
and
Harper's
occasional-
ly
offer such
pieces.
And,
with the
exception
of those in The Atlantic and
Harper's, hardly
anyone
reads them. In
fact,
it is often
impos-
sible to find the former
journals
in even the
most
highbrow
bookstores or newsstands.
The
Myopia of
the
Expert
This dearth of outlets for serious and sus-
tained
essays
on culture and
public
affairs
has had a
particularly unhappy
effect on the
intellectual discourse
concerning foreign pol-
icy.
The
"public
intellectuals" of the
past,
by
definition,
wrote and commented
upon
subjects
with which
they
were not
profes-
sionally
involved
-
Mumford on architec-
ture,
Woodward on America's
self-righteous
approach
to the
world,
and Edmund Wilson
on the Dead Sea Scrolls and on the literature
of the Civil
War,
for instance.
Jane Jacobs
could write in a
startling
new
way
about cit-
ies
precisely
because she was not
trapped
in
the orthodoxies of the urban
planning pro-
fessionals; ideally, public
intellectuals
bring
to their
subject
of
inquiry
a breadth of
knowledge
and
imagination unhampered by
"professionalization.
"
Today, however,
discussion of
foreign
af-
fairs is left to the
professionals. Harper's
al-
most never and The Atlantic
only rarely
publish pieces
on
foreign affairs,
believing
that the
foreign policy periodicals
-
Foreign
Affairs, Foreign Policy,
The National
Interest,
and the World
Policy Journal
-
cover that
beat. But this is like
neglecting pieces
on
crime or race because those
topics
are ad-
dressed in the American
Journal of Sociology,
The
foreign policy magazines
are
really
professional journals;
their contributors
(and,
to a lesser
degree,
their
readership)
are
drawn
by
and
large
from the
"policy
com-
munity"-
-current and former
government
officials and the academics and think tank
analysts.
As these contributors recirculate
the same views and
"debates,"
more often
than not a stale consensus tends to take hold.
Now that
foreign policy
has become the
exclusive
province
of the
experts,
on the rare
occasion that the
general
intellectual
maga-
zines choose to run a
piece
on
foreign policy,
they simply
round
up
the usual
suspects.
During
the Vietnam
War,
when the New
York Review
of
Books was in its "radical"
phase,
it
published
articles on American
pol-
icy by
Gore
Vidal; now,
it turns to
Stanley
Hoffmann
(as
does
Dissent)
and to former
State
Department
officials.
Thus,
when the educated
public
seeks in-
tellectual discussion of
foreign policy
-
dis-
cussion of America's
place
in the
world,
and
an
attempt
to
put
that
conception
in broader
philosophical, cultural,
or historical contexts
-
by
writers whose horizons extend
beyond
Foggy
Bottom and the Council on
Foreign
Relations,
it
really
has nowhere to turn. At
a time
when,
as we are
constantly reminded,
the United States must reexamine funda-
mentally
its role in the world and when
American
society
faces
global pressures
that
it is less and less able to
manage,
let alone
control,
American intellectual
journalism
should revive its tradition of amateurism and
"considered
depth."
It could stand fewer
pol-
icy experts,
but it needs its
Adamses,
Twains, Wilsons,
and Woodwards.*
The "Amateur" and the
"Expert"
99
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