(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
In this final post in the series, I want to look at the big picture.
If you think of the ideological wars as being fought by armies, then to understand the role of the third tier pundit class one has to see them as non-commissioned officers (NCOs), the sergeants if you will, the ones who actually lead the ordinary soldiers, which in this case is that segment of the public that agrees with them. The pseudo-scholars who occupy the think tanks are the middle level officers. The very top brass, the generals, are the corporate owners, other big business interests, and the extremely rich people who create and underwrite the think tanks and create the media outlets. One key difference between real armies and those involved in the propaganda wars is that in the real armies the very top brass are highly visible in the media while the NCOs are invisible. In the propaganda army, however, it is the NCOs who are visible with the top brass being invisible.
The third tier pundits are part of the public face of the propaganda machine, the ones who are constantly rallying the troops with incendiary language and ideas. They play important roles in the tactical day–to-day battles but they are also dispensable once they have served their purpose. The think tankers play more strategic roles, formulating the plans that the third tier pundits carry out.
But I think that, financially rewarding as it must be to sing the song that your corporate paymasters pay you to sing, there is a price paid by these hired guns. The think tank ‘scholars’ and third tier pundits are clearly academic wannabees who could not make the grade in academia, and it must eventually chafe them to not have the freedom that genuine academics have to freely go wherever their investigations take them. This is not to say that these people are saying things that are contrary to their beliefs. I think they are perfectly sincere, at least most of them for most of the time. The way the filtering system works is that it draws in people who already think the way that these right-wing funders want them to think, so initially at least there is compatibility.
But in general as people grow more mature and have more experience of life, they tend to realize that the world is a complex place and that the Manichaean worldview of good and evil and the simplistic sloganeering of their youth is rather childish. There surely must come a moment when even the most obtuse third tier pundits or think tank hacks realize that they are trapped in an intellectual prison. They cannot change their views or even take more nuanced positions because that would get them summarily ousted from their sinecures.
This must cause them to look longingly at academics who have much greater intellectual freedom and can modify or even switch positions without risking getting tossed out on their ear. If I am convinced otherwise, I can change my mind about any issue at all and say so. But the think tankers and third tier pundits can’t. They are pretty much stuck in their one role, singing the same tune forever and ever. This must rankle the third tier pundits and think tank ‘scholars’ at some level, however much they may try to rationalize it, which may explain why they attack academia so much.
I think Michael Berube got it just right about third tier pundits when he analyzed the potential source of David Horowitz’s unhinged ranting against universities. He said that it must be because Horowitz, someone who fancies himself as an intellectual, envies academics because he himself is not free to say what he wants the way that university academics can.
I think we’re finally getting to the real reason David hates professors so much. It has nothing to do with our salaries or our working hours: he hates our freedom. Horowitz knows perfectly well that I can criticize the Cockburns and Churchills to my left and the Beinarts and Elshtains to my right any old time I choose, and that at the end of the day I’ll still have a job – whereas he has to answer to all his many masters, fetching and rolling over whenever they blow that special wingnut whistle that only far-right lackeys can hear. It’s not a very dignified way to live, and surely it takes its toll on a person’s sense of self-respect.
I think that this same phenomenon must eventually drive all the hired-gun third-tier pundits and think tank ideological hacks to great frustration. It is really somewhat sad and pathetic, but it is the path they have chosen.
The world of academia is by no means idyllic. It has its own petty politics and its own ambitious people who seek to subvert its ideals for personal gain. But it is important to realize that the core value around which universities and academia is built is that of the disinterested search for truth, and all its structures (such as tenure and peer review) are designed to foster that goal. Anyone who wants to do otherwise has to willfully work to subvert the system. The core values of think tanks and their third tier pundit hangers-on is exactly the opposite. It is to produce propaganda and anyone who wants to do good research has to find ways to work around that system.
And that is a world of difference.
POST SCRIPT: The state of the economy
Paul Craig Roberts paints a rather gloomy picture of the fading US economy.