Cleverness over content

Norman Finkelstein:

Yeah there’s definitely a place for style and creativity… The problem is when… English majors decide they want to do politics and they have no background in the field of inquiry…

…most people don’t [have expertise] and what you have now is versions of George Packer, Paul Berman. There’s just a large number of people who know nothing about politics, don’t even think it’s important to do the research side. They simply substitute the clever turn of phrase. The main exemplar of that in recent times was Christopher Hitchens who really hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. But what he would do is come up with three arcane facts, and with these three arcane facts he would weave a long essay. So people say, oh look at that. They would react in wonder at one or the other pieces of arcana and then take him for a person who is knowledgable.

People unfortunately don’t care very much about content. They care about cleverness. That’s the basis on which The New York Review of Books recruits its authors, you have to be as they say, a good writer. And the same thing with The New Yorker. Now obviously there’s a great virtue to being a good writer, but not when it’s a substitute for content.

Comments

  1. Kaglio says

    It seems like the go-to attack among critics of Hitchens is to portray him as a sort of journalistic dandy who was more interested in the sound of his own prose than in speaking truth to power. Since when is it a character flaw to love the written word? Just because doctrinaire, party-line writers like Finkelstein or Chomsky have a tendency to be boring and didactic does not mean the rest of the world has to adopt their style.

    God forbid a professional writer enjoy writing!

    • buckwheatloaf says

      chesterton was a fun writer. in his book heretics he responds to somebody who criticized him for having too much fun writing. i dont think chesterton is really like hitchens or that finklestein (i know more about him) is one of the solemn writers. i really like him, and if he’s solemn i think he’s solemn in a good way. if chesterteon has fun with writing, i think he has fun in a good way. with hitchens there may be a way in which he is having fun that is not so good, but then that part should be honed in on, and not his ability to tell good stories. the question should be more like if the story that was woven with those arcane facts was a good and helpful story, or a misleading and false one. i have the feeling the finkelstein doesn’t like the stories.

      “Why should Mr. McCabe be so eloquent about the danger arising from fantastic and paradoxical writers? Why should he be so ardent in desiring grave and verbose writers? There are not so very many fantastic and paradoxical writers. But there are a gigantic number of grave and verbose writers; and it is by the efforts of the grave and verbose writers that everything that Mr. McCabe detests (and everything that I detest, for that matter) is kept in existence and energy. How can it have come about that a man as intelligent as Mr. McCabe can think that paradox and jesting stop the way? It is solemnity that is stopping the way in every department of modern effort.

      The very fact that Mr. McCabe thinks of dancing as a thing belonging to some hired women at the Alhambra is an illustration of the same principle by which he is able to think of religion as a thing belonging to some hired men in white neckties. Both these things are things which should not be done for us, but by us. If Mr. McCabe were really religious he would be happy. If he were really happy he would dance.

      For (if I may pursue the too flattering parallel) Mr. McCabe thinks of the Alhambra and of my articles as two very odd and absurd things, which some special people do (probably for money) in order to amuse him. But if he had ever felt himself the ancient, sublime, elemental, human instinct to dance, he would have discovered that dancing is not a frivolous thing at all, but a very serious thing. He would have discovered that it is the one grave and chaste and decent method of expressing a certain class of emotions. And similarly, if he had ever had, as Mr. Shaw and I have had, the impulse to what he calls paradox, he would have discovered that paradox again is not a frivolous thing, but a very serious thing. He would have found that paradox simply means a certain defiant joy which belongs to belief. I should regard any civilization which was without a universal habit of uproarious dancing as being, from the full human point of view, a defective civilization. And I should regard any mind which had not got the habit in one form or another of uproarious thinking as being, from the full human point of view, a defective mind. It is vain for Mr. McCabe to say that a ballet is a part of him. He should be part of a ballet, or else he is only part of a man. It is in vain for him to say that he is “not quarrelling with the importation of humour into the controversy.” He ought himself to be importing humour into every controversy; for unless a man is in part a humorist, he is only in part a man. To sum up the whole matter very simply, if Mr. McCabe asks me why I import frivolity into a discussion of the nature of man, I answer, because frivolity is a part of the nature of man. If he asks me why I introduce what he calls paradoxes into a philosophical problem, I answer, because all philosophical problems tend to become paradoxical. If he objects to my treating of life riotously, I reply that life is a riot. And I say that the Universe as I see it, at any rate, is very much more like the fireworks at the Crystal Palace than it is like his own philosophy. About the whole cosmos there is a tense and secret festivity—like preparations for Guy Fawkes’ day. Eternity is the eve of something. I never look up at the stars without feeling that they are the fires of a schoolboy’s rocket, fixed in their everlasting fall.”

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