A Fan Letter to Nicholas Kristof.

by on 2014-02-17 in Duck- 8 Comments

Dear Mr. Kristof,

Since you’re getting so much hate mail from political scientists this week, I thought I’d send you a fan letter. I teach international relations at University of Massachusetts. I am an avid reader of your columns, especially on human rights advocacy. You have put issues like fistula on the global agenda. You put privileged young people in touch with global issues. You are a master at boiling down complex issues to accessible human interest stories.

What I have admired most about your work is that you so rarely limit yourself to complaining. So many pundits write atrocity porn, decrying human rights abuses with little context as to how to change them. But you typically write not about victims but about social change agents trying to make the situation better – like your column “How Brave Girls Helped Break a Taboo” about domestic rape in Kenya. In every story of dysfunction and oppression, intrepid individuals swimming against the tide exist, and through their efforts, successes and setbacks, we come to both understand problems and engage with solutions. Through chronicling these successes, you inspire readers to do more of what’s working instead of giving up.

Precisely because of the high standard I’ve come to expect from you in chronicling social change, I felt your Sunday op-ed this week missed the mark. It’s not just because I’m a political scientist who works hard to incorporate public outreach into research, teaching and service, who felt unjustly snubbed by your sweeping language. Mostly I felt like this column just wasn’t up to your usual standards and worse, missed an opportunity to showcase the effervescent and positive changes in academia generally, and political science in particular. This is, exactly as you say, a significant issue in our time – especially in an era where policymakers are prone to be dismissive of science and scientists.

Of course, I agree (many of us do) with your wider point about the disciplinary strictures that disincentivize policy relevant work. Scholars like me have long had to swim against the tide to do what we do. But we have also been at a vanguard aiming to change those dynamics, and we’ve had some successes! So the story here should not be about “professors” not trying hard enough, it should be about us trying very hard in the context of an institutional environment that makes it tricky. This environment is only partly the product of academia, but also partly the product of stereotypes and assumptions people outside academia make of what we do and can do.

Based on the general tenor of your columns, I expected as an advocate of such reform that you would be on the side of professors like me, rather than deriding us. I would have thought you would honor the work that many public intellectuals do: blogging, reforming our tenure and promotion processes, shifting the way that we socialize doctoral students (my department at University of Massachusetts specifically emphasizes public intellectualism, and the assignment in my Human Security doctoral seminar is designed to teach students to write for Foreign Affairs rather than only for scholarly journals).

I’d have also expected you to highlight where things are working. The fact that beltway journals and major newspapers so often do publish work by and about political science and political scientists means we’re getting better at it and the beltway is getting more receptive. This very morning my academic publisher asked me who in the NGO or UN community I could ask to read and blurb my new book on advocacy campaigns – clearly they want to market my ideas outside of academia and believe they can; clearly I am being ‘incentivized’ by the academic establishment to behave as if I agree.

Do the problems you point out still exist? Absolutely! But Erica Chenoweth, Erik Voeten and others have documented how much things are changing for the better because of a vanguard of creative individuals within the academy who have pressed for change. On the other hand there is sometimes a tendency towards backlash (of which the ISA policy on blogging was an example). Political scientists like me deal with these moments by speaking out, by organizing collectively within our professions, and by using these as teachable moments for our doctoral students and the wider public.

We do so sometimes at professional risk to ourselves. Our profession is full of heroes like Steve Saideman who spend time and risk accusations of disloyalty in order to protect our right to free speech and transparent deliberation, and keep the question of policy relevance on our institutional agendas. It is full of editors like Jeffrey Isaac who make room in their journals for thoughts on policy-relevance from people like me; and editors like Gideon Rose at Foreign Affairs who make a special effort to reach out to social scientists, particularly for under-represented perspective and outside-the-box thinking. At least, this is the profession I live in, where the hegemony of out-dated academic norms is being chipped away productively by norm entrepreneurs and certain of the powers that be alike.

Your column was an opportunity to write about those currents and how to reinforce them, as you do so brilliantly with other social movements around the world. I expected a human interest story about social change agents aiming to bring about the world you want to see: something you have done by covering the work of rabbis in the West Bank, criminals-turned-gun-control-activist, and documentarians of the animal rights movement.

Instead you tarred “professors” with a single brush and tarred editors and policy-makers who do take bridging the theory/policy divide seriously as wasting their time. I was disappointed, like many colleagues – not just because it felt personal, but because you missed an opportunity to help our cause which you clearly believe in. You made us all sound far more irrelevant than we have actually been, and you undermined our efforts to make it otherwise.

In so doing, ironically, your column has reified (ahem) fueled the very dynamic it claims to critique. By painting us all as irrelevant, you have made us moreso: Foreign Policy Editor-in-Chief David Rothkopf is now less interested, not more interested, in what we have to say. Thanks to you, though in the past I’ve had no problem publishing in Foreign Policy, presumably now that will be harder for me. You have also fueled a backlash in our profession against those of us trying to do this important work of moving us into the 21st century, by causing some to close ranks around the powers that be who try to restrict free speech in the name of professionalism. For example Will Moore, who previously spoke out against the ISA anti-blogging policy, has written today a much more sympathetic post on ISA’s interpretation of the problem, if not their solution.*

This is a tragic state of affairs especially given that the wider points you raise are so deeply relevant for building richer synergies across the theory/policy divide. However just as you have made a career for yourself chronicling the activities of individuals on the ground in Africa changing the world step by step, rather than simply reporting on their misery, I hope you’ll consider writing a different piece in the future in which you take seriously the efforts and successes of political science public intellectuals – and the beltway editors and policy-makers who take them seriously – to push the academy in precisely the direction you would prefer. If you don’t, I guess I will. :)

Your admiring yet disappointed fan,

Charli Carpenter

*This sentence amended for nuance.

Print article

  • Rosalie Clarke

    Great, eloquent post Charli. As a 1st year PhD student seeking to build and mindful of the policy-relevant road within the academic tradition, I salute your cause here & that of others blazing the trail on Twitter.
    Unfortunately I am (& have previously been) in quite a restrictive localised academic community, and so have by necessity, if nothing else, been forced to try and develop external contacts/community in isolation almost, so as to have the career, relevance, prosperity and longevity I seek. As you I’m sure will know, one must start early, if one is to be successful in this ‘lofty’ aim, especially if a woman & even more especially if forging a path within the (critical) security studies area.
    kristof’s statements are wholly counter-productive to such aims & pursuits for young ‘would-be’ scholars as well as the ‘old-guard’.
    Thank you for standing up for us all!

  • Sean Kay

    Charli’s point about Foreign Policy is especially important. I too have never had a problem publishing there. I have written frequently there – just recently a scholarly informed and biting piece on the Irish economy in December – which provoked a response from the Irish ambassador to Washington (her piece was both factually wrong and really poorly written, but I digress) and then an invited response by me to her piece. I’ve written pieces there detailing concepts informed by theory laying out an architecture for realigning US-European relations in NATO; I wrote an alternative plan there for containment in Afghanistan at the start of the policy review in 2009. If that isn’t “engaging in policy” then what is? Now, thanks to Nicholas Kristof, David Rothkopf is saying people like me should be “scaled back” – that they aren’t interesting I take it. Thanks tons Nicholas. Perhaps its time for a career change, joining the local origami society or something. He has done more damage to the morale and desire to engage of people who have been engaging – over decades in the line between the scholarly world and policy than he possibly could even be aware of. I’ll add this, which oddly enough I wrote for the Duck over a year ago – though the fact that this kind of article – with “facts” and “information” and dare I say it “potentially readable” – is apparently irrelevant to Mr. Kristof – so I guess perhaps in a way that proves the point – if its not important for him to know about, we must be irrelevant. http://www.whiteoliphaunt.com/duckofminerva/2012/12/sean-kay-the-scholarpolicy-gap-in-international-relations-revised.html

  • Pete Sickle

    “If that’s not engaging in policy then what is?” Really? What about serving as a policy advisor at State, USAID or any number of NGOs who are in the business o designing and implementing policy.

    You think Kristof was critical of scholars who engage in policy relevant research? I saw his piece as the opposite. As encouragement to stay policy relevant and a call to the discipline to support and value such schloarship.

    It’s not by accident he held up scholar-practitioners like Anne Marie Slaughter as exemplary models.

    I would hold up others like Samantha Power as someone with profound impact on policy but from outside the discipline, drawing on journalism and law to write seminal articles and books that found attentive audiences in policy circles instead of ths APSA. She couples scholarship with service (at NSC and now as Amb. to the UN)

  • Sean Kay

    I have also spent time in DOD. And I was for 17 months a member of the informal group of foreign policy advisers to Barack Obama in 2007-2008. I was able to make substantial contributions in that context on some big issues, like European BMD, and written extensively on that from the outside. And yes, I found his strawman argument to be deeply offensive to people that have done that. But to each their own.

  • Pete Sickle

    Sean Kay. Apologies, but it seems you have been pursuing the path that Kristof hopes more of your colleagues would choose and that tbe discipline would value more. I see Kristof’s piece as vindication of many of the choices you’ve already made.

  • Charli Carpenter

    Pete, I agree with you that that is the message Kristof wanted to convey. But by characterizing “professors marginalizing themselves” as the problem, rather than holding up people like Sean as examples the academy – and the real world – should encourage more of, he got both his causal logic and rhetoric wrong.

  • Sean Kay

    The problem is that I can come up with a hundred or many more examples just like me – so I’m no special case. I just articulated this is the only way I feel I can which is via my own experiences. But I feel that had he done his research he would have known this. The other side is, where are all these opportunities for scholars to plug into the policy community? Minerva grants are very few and weekly funded; CFR is very elite and maxes out at age 35; one can engage in a political campaign – but that also means sacrificing independence with major tradeoffs involved. I’ve seen many scholars, however, called on to give testimony in front of Congress, writing important opeds and so on. As my piece at the Duck pointed out there were many voices opposed to the war in Iraq among scholars – they were right, the policy community was wrong – is that our fault they didn’t pay attention? Scholars challenge narratives – and in a Washington that is defined on the left and right by dogma, why would they want us? This has to be a two way street. Of the many scholars who advised the Obama campaign in 2007-2008 to my knowledge only 2 were even invited to vet for jobs. Personally, I’m very glad I didn’t do that – as I think I’d have found a world ill suited for critical thinking and data driven policy assumptions. So, even for the scholar who is doing policy relevant work – where are the opportunities? It is frustrating because most of the best debates on security strategy are happening in academia – and they are accessible and very readable – from the realists to the great human security work being done. Doesn’t Washington have to want to get that information too? Its a two way street. Nicholas does great work in identying a lot of global challenges – challenges scholars have been writing about for a very long time too – if he didn’t know about it, is that our fault or his? Its probably both. I’m the first to say that we get too looped into inside baseball – and policy does it too – with bullet points, slides, and acronyms. But just because something is *hard* or complex is not an excuse to just say “oh there goes another academic” – ontological security is a very good example, it specifically informes what is going on in frozen conflicts, like Northern Ireland – and its complicated – but all the more reason to be able to explain it well, and for policymakers to want to seek it out. But there are very few vehicles in which to do this – in large part because Wasshington is deeply insular and does not go looking for outside help. That is a serious problem because it only adds to the disconnect between it and the nation. Finally, just because something isn’t immediately obvious to Washington and other tight circles doesn’t mean its not of value – to communities, to the nation, to the world. As Eisenhower said after Sputnik (which just wrote about in Survival last April, but there I go again, self-promoting): “What will be needed is not just engineers and scientists, but a people who will keep their heads and, in every field, leaders who can meet intricate human rpoblems with wisdom and courage. in short, we will need not only Einsteins and Steinmetzes, but Washingtons and Emersons.”

  • cinnamon50

    great post
    while not as good as B Herbert, NK is one of the few
    prominent media people who tries to affllict the powerful and comfort
    the oppressed.
    That many bloggers (crooked timber) lashed into him was
    kinda upsetting
    I mean, if you want to attack someone, how about NK’s oped mate J Nocera ?
    Of all the people in the world suffering horrible, horrible injustice and
    pain, people without (literally) a dime to buy lawyers and PR men, who
    does JN choose to defend ?
    Brit Petroleum, a deka billion dollar a year firm
    maybe BP is getting shafted in the gulf settlement process, but BP can
    certainly afford to defend itself (and in fact, while J Nocera was
    writing columns defending BP, BP took out full page ads in the times)
    NK on the other hand, does defend the Tulias [drug bust] of the world

    maybe NK did or did not say something silly, but progessives should cut him some slack and be polite.

    I also think the outraged tone of blogosphere critics of NK tsuggests people are a little overly sensitive, possibly cause there is a lot of truth in NKs
    claim that many PhDs write in overly obscure jargon; as PhD molecular
    biology, this is certainly true of man molecular biology papers
    (although just sheer inability to write is also a problem)
    PPS: you want a good PhD thesis, why are the liberals of the state of MA not upset by the child witchhunt known as the Fells Acre Day care case, one of the amazing salem witch trials of the late 20th century
    Two of the icons of recent MA liberalism – AG S Harshbarger and current AG M Coakley – were involved, and , afaik, never apologized.
    I wrote to teh Globe reporters during M Coakleys run for the senate, and their resposne was old news, no one cares.
    well, I care, and I want to know why the he** noone else does