A Fan Letter to Nicholas Kristof.
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,
*This sentence amended for nuance.