“Making It”: The Book That Scandalized the New York Intellectuals


April 26, 2017

May 1, 2017 Issue

“Making It”: The Book That Scandalized the New York Intellectuals

With “Making It,” Norman Podhoretz attempted to craft a sociology of his set—and ended up ostracized from it.

He should have known the book was loaded. Norman Podhoretz started writing “Making It” in 1964. He was thirty-four years old and the editor of Commentary. His idea was to write a book about how people in his world, literary intellectuals, were secretly motivated by a desire for success—money, power, and fame—and were also secretly ashamed of it. He offered himself as Exhibit A. By confessing to his own ambition, he would make it safe for others to confess to theirs, and thereby enjoy without guilt the worldly goods their strivings had brought them. As he put it, he would do for ambition what D. H. Lawrence had done for sex. He would make the case for Mammon.

Image result for Making It--Norman Podhoretz

Norman Podhoretz

Podhoretz was a young man, but he had been in the business for a while. He had published his first piece in Commentary when he was twenty-three, his first piece in Partisan Review when he was twenty-four, and his first piece in The New Yorker when he was twenty-six. He had even published a piece in Scrutiny, the British quarterly edited by F. R. Leavis, a critical Gorgon few could hope to please, when he was just twenty-one. He had been named editor of Commentary at twenty-nine. He was invited to cocktail parties with all the smart people. He hung around with Norman Mailer. Jackie Kennedy was a friend.

Those pieces were all book reviews, actually, and Commentary was a nonprofit monthly, owned by the American Jewish Committee, with a circulation of around forty thousand. But Podhoretz assumed—as, in our own cases, we all tend to assume—that since his accomplishments were supremely gratifying to him, they must rank high in the world’s estimation as well. He suspected—he was certain—that others were envious of his precocity and success, and he was writing the book to explain why he had no reason to pretend humility.

When he finished, he showed the manuscript to mentors, colleagues, and friends. Almost all of them advised him not to publish it. Lionel Trilling told him that it would take ten years for his reputation to recover. Diana Trilling told him that the book was “crudely boastful” and humorless. Daniel Bell told him that it lacked “irony and self-distancing” (cardinal virtues in New York intellectual life back then), and recommended adding three or four pages at the end in which he took it back. His close friend Jason Epstein, an editor at Random House, begged him to throw it out. “If I were God,” Epstein is supposed to have said, “I’d drown it in the river.”

Those who read the manuscript felt little compunction about sharing their reactions with others, and the word of mouth quickly became toxic. Friends of Podhoretz’s started wondering if he had lost his mind. Nearly a year before the book came out, Edmund Wilson noted in his diary that it was one of “the principal subjects of conversation” in New York. “Everyone I saw who had read it thought that it was awful,” he wrote.

Podhoretz’s publisher, Roger Straus, of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, refused to promote the book. Podhoretz’s agent, Lynn Nesbit, said she would no longer represent it. Podhoretz withdrew the book from FSG (handing back the advance) and retained a new agent, Candida Donadio, who managed to sell it to Random House. (Epstein was not involved in the acquisition; it was enthusiastically approved by the head of the company, Bennett Cerf, no stranger to chutzpah.) “Making It” came out at the very end of 1967; a reprint has just been issued by New York Review Books. Trilling was wrong about one thing: ten years was not enough.

With a couple of exceptions, it wasn’t the reviews that hurt the most. The one in the Times was quite positive; the reviewer, Frederic Raphael, called the book “frank and honest . . . a warning and a model.” What hurt the most was the parties. “Parties,” Podhoretz had explained in the book, “always served as a barometer of the progress of my career.” Friends took note, and the invitations stopped coming. Podhoretz underwent what amounted to a ritual shunning. He might as well have worn a scarlet “A,” for “ambition.”

The experience was crushing, and he never got over it. “When I talked to Norman, it was almost as if the whole thing had happened yesterday afternoon,” a reporter for the Times wrote, four years after the book’s publication. “None of the sores had scabbed over.” Four years after that, Podhoretz still sounded dazed. “I was raised intellectually to believe there was something admirable in taking risks . . . but the people who raised me, in effect, punished me whenever I did what I was raised to do,” he complained to another interviewer. “I’ve never quite understood why.”

In 1979, he published a second memoir, “Breaking Ranks,” and devoted several pages to the reception of “Making It.” In 1999, now retired as the editor of Commentary, he published a third memoir, called “Ex-Friends,” and devoted many more pages to the subject. “Making It” was the pivotal episode in Podhoretz’s career.

It also appeared at a pivotal moment in American intellectual life. Intended, naïvely or not, as a celebration of a little-magazine world created largely by the children of immigrants, some of whom had, by 1967, risen triumphantly to a place at the national table—“Jews were culturally all the rage in America,” as Podhoretz put it in the book—“Making It” marked a fissure that would never be healed. It was the end of more than Podhoretz’s social life.

Podhoretz told his story as a combination of Exodus and “Saturday Night Fever”: gifted youth escapes an ethnic cul-de-sac in the outer boroughs and makes it to cosmopolitan Manhattan. In Podhoretz’s case, the promised land was a big apartment on West End Avenue. He called crossing the East River “one of the longest journeys in the world,” and he believed, correctly, that his story was also, more or less, the story of many of the people he hoped would admire the book—people like Bell, the Trillings, and the writers and editors at places like Dissent, The New Leader, Partisan Review, and The New York Review of Books. What he did not imagine was that his version might not be one they wished to be identified with.

As Thomas Jeffers tells us in a scholarly and sympathetic biography, “Norman Podhoretz,” published in 2010, Podhoretz grew up in Brownsville, a neighborhood of Brooklyn that was then equal parts Italians, Jews, and African-Americans recently arrived from the South. Podhoretz’s parents were immigrants from Galicia; his father, Julius, spoke Yiddish and drove a horse-drawn milk truck. Podhoretz went to P.S. 28, where, one day, a teacher asked him what he was doing. “I goink op de stez,” he explained, and was immediately placed in a remedial-speech class. His assimilation had begun.

Little Norman was a natural student—“everyone knew I was the smartest kid in the class,” he says in “Making It”—but he also had an active street life as a member of a “social athletic club” (i.e., gang) called the Cherokees, whose red satin jacket he wore everywhere. (In the book, he is boyishly proud of this part of his past.) At Brooklyn’s Boys High School, where Mailer had also been a student, he was plucked out by a teacher he calls, in “Making It,” Mrs. K. Her real name was Mrs. Haft, and she took on Norman as a Pygmalion project. Her goal was to gentrify him sufficiently to win him a scholarship to Harvard. One of the best bits in “Making It” is Podhoretz’s description of Mrs. K’s disastrous attempt to introduce her teen-age protégé to genteel manners by taking him to lunch in a (non-kosher) restaurant in Manhattan, where he is confronted with some sort of dish involving duck.

Podhoretz did get into Harvard (as did Mailer, who went there), but he also won a Pulitzer scholarship, which was awarded to graduates of New York public schools and covered the costs of attending Columbia. He entered the college at the age of sixteen (commuting from Brooklyn) and took the required great-books course, Literature Humanities. “Possessed,” as he explains, “by something like total recall and a great gift for intellectual mimicry,” he quickly became a star student in Columbia’s famous English Department.

There he attached himself to Trilling, whose major book, “The Liberal Imagination,” came out in 1950, the year Podhoretz graduated. He took away from his Columbia education the belief that being a serious literary critic meant holding in contempt the things that belong to Caesar. “It was at Columbia,” he writes, “that I was introduced to the ethos—destined to grow more and more powerful in the ensuing years—in which success was replacing sex as the major ‘dirty little secret’ of the age.”

Podhoretz was awarded a Kellett, a postgraduate fellowship that, at Columbia, is almost as prestigious as the Rhodes. John Hollander, who graduated from Columbia in the same year, later said that Podhoretz had had his eye on the Kellett even as a freshman. Podhoretz was amazed by his classmates’ reaction. “It was the first time I had ever experienced the poisoning of success by envy,” he says in “Making It.”

He went to Cambridge. He loved it, especially the perks that students there then enjoyed. “There are few things in the world easier to get used to than having lots of space to live in and being called ‘Sir,’ ” he writes. It was at Cambridge that he sought out Leavis. “Soon he was inviting me . . . to the indoctrination sessions, thinly disguised as tea parties, which he and his wife Queenie, a famous critic in her own right, would hold on the lawn of their home every Saturday afternoon,” and it was not long before he scored his big Scrutiny assignment. It was to review “The Liberal Imagination.” In his piece, Podhoretz called Trilling “the most significant American critic now writing.” The “American” was a judicious sop to Leavis.

Podhoretz did some travelling while he was on the fellowship, and, after a visit to Israel, he wrote to Trilling to report his impressions. “They are, despite their really extraordinary accomplishments, a very unattractive people, the Israelis,” he confided. “They’re gratuitously surly and boorish. . . . They are too arrogant and too anxious to become a real honest-to-goodness New York of the East.” Trilling typed these words out and sent them to the editor of Commentary, Elliot Cohen. Cohen had another editor, Irving Kristol, contact Podhoretz about writing a piece, and the connection was made.

This might not seem the obvious way to recommend a new writer to a magazine published by an organization dedicated to the welfare of Jews, and, in “Making It,” Podhoretz leaves out the part about his letter to Trilling. He possibly felt that it suggested a calculation a shade too subtle. For in fact, as Benjamin Balint explains in his history of the magazine, “Running Commentary” (2010), the people around Commentary and the A.J.C. in those days were cool to Zionism. (By the time “Making It” came out, of course, this had changed.)

It is easy to believe that Podhoretz would not have characterized Israeli Jews in quite those terms if he had not guessed that his observations would meet Trilling’s preconceptions, and if he had not also guessed that a bright young diaspora Jew comfortable in America and skeptical of Zionism might be just the kind of writer Commentary was looking for. If so, he guessed right. His first piece was a review of Bernard Malamud’s novel “The Natural.”

Podhoretz had thoughts about continuing at Cambridge for a Ph.D., and even went back, but an article he submitted to Leavis on Benjamin Disraeli was returned with a classic rejection (mentioned, though not quoted, in “Making It”). “We couldn’t print anything that did so little more than a hundred or two readers of Scrutiny could do impromptu,” Leavis told him. Podhoretz read this, not inaccurately, as “You don’t belong,” and he returned to the United States, where he was duly drafted. He served two years. (Interestingly, in the light of his later views, he is completely contemptuous of military life and culture in “Making It.”) When he was discharged, in December, 1955, he started working as an editor at Commentary.

Elliot Cohen was hospitalized with severe depression, and the magazine was being run by two men referred to in “Making It” only as The Boss. In real life, they were the art critic Clement Greenberg and his brother Martin. The Greenbergs belittled and abused Podhoretz. He had a hard time managing his resentment, and, by 1958, he was out. He got involved in a couple of short-lived publishing ventures with Epstein that didn’t pay off. The New Yorker had dropped him, without explanation, but he had become known as a fearless young critic—“I came to be held by some in almost priestly regard” is his description—and he was able to survive as a freelancer. Then, in 1959, Cohen committed suicide, and the A.J.C. offered Podhoretz the job.

Friends advised him not to accept, some of them making disparaging remarks about the magazine which he unwisely printed, with attribution, in “Making It.” But Podhoretz had few doubts; this was what he had been waiting for. “I’m . . . exhilarated by the possibilities that may now open up for me, and by the power (which is something you can understand as my high-minded friends can’t), and by the money (my income will be more than doubled),” he wrote to the English novelist C. P. Snow, Balint reports.

Podhoretz had spent a decade observing the little-magazine business; he knew what worked and what didn’t; and he transformed Commentary. He fired most of the staff, expanded the letters section (which, for readers of intellectual journalism, can be as addictive as crossword puzzles or cartoons), stopped publishing poetry, and got rid of the remnants of Yiddishkeit. As one contributor put it, he removed the mezuzahs from all the doors. He made Commentary what Cohen and the Greenbergs had tried but failed to make it: a magazine for every educated reader, run by Jews.

Podhoretz understood how magazine writing works—his account in “Making It” of what it is like to write a magazine piece, and not only for magazines like Commentary, is the best that I have ever read—and he was a talented editor. He turned down the seminal document of the New Left, the Port Huron Statement, but he serialized Paul Goodman’s “Growing Up Absurd,” which is now almost unreadable but which at the time was received as an important diagnosis of contemporary life. Podhoretz’s own politics were liberal. He loved Kennedy; he opposed the war in Vietnam. He was in synch with the highbrow readership of the day.

He was invited to be co-editor, with Jason Epstein’s wife, Barbara, of The New York Review of Books when it was launched, in 1963, but he told them the salary was too low. (“Thank God,” Barbara later said.) He continued to write, and he was disappointed when critical praise for a collection of his pieces, “Doings and Undoings,” published in 1964, was not unmitigated. “I had been dreaming that the appearance of the book would become the occasion for a general proclamation of my appointment to the office of ‘leading young critic in America,’ ” he admits in “Making It”; “instead it became the occasion for several people to present me with the first installments of the bill for all those glorious years when everyone had been on my side.” But the nineteen-sixties was a boom time for magazines, and Commentary thrived. By 1968, its circulation was up to sixty-four thousand. That was the year the bomb went off.

There are two ways to understand the reaction to “Making It.” One has to do with the politics (small “p”), and the other has to do with the merits. Politically, Podhoretz did an unfathomably stupid thing. The reason that people like Jason Epstein and Lionel Trilling argued so strenuously against publishing the book—Diana Trilling reported taking Podhoretz and his wife out to dinner on a trip to Berlin in 1967 to make one final plea—was not, or not only, that they were concerned for the reputation of their friend and protégé. It was that their own names appear all through it.

It seems not to have dawned on Podhoretz that he was not only writing about himself; he was telling stories about people he worked and socialized with. People do not like to read about themselves in someone else’s book, and this goes double for writers. Writers are control freaks engaged in what is, among other things, a business of self-presentation. If they are in a story, they want to be the ones to tell that story. No one would have understood this better than Podhoretz, but somehow it failed to register when he was showing his book around.

Image result for lionel trillingLionel Trilling

Even worse, at the same time that he was confessing to his own ambition, he was implicitly accusing his friends and colleagues of hiding theirs. In the brief acknowledgments section, Podhoretz thanks Lionel Trilling, who, he says, “has taught me more than he or I ever realized—though not, I fear, precisely what he would have wanted me to learn.” This reads pretty clearly as a suggestion that Trilling, too, was a suck-up who wrote literary criticism in the hope of getting invited to a party with Jackie Kennedy. You can see why Trilling was not eager for Podhoretz’s memoir to see the light of day.

And not only Trilling. “Making It” is a book about what Podhoretz, borrowing the term from Murray Kempton, calls the Family—the writers and editors, mostly but not exclusively Jewish, who dominated the New York intellectual scene in the decades after the war. It is as their proud product that Podhoretz presents himself, and he obviously hoped to retain the approval of these people, as he had done so often in the past, by daring to write something they were afraid to write. He believed that they would admire his courage, recognize the justice of his account, forgive any indiscretions he may have committed, and, freed at last from a stifling hypocrisy, embrace him and the book. Many writers have tried this kind of thing. It never works.

On the merits, the idea that English professors, magazine writers, and intellectuals generally are consciously competing for various types of worldly recognition, and that success in those lines of work requires some awareness of the contours of the playing field, is noncontroversial today. As with members of any profession—rock stars, concert pianists, Olympic athletes, even politicians—there is an implicitly observed and tacitly enforced distinction between what counts as success and what counts as selling out. (In no profession does owning an apartment on West End Avenue constitute selling out.) There is a sociology of intellectual life. Podhoretz’s mistake was to overgeneralize from his own experience.

This is often the flaw in his writing. His most talked-about early piece, “My Negro Problem––and Ours,” published in 1963, an essay about coming to terms with “the hatred I still feel for Negroes,” is based entirely on observations of the young African-American men he encountered as a teen-ager on the streets of Brooklyn or, later, on the sidewalks of the Upper West Side. From these experiences, he is able to conclude that African-Americans are characterized by “superior physical grace and beauty . . . They are on the kind of terms with their own bodies that I should like to be on with mine.” As usual, the root of the problem is envy. The solution? Intermarriage: “I believe that the wholesale merging of the two races is the most desirable alternative for everyone concerned.”

As a personal reflection, “My Negro Problem” is compelling. As a take on the problem of race in the United States, it is ridiculous. For Podhoretz, though, as he confesses in “Making It,” the real significance of the essay was that, by publishing it, he was putting the reputation he had struggled to achieve on the line—and his reputation only got better! (Goodman, however, did tell him he needed to see a therapist.) He called the essay “certainly the best piece of writing I had ever done.” Something like this was his hope for “Making It”: that it would be received as “my ambition problem—and ours.”

The reaction to the book changed Podhoretz’s life. He started looking for academic positions, and he began drinking when he was at home alone, almost a fifth of Jack Daniel’s a day, his stepdaughter later told Jeffers. He had a contract to write a book on the nineteen-sixties—he had hated the Beats, and he regarded the counterculture as the legacy of the Beats—and he went to Yaddo, the writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, where he had written much of “Making It,” to work on it. Writers’ colonies are not where you ideally want to be if you have a drinking problem. One day, a fellow-colonist, the critic Kenneth Burke, told Podhoretz that he needed to straighten out. So Podhoretz got in his car and drove, a little under the influence, to a farmhouse he had bought in Delaware County, and it was there, in the early spring of 1970, that he had a vision.

As he told the story to Jeffers, he had finished his writing for the day. He was walking outside, carrying a Martini and feeling content, when it happened. “I saw physically, in the sky, though it was obviously in my head, a kind of diagram that resembled a family tree. And it was instantly clear to me that this diagram contained the secret of life and existence and knowledge: that you start with this, and you follow to that. It all had a logic of interconnectedness.” Not quite Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra,” but strangely close. The vision lasted thirty seconds, and when it was over Podhoretz realized what the diagram was telling him: “Judaism was true.” He did not mean the ethical teachings of Judaism; he meant Judaic law. He vowed to change his life.

To all appearances, he did. He stopped drinking, he began interrogating friends about their spiritual condition, and he transformed Commentary again, this time into the scourge of left-wing permissivism and progressivism. The magazine attacked feminism; it attacked homosexuality; it attacked affirmative action. In 1972, Podhoretz wrote a column that effectively announced the new editorial policy. Its title was “Is It Good for the Jews?” He did not mean it ironically. It was exactly the mentality that Cohen and his successors, including Podhoretz I, had been trying to get away from.

Old friends stopped speaking to Podhoretz and old contributors dropped away. They were replaced by a new stable of hawks and neoconservatives: Joseph Epstein, Edward Luttwak, Michael Ledeen, William Bennett, Elliott Abrams (who married one of Podhoretz’s stepdaughters). Podhoretz adopted a new test of his own importance: the celebrity of the people he was no longer speaking to. “It’s important to have enemies,” he once told Cynthia Ozick, “because everything depends on the kind of enemies you have.” (Ozick was a little taken aback.)

In 1972, Podhoretz voted for Richard Nixon in the Presidential election. He voted for Jimmy Carter four years later, but called it “the worst political mistake of my life.” Ronald Reagan was his political messiah, and he believed that Commentary had something to do with his election. “People like us made Reagan’s victory,” he proclaimed in 1983. By 1990, subscriptions were down to twenty-nine thousand, and the magazine was obliged to raise money in order to keep going. It was legally separated from the A.J.C. in 2007.

Podhoretz developed his own interpretation of the reaction to “Making It”: he decided that he was praising the pleasures of success in America, and that his critics were America haters. This doesn’t correspond to what most of the reviewers actually said, but the book did appear at a politically fractious moment, during the height of agitation against the war in Vietnam. Although Podhoretz had been an early opponent of the war, he feared and despised the main active ingredient in the antiwar movement, the New Left.

Image result for the new york intellectuals

The New Left was a problem for the Family. The Family was Old Left turned liberal anti-Communist. The New Left was cavalier about Communism, it was hostile to liberalism, and it was hugely disrespectful of the engine of social mobility that had carried so many members of the Family out of Egypt, the university. And the identity-based movements that emerged after 1965—the women’s movement and black separatist movements like the Panthers—seemed to threaten a crucial value for diaspora Jews, cosmopolitanism. After 1965, if you were a white, male, anti-Communist, and integrationist liberal, Jew or Gentile, whose side were you on? The question split what used to be called the liberal left, and that political-intellectual coalition has never been put back together. The fact that the Podhoretzes stopped being invited to Manhattan cocktail parties was not the cause of the split. But it was a symptom.

The New York intellectual community Podhoretz grew up in was compulsively internecine. Its members were like cats in a bag. They thrived on—they got off on—the narcissism of small differences. People at a magazine with a circulation of ten thousand were more interested in what people at a magazine with a circulation of twenty thousand were saying about Communism than they were in what the President of the United States was saying about it. Life with the Family was like a Thanksgiving dinner from hell. This is why little magazines are little.

In this tiny cosmos, Podhoretz was therefore in the awkward position of being reviewed by people he knew in magazines run by people he knew. Two reviews of “Making It” were especially galling. One was in The New York Review of Books. The reviewer was Edgar Z. Friedenberg, a sociologist, whose piece was not exactly a strike at the jugular; it was mainly focussed on sounding dismissive. Podhoretz was annoyed by it because he had reason to believe that he had “discovered” Friedenberg for Commentary, and now his own writer was condescending to him in someone else’s pages.

Podhoretz assumed that Jason Epstein was behind that review, and he made sure that Epstein’s (rather good) book on the trial of the Chicago Seven, “The Great Conspiracy Trial,” published in 1970, was solemnly lacerated in Commentary by a professor at Yale Law School. The New York Review became a regular punching bag at Commentary, and Podhoretz and Epstein began a feud that was soon made the subject of a long article in the Times Magazine and that is not over yet. (Both men are still with us. It’s amusing that the reprint of “Making It” is from the publishing arm of the Review.)

Podhoretz had better reason to resent the piece that ran in Partisan Review. Mailer was the critic. He had read some of the manuscript and had told Podhoretz how much he admired it, but the piece in Partisan Review was a put-down. Most of the reviews had already come out, and Mailer did his readers a favor by quoting several of the nastiest. (The New Leader had called the book “a career expressed as a matchless 360-page ejaculation,” a phrase Mailer liked so much he quoted it twice.) He summed the book up as “a blunder of self-assertion, self-exposure, and self-denigration.” It failed, Mailer said, because it didn’t go far enough. Podhoretz had pulled his punches. He should have called out the Family as a bunch of second-raters who were terrified of being exposed. But he was nice to everyone.

Podhoretz was right to rank this as a betrayal. He had known Mailer since 1957, when they met at a party at Lillian Hellman’s, and they had been close friends. He had stood by Mailer through many difficult times. In 1960, after Mailer stabbed and nearly killed his wife during a party in their apartment, Podhoretz was one of the first people he sought out, and he accompanied Mailer to the police station for booking.

Podhoretz had even paid homage to Mailer in the final pages of “Making It.” Mailer had already written a book like “Making It,” Podhoretz admitted; this was “Advertisements for Myself.” That book had come out in 1959, when Mailer was at a low point; it attacked, by name and with Mailer’s special gift for invective, several prominent book publishers and many of Mailer’s contemporaries; and it relaunched Mailer’s career. Podhoretz called it “one of the great works of confessional autobiography in American literature,” and concluded his book by saying he hoped that “Making It” would be appreciated as a similarly bold literary act.

Image result for Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer

By 1968, when Mailer wrote his review of “Making It,” his career was at its peak. He had just finished “The Armies of the Night,” which was published in May and which won him his first Pulitzer Prize. That book, a nonfiction account of Mailer’s participation in an antiwar march in Washington, was serialized in two magazines. The first half was published in Harper’s, where Mailer’s editor was Midge Decter, who happens to be Mrs. Norman Podhoretz. The second half was published in Commentary.

Many years later, Mailer was asked why he had turned on his friend. He said that he thought that the rest of the book didn’t live up to the promise of the pages he had read in manuscript. Then why hadn’t he recused himself? The reason, Mailer said, was that he was angry at Podhoretz for not inviting him to a party that Jackie Kennedy was expected to attend. Not the classiest excuse, but at least the punishment fit the crime. 

Book Review: Scholarship and Engagement in SEA


April 26, 2017

BOOK REVIEW

Image result for Scholarship and Engagement in Southeast Asia

Oscar Salemink, editor, Scholarship and Engagement in Southeast Asia, (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Andrew Alan Johnson

http://www.newmandala.org/book-review/review-of-scholarship-and-engagement-in-mainland-southeast-asia/

Thailand, for all its political stops and starts — or perhaps because of this — has unparalleled publically-engaged academics. Nidthi Eoseewong, Charnvit Kasetsiri, Thanet Aphornsuvan and many others relate academia to public life, pushing forward public discussion in a way that is enviable from a country (the USA, in my case) where scholarship is too often treated like either a business serving students or as a collection of irrelevant exotica.

Image result for Scholarship and Engagement in Southeast AsiaAchan Chayan Vaddhanaphuti of Chiang Mai University

Of Thailand’s public intellectuals, Chayan Vaddhanaphuti of Chiang Mai University looms large. Over the course of his career, Achan Chayan has worked to advocate for minority rights (risking death threats and accusations of treason) as well as building networks across Southeast Asian academic institutions. He exemplifies the best qualities of a Thai public intellectual, and thus it is no surprise that the essays in the liber amicorum, Scholarship and Engagement in Mainland Southeast Asia, edited by Oscar Salemink, are ringing with fond memories and praise for Achan Chayan across generations of scholars. Indeed, it is telling that even non-Thai-speaking scholars refer to Chayan as “Achan,” the Thai term somehow capturing this sense of Chayan’s public role in ways that “Professor” nowadays fails to.

Image result for Scholarship and Engagement in Southeast Asia

My engagement with Achan Chayan came 10 years ago, when I was a graduate student doing field research in Chiang Mai. Like the best of mentors, Chayan, rather than imposing his own idea of what was important about my project, helped me think critically about my own work in multiple ways. As Michael Herzfeld remarks in his conclusion to Scholarship and Engagement, it was only later, after having completed my book, that I realised the depth of Chayan’s inspiration.

Overall, the volume is well put together, although a few essays ramble, and could have used another pass to refine and sharpen their general points. The book’s three sub-sections, too, are awkwardly titled. For example, “Politics, Activism, and Cross-Border Politics in the Greater Mekong Subregion” is the second, and “Scholarly Activism in the Greater Mekong Subregion” the third. These sections roughly correspond to an overview of Chayan’s work, its impact upon historical and anthropological work, and the thorny issues surrounding policy and minorities.

Charles Keyes opens the volume with the first section’s solo chapter: a brief biography of Chayan’s work and its impact upon Thailand and Thai studies. In an era when most work on ethnic minority issues was done by foreigners, and in the face of pressure from official state organs, Chayan pursued a principle of “speak[ing] truth to power” (p 17), pushing for a vision of Northern Thailand as a multi-ethnic and environmentally sustainable society with links across the region. It was a work that, as Keyes notes, was not without risk, and his chapter empahsises the personal commitment that Chayan gave to his causes.

In the second section, Olivier Evrard gives an example of socially-engaged history of the sort inspired by Chayan. Looking at French and Siamese records, Evrard charts the changing status of Khmu migrant labourers in the early 20th century. At first, these workers were governed by treaties between Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai, but as colonisation set in (external in the case of Laos, internal in the case of Siam), old relationships and networks became something else from the viewpoint of the central state: labor recruiters became traffickers, and migrant teak workers turned into a threat.

Evrard reminds us that migrants, as a category, are in fact created by state policy. This theme of the mismatch between detailed awareness of local situations and top-down policy returns in Christopher Joll’s chapter on Thai policy-makers’ essentialist understandings of the conflict in the South as compared with a multi-causal approach of the sort emphasised in Chayan’s work.

Shigeharu Tanabe’s chapter also deals with the issue of social engagement, looking at Northern Thai Buddhist meditation practices aimed at extinguishing the self that nonetheless provide a vehicle for addressing social problems and resisting political repression. It’s a welcome rebuttal to too-simplistic characterisations of Buddhist meditation as entirely inwardly-focused (Tanabe takes a well-placed jab at Deleuze here) and shows how practice, especially in the Northern kuba tradition, can be focused on social as well as personal transformation.

Katherine Bowie’s chapter takes a very different turn to more historically-focused studies, focusing instead upon her own experience of engaged scholarship in the 1970s. In an account reminiscent of classic anthropological fieldwork memoirs (see Powdermaker 1966; Levi-Strauss 1955,;Descola 1996), she describes a problematic introduction into a post-military coup Northern Thai field site and the tangled web of village politics that she encountered. As she attempted to assist in the organisation of a mat-weavers’ cooperative, class and other tensions within the community came to the fore in ways that were productive both for her scholarship as well as – eventually — the mat weavers themselves.

In the final major section, contributors address the thorny ground of development interventions, which too often avoid a deep engagement with local civil societies. Rosalia Sciortino, the former Regional Director for the Rockefeller Foundation (among others), effectively shows that theory is not divorced from practice even on the development side. This was particularly so during the 1990s when new technocratic interventions (the sort of thing dreamed up in TED Talks or Thomas Friedman columns) based around quick solutions and neoliberal integration came to replace civil society-based, locally-informed ones.

This philosophy of intervention oddly recalls those from the 1950s that fetishised the power of Western scientific knowledge to divine all of the solutions to the developing world’s problems. Similarly, in Ronald Renard’s contribution, we also see the fallout from a move in policy away from community-based solutions. He looks at the end of opium eradication projects in the isolated Wa region of Myanmar that emphasisedthe social origins of opium cultivation and addiction solutions focused on improving conditions for farmers, and the rise of a new, top-down approach that focuses upon law enforcement.

Building upon this connection between the assumptions of international (and national) organisations about local communities, Oscar Salemink’s own contribution to the volume examines the issues surrounding Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in Vietnam. Salemink argues that the discourse of ICH in Vietnam creates certain possibilities and limits others, giving ethnic minorities a space within the state but limiting their role (and, interestingly, forcing the state to promote practices that they had just a few years before denounced).

But this also applies to scholars — in a state where open opposition is unproductive or impossible, Salemink argues that scholars are forced to work within the limits of state discourses. In Myanmar, however, Mandy Sadan shows how both state and resistant approaches carry their own risks. State discourses that present minority studies as “traditional” and (Kachin) minority studies dominated by the Baptist Church and ethnonationalism both fail. As a corrective, Sadan advocates for an as-yet unrealised middle ground along the lines of Chayan’s Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD) for the highlands of Myanmar.

Overall, these essays are largely productive in looking at the history and potentiality of engaged scholarship on (for the most part) ethnic minority issues in mainland Southeast Asia, a note driven home by Michael Herzfeld’s excellently-written conclusion. Some essays (Evrard, Tanabe, Saelmink) are useful additions to the scholarly field in their own right. Others (Sciortino, Sadan) are interesting insights into the deeply hierarchical nature of national and international interventions, and some (Joll, Keyes, Bowie) reflect implicitly or directly upon Achan Chayan’s own profound impact on scholarship in Southeast Asia. In addition to the topical focus of each chapter, the book will be of use to those studying activism, development, or fieldwork ethics in the region and beyond.

Andrew Alan Johnson is Assistant Professor at Yale-NUS College

 

The Truth of Karl Popper–A Discourse


April 17, 2017

The Truth of Karl Popper–A Discourse

 by Paul Levinson and reply by Jonathan Lieberson

In response to:

The Romantic Rationalist from the December 2, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

Despite Jonathan Lieberson’s unsubstantiated summary of my In Pursuit of Truth (a Festschrift in honor of Karl Popper’s 80th birthday) as a series of “sugary and obsequious expressions of praise” in your December 2 issue, I found this and the first part of Mr. Lieberson’s two-part essay on Karl Popper’s philosophy to be a generally fair and reasonable attempt to explicate Popper’s work. Lieberson’s achievement, however, is unfortunately marred and nearly nullified by a conclusion that seriously misunderstands one of the central aspects of Popper’s philosophy.

Image result for karl popper books

Lieberson begins with an essentially accurate description of how Popper’s method of “falsification” or conjectures and refutations seeks to improve upon the traditional Baconian scientific method of induction or absorption of knowledge from mere repeated experience. As Hume and even Sextus Empiricus before him had seen, no amount of induction or positive repeated experience can ever verify or even support a general theory (for all of our repeated observations may merely be at the tip of an iceberg that runs counter to our general theory); but even one negative or counter experience can, as Popper emphasizes, serve to logically falsify or refute a general theory. Thus, no amount of repeated observations of white polar bears can prove or strengthen a theory that all polar bears are white (for we may from then on encounter nothing but black polar bears), but observation of even one black polar bear—assuming it is indeed a black polar bear—means our theory that all polar bears are white cannot be right.

Lieberson then correctly points out, however, that Popper’s fallibilism is so pervasive as to lead Popper to assert that even observations of black or white polar bears are theory-impregnated (we identify the black object that we see as a polar bear rather than, say, a crow, because of theories that we hold about what polar bears look like, the constancies of species, etc.), and thus conjectural, uncertain, and eminently unprovable. How, then, Lieberson asks, may conjectures-and-refutations and its uncertainty be considered an improvement over induction and its problems? And why, recognizing the inconclusiveness of both, should we reject induction and rejoice in falsification? Since conclusive knowledge is not possible through Popper’s method of conjectures and refutations, Lieberson concludes that Popper’s hope for a non-inductive growth of knowledge is an impossible and thus misleading and dangerous ideal, a romantic “wild-goose chase.”

Image result for karl popper books

The problem that Lieberson raises—the conjectural nature of falsifying observations—is indeed profound, and one that most intelligent people almost always bring up on their first reading of Popper. Indeed, had Lieberson come upon his knowledge of Popper a priori, or from some casual discussion in a classroom, then the conclusions that Lieberson draws from the fallibility of falsifications would be entirely understandable. But the fact of the matter is that Popper himself has continuously raised, addressed, and dealt with this problem throughout his writings, going back to his first published work on scientific method, Logik der Forschung of 1935; and, I am obliged to add, this problem is similarly raised and dispatched with in at least four of the “sugary” essays in my volume. The situation is actually quite simple. We indeed must begin, as Popper does, with the recognition that all observations—whether used to falsify or “verify”—are themselves conjectural, and of no firmer epistemic import than the wildest, concocted abstract theory. We are then faced with a choice: do we use these uncertain, problematic observations to build knowledge inductively, or via a process of conjectures and refutations as suggested by Popper?

Our decision might take into account the fact that induction is, quite independently of the uncertainty of all observations, logically untenable (as Hume had shown, there is no logical warrant that allows us to jump from even a huge number of specifics to a general theory), but that falsification, or the negation of generalities by specifics, is (as Popper and others have shown) quite logically acceptable as a process, even though the contents of that process (the observations) may be forever uncertain. Our choice would thus seem to amount to this: use conjectural, uncertain tools in an illogical process (induction), or use conjectural, uncertain tools in a logical process (falsification). Granting the obvious fact that neither choice can yield perfect or certain knowledge, which one would you choose, Mr. Lieberson?

But if we opt for conjectures and refutations as at least being logically possible, does not the uncertainty of the observations used as refutations condemn us to stagnate in our knowledge, to wallow in a perpetual state of conjecture? Is Lieberson’s characterization of Popperian method as a wild-goose chase appropriate after all? It is not—as a careful reading of Popper and, again, any one of a number of the contributions to my own In Pursuit of Truth makes clear. Indeed, discussions of how knowledge can progress and even flourish despite the endemic uncertainty of our cognition predate Popper by many years, and in Peirce we even find an implication that knowledge grows precisely because it is uncertain (see, for example, the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol. 1, paragraphs 135-149; for extended discussions of Peirce on certainty and fallibilism, see any of Peter Skagestad’s recent writings).

From among the many arguments for the growth of knowledge in an uncertain world that Popper provides, let us look at but one—the biological or evolutionary analogy central to the field of “evolutionary epistemology,” which is where my own interest in Popper most lies. Assuming the general accuracy of the Darwinian model (but of course alert to its inevitable flaws), we notice three aspects of evolution that have pertinence to the possible growth of uncertain knowledge: (a) all organisms and organic adaptations are imperfect relative to their environments (i.e., they don’t always survive or succeed); (b) all organisms and adaptations appear to develop via a series of trial and error encounters with the environment, with organic characteristics initially generated or “proposed” independently of the environment, and then either eliminated or not by the environment; (c) on the basis of the first two processes, evolution or progressive change does indeed seem to occur, e.g., organisms seem to have developed from simple to complex, from non-intelligent to intelligent, etc., across time.

Now to the extent that the trial-and-error evolution of organisms seems descriptive of the conjectures-and-refutations growth of human ideas—and despite some obvious differences (for example, the important role of intentional rationality in the development of human knowledge), the two processes do seem to have much in common—we have in biological evolution an example of how progress can occur in a world utterly pervaded by, indeed constituted of, imperfection or uncertainty. In other words, if we accept the biological evolution of imperfect organisms as real, the growth of uncertain human knowledge through non-inductive conjectures and refutations seems possible: the nihilism that Lieberson imputes to Popper’s thoroughly conjectural method is unwarranted.

Of course, Darwin’s theory of evolution and for that matter the living world itself may be a chimera; reality and all our perceptions of it may be false or even non-existent. Popper’s philosophy does hold open such disturbing possibilities. But Popper’s philosophy also allows, more, encourages us to choose an alternative to the despair of nihilism and the illogic of inductivism, an alternative which seeks to parlay our uncertainty into a genuine, hard-won, painfully groping growth of knowledge. Granted that such a choice is something less than rational—I elsewhere call it “pre-rational”—but a choice and possibility it nonetheless is. It is just this golden egg of opportunity that Lieberson’s banishment of Popper’s wild geese would destroy.

Paul Levinson, Bronx, New York

Jonathan Lieberson replies:

Paul Levinson claims that the conclusion of my pieces on Popper displays a serious “misunderstanding” of “one of the central aspects of Popper’s philosophy,” namely Popper’s views on the nature and status of “falsifying observations.” But he does not accurately report my thesis: I did not say that since falsifying observation statements (not “falsifying observations”) are “fallible” or “conjectural” Popper’s theory of science falls to the ground. Nor did I claim that “since conclusive knowledge is not possible through Popper’s method of conjectures and refutations, his views are unacceptable.

My difficulty, as I explicitly stated [NYR, December 2] was that a combination of views held by Popper render his alternative to inductionism (as contrasted with Baconian inductivism, which nearly all contemporary philosophers disagree with) a self-defeating and incoherent account of scientific inquiry and the growth of scientific knowledge. As such, I went on, it does not constitute a serious alternative to inductionism.

Thus, although I certainly discussed it, the problem of falsifying observation statements was not my main concern. I was aware that Popper has repeatedly discussed this problem, which Mr. Levinson believes is “one that most intelligent people almost always bring up on their first reading of Popper.” I was not aware, however, until I read Mr. Levinson’s letter, that it has been “dispatched with” in his collection of essays. Mr. Levinson claims that the “situation” with regard to falsifying observation statements is “actually quite simple”: all observations are conjectural, “of no firmer epistemic import than the wildest, concocted abstract theory.” Granting this point, he continues, we should clearly prefer the process of falsification to that of induction, which is “illogical.” I do not agree. While it is true that observation statements are, in a sense, “theory soaked” (as Popper says), not all the theories in which such statements are soaked are of equal merit, and not all observations are “of no firmer epistemic import than the wildest, concocted abstract theory.”

I wonder whether Mr. Levinson actually believes what he says; for my part, I have no difficulty in concluding that the claim that I am now seated before a typewriter is of far greater “epistemic import” than the abstract theory that the world is entirely made up of butter. I also hold, for reasons I set forth in my articles, that we do upon occasion possess perfectly good reasons for accepting such observation statements as true, a view Popper does not hold. Secondly, while we await an accurate codification of inductive practice—a task to which many philosophers, statisticians, and others have devoted their labors—I do not think that we can responsibly and without qualification claim that induction is “illogical.” That induction does not conform to the standards of deductive logic is obvious, but as I took pains to point out in my essay, there are no good reasons for regarding deductive standards of inference as establishing the standard of rationality in science.

In short, I think I can answer the portentous question Mr. Levinson poses: granting that observation statements are not infallible, and that neither the methods of induction or of falsification can yield perfect knowledge, I continue to hold that induction is an activity—a “method” if you will—that we can in some circumstances rely on. It turns out, accordingly, that my alleged “misunderstanding” of Popper is no such thing, only disagreement.

I must add that the force of the evolutionary tale Mr. Levinson tells toward the end of his letter eludes me. Presumably it is an argument that is intended to contribute toward showing that the “nihilism” I impute to Popper, the view that his account of science describes a wild-goose chase (with respect to the aim of discovering the truth), is unwarranted. But does it do so? First of all, the argument depends upon an analogy that is seriously imperfect: the example of “obvious differences” between the “growth” of conjectures and refutations and the trial-and-error evolution of organisms that Mr. Levinson mentions is only one of many that could be presented—another would be the lack of analogy between the truth of a scientific statement and the adaptation of an organism to an uncertain environment.

Moreover, it is not clear to me that, even if we grant the analogy, the claim that imperfect organisms can develop through trial-and-error encounters with the environment into increasingly complex entities damages any of the points I made. The key issue, it seems to me, concerns “progress,” which in the case of science means making some advance toward the aim of discovering the truth about the world. After all, the whole process of evolution might yet be a non-progressive affair, displaying only a temporary “progressive” character, as indeed some celebrated and dismal evolutionary speculations have suggested. As such, the analogy does not seem to me to support Mr. Levinson’s thesis that he has presented a good argument for “the growth of knowledge in an uncertain world.”

When scientists speak of the growth of knowledge, they do not mean, I take it, simply a gradual increase in the complexity of their guesswork, or the increasingly successful adaptation of guesses to still other guesses. A parlor game or the process of creating myths and fairy tales, spurred on by problems of internal consistency, might exhibit this character; but while science might be an uncertain affair, wouldn’t this be a grossly exaggerated and perverse description of this uncertainty?

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1983/09/29/the-truth-of-karl-popper/

Also read this: http://practicaltheorist.com/article/karl-popper-revisited