How We Do Intellectual History at the New York Times

You see, says Sam Tanenhaus, it’s not just that Thomas Piketty may be right, or that he’s been doing this research for years, or even that he’s tapping into widespread concerns about inequality. No, it’s that every decade, America needs an icon of ideas, who embodies in her person (rather than her arguments), the dream life of the nation. In the 1960s, it was Susan Sontag. In the 1970s, it was Christopher Lasch. In the 1980s, it was Allan Bloom. In the 1990s, it was Francis Fukuyama (who wrote his essay in 1989, but decades will be decades). In the 2000s, it was Samantha Power. Yes, Robert Putnam was a “gifted thinker,” but remember the Rule of Decades: you can only have one every ten years. And, sure, Tanenhaus says you can have two or three, but you definitely can’t have two whose last names start with P. And Power has a “flowing red mane”—like Sontag had a flowing black mane, and then a flowing black mane with a silver streak—so she was the better choice. And now there’s Piketty. And he’s French, you see, which means he’s kind of like Sontag. And he’s good-looking like Sontag and Power. And he has hair too. And on Twitter they’re debating whether he’s hot or not. Which they would have done with Sontag back in the Sixties, but there was no Twitter then. And, oh shucks, let the man speak for himself:

All of which is to say that however original Mr. Piketty’s economic argument may be, he is the newest version of a familiar, if not exactly common specimen: the overnight intellectual sensation whose stardom reflects the fashions and feelings of the moment.

And that, my friends, is how we do intellectual history—no, sorry, “cultural studies” (they really use that phrase, right above the headline, which is “Hey, Big Thinker”; where is Dwight Macdonald when you need him?)—at the New York Times.


  1. realthog April 25, 2014 at 10:45 pm | #

    A perfect way to end the day and indeed the week: with loud laughter.

    I suppose I shouldn’t be laughing — these issues are far too serious — but it seems there’s no end to the stupidities humans will invent for themselves. What really pisses me off is that the NYT wastes money on Tanenhaus to spiel bullshit when they could waste far less money on me to talk sense!

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg April 27, 2014 at 5:37 am | #

      You have to pay people extra to embarrass themselves with stupidities.

  2. Jay Pinho April 26, 2014 at 12:04 am | #

    Not to be the contrarian here, but it WAS in the Fashion & Style section.

  3. Roquentin April 26, 2014 at 7:33 am | #

    In literary terms, there is a trend in recent times which manifests itself in a lot of different ways and places that I like to refer to as the obsession with the author. For many decades, things ran in the opposite direction. When you talked about a book you were supposed to talk about the text, nothing but the text, and only the text. The biography of the person who created it was of no consequence and respectable literary critics did not concern themselves with this. This is not merely me generalizing, it was the stated approach of the literary school of criticism called formalism.

    However, in more recent decades we have done what amounts to a 180 degree turn and have gone too far in the other direction. Now the focus is on the details of the author’s life, nothing but the author’s, and only the author’s life. At my most frustrated moments I have said things like “these books may as well be 300 blank pages, so you can have an excuse to talk about the person who wrote it.” While this originally served a purpose, bringing in gender and ethnicity based criticisms of canonical works, it has truly become a farce. No one wants to talk about the text anymore, and for many it’s just a MacGuffin. That an article like this could be printed in the NY Times shows just how far we’ve gone and how supremely this reigns in our current era.

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg April 27, 2014 at 5:41 am | #

      Does it? Or is it particular to this text?

      My guess is that this is only done to avoid talking about Piketty’s ideas, and if he were saying bland conventional ideas, they would faithfully reproduce a summary of them.

  4. Ray Haberski April 26, 2014 at 8:36 am | #

    As one of your colleagues of sorts at S-USIH, your post is an invitation to do a little two-part harmony. One of the commenters on your fb post noted that this Times piece was in the Style section, which makes it either a stupidly ironic attempt to a comment on readers of (or those who don’t read) “big thinkers” or a naive and half-way attempt to lump together a great diversity of thinkers. I wonder if we could play upon this article by asking what happens to some ideas that turn them into nothing more than ad campaigns. I often see Robert Bellah’s fate with the idea of civil religion in these terms–he felt abused professionally by his endless association with the term. I wonder what Paul Krugman thought of this take on Piketty in light of his interpretation of Piketty’s ideas in the paper that same day. Where, indeed, is Dwight Macdonald to denounce the degradation of thought that matters to millions of people.

  5. s. wallerstein April 26, 2014 at 9:57 am | #

    Does anyone have any examples of how the NYT treats mainstream economists or other social scientists? It would be enlightening to see if the NYT treats mainstream thinkers in such a frivolous manner.

  6. Claude Horvath April 27, 2014 at 5:43 pm | #

    Didn’t see Tanenhaus in The Times, but if your synopsis is anything like accurate, I can only say, “Sheesh!”. One a decade? Such a well-thought out rule.

  7. rly1987 May 14, 2014 at 12:21 pm | #

    This trend actually displays a decline in American intellectualism and the rise in the extremes of American delusion and hypocrisy. Sontag was not prefect of course but was at least a somewhat honest human being. Power went out of her way to sweep genocide sponsored by the West under the carpet, whitewashed America’s less severe roles in genocides like Rwanda and constantly tries to use foreign atrocities as justification for American imperial aggression. She exploited genocide to advance her own career. It should be obvious by now she doesn’t actually care about any human life other than her own.

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