Monday, November 28, 2011

Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Any ranking/list is easy to criticize.  Indeed, this blog has more than a few entries dedicated to that kind of "effort."  Well, just a short one for a long list today.  Foreign Policy, one of my favorite internet sites for insightful IR stuff (especially blogs by Drezner, Lynch, Ricks), came out with a list of top 100 "Global Thinkers."  But the list quickly goes pop.

Let me explain. The list starts promisingly enough by focusing on Arab Spring, and I tweeted that it was a good thing that it took awhile for the list to get to any Americans or Europeans given some of the dismal-ness of this year's US/Euro foreign policy.  But then it lists Cheney and Rice for having structured the world we live in--mostly through their tragic mistakes.  While I appreciate the idea of taking path dependence seriously, path dependence is not equal to great thinking.

But this is a list of Thinkers, not those who f-ed up the world so badly that we are stuck with their mistakes.  Putting a reality-averse person like Cheney on this list demonstrates the consequences of conceptual stretching.  CS happens when one broadens a category so much so that it becomes devoid of meaning.  I tease my students with the idea of putting Canada into the category of Great Power--if Canada is a great power, who is not one?

Well, if Cheney is a great Global Thinker, then why not Herman Cain?  Or Bobcat Goldthwait?  Or Peewee Herman?  Or Condi Rice?  Cheney's efforts in his time as VP did not so much reflect thought but fear.  Rice?  Well, she was the least thoughtful National Security Adviser since Robert McFarlane took a bible and a cake to meet some Iranians.  Don't let the PhD fool you or her memoir for that matter.  Providing critical insights did not seem to be part of her job as NSA.

Updating, now that I have the entire list in front of me: Amy Chua?  Oh, the book about how to abuse your kids into being smart.  Is this the best (whatever top 100 means) "Global Thinking" we can find?  Especially since some scholars found her earlier work on how economic liberalization is bad for ethnic conflict might be quite wrong?

Robert Kaplan?  Ug. The fascination with this guy always eludes me.  He calls himself a pragmatic realist, but his arguments (at least in Balkan Ghosts) is not realist at all but another word that begins with r and ends with ist.  Considering all Romanians to be thieves, if I remember correctly, would be r**ist.  Any guesses on the missing two letters?

Including these folks as "Thinkers" causes one to question the entire list and category.  Good work!


Anonymous said...

+1 for a Bobcat Goldthwait reference.

Anonymous said...

Amy Chua is a whack job!

Anonymous said...

Very true, a distinct minority of those selected are thinkers in the etymological sense of the word. Most others are doers, and as you pointed out, the results of their 'thinking' were catastrophic. But, if you are a popular magazine (with the lustre of intellectualism) you have to cater to most tastes, for the sake of more neoCon readership...
(which, of course knows, or wants to hear nothing about thinkers like Habermas, or even Fareed Zacharia, or Timothy Garton Ash).

As for Kaplan, you are very right, and, since its publication, Balkan Ghosts has graced the pantheon of primordialist literature of the worst kind. Thankfully, the Balkans themselves have proved Kaplan hopelessly wrong. But, the FP editors are in DC, where he still, apparently, has clout...