Should Professors Join the “Debate”?

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36 Responses

  1. james russell says:

    “Many professors are not good shouters and are not good at making quick reductive one-liners or at producing books with empty rhetoric and little factual accuracy or balance. Professors want to have a different kind of debate than what mainstream media often allows.”

    I have to laugh at this, sorry. I agree that bringing attention to lunacy of the right wing is perhaps not the best way to defend, or even carve out your own sensible turf, but I’m afraid that most law reviews written by professors do indeed aspire for catchy reductive one-liners and fill the word limits with empty rhetoric, lacking in talent for writing (as opposed to theory), as well as editorial support.

    The best to represent your ideas is to cut to the chase, use strong voice, and be clear. Put your conclusions upfront, professors, not in footnotes on p. 83, after you’ve convinced yourself you’ve got proper support for your ideas. Support is important, sure, but put that in the footnote on p. 83, for those few (if any) readers who obsess over accuracy.

  2. Jeremy says:

    I once heard Ann Coulter declare (with a straight face) that the United States Supreme Court was originally intended to decide “a few railroad cases and nothing else.” As frustrating as she can be, though, Ann Coulter has her counterparts on the left, as do Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and all the other “loony righties.” Popular political pundits have their battles to wage, and professors don’t join the soap box fights because they have their own battles to wage–in the halls of Academia.

    The most intelligent, thoughtful, and appropriate comment I have ever heard in the abortion debate came from John Kerry during his second debate against Bush in 2004. King George had just commented about the evils of abortion and how it ought to be completely banned in all forms; Kerry replied: “It’s just not that simple.” That ought to be the battle cry of all proponents of thoughtful, meaningful discussion.

  3. Mike S. says:

    The reason national shout-media are so successful is that people want to be either completely sated or outraged by their “news.” Newspapers, TV and radio are driven by their consumers. And sadly those media outlets that carry an elevated discourse are most often casts aside in lieu of other louder, blunter and dumber media venues.

    Nonetheless, I think you strike a crucial point that without participation from academics (and civic leaders) to get the truth out about how courts, judges and lawyers work, errors will continue to be standard.

    Although shout TV, radio or publishing might not be the best (or most attractive) venues for academics, there’s no reason local lawyers or judges could not attempt to obtain column space in a local newspaper. All too often we focus on The New York Times, et al., and forget that the majority of Americans get their news from local newspapers and TV. That, Daniel, would be a great, grassroots way to combat mass media misinformation.

  4. Mike S. — I’ve been interviewed on TV and in newspapers quite a bit, and most of the time, it amounts to little more than getting a quick soundbite. Getting an op-ed published is very difficult too. That’s why I really applaud the development of blogs. While there are many instances of the same tired old shouting matches in the blogosphere, there are also many examples of really good discussions and fruitful discourse too. I like to think that Concurring Opinions is a venue for a more thoughtful debate — one that is interesting, informative, accessible to a wide audience, and civil.

  5. John Armstrong says:

    I have to agree with Mike S. on this one. If I have learned nothing else from my time in the Tower so far, it is that the vast, vast majority of the population want nothing approaching a real discussion or debate. They have their opinions and want either a reassuring echo or a figurehead to hate a la Emmanuel Goldstein. Trying to reason with such a standpoint is impossible since the question is automatically begged.

  6. Juan Steedos says:

    This academic snobbery amongst law professors is unwarranted. Law is, on the whole, one of the least academic disciplines and law professors can ascend to their positions much easier than most other academic disciplines – a PhD is much more difficult and requires much more originality than a JD.

    Once many people become a law professors, they publish mainly in inferior academic journals and the style is footnote-laden-pomp. I know of a law professor who recently published an 80 page article with more footnotes than the whole of Dworkin’s Law’s Empire.

    I hate these right wing nut jobs (who really pack the courts, e.g., the US Supreme Court) and their defenders who publish pop-law and pontificate on Bill O’Reilly and Fox News. However, law professors could do with writing more clearly and accessibly (STOP pompous footnoting) and be able to debate publicly. Don’t hide behind (largely undeserved) smugness.

  7. Juan Steedos,

    With all due respect, aren’t law professors “writing more clearly and acessibly” and “debat[ing] publicly” in the blogosphere? My point is that the mainstream media often doesn’t offer avenues for fruitful debate, and debating Coulter isn’t a real debate because she’s not really attempting to engage in a debate or discussion. Commentators like these are just trying to provoke and incite. My point is that getting into a “debate” with these folks isn’t worthwhile. I’m not arguing that professors shouldn’t be writing clearly and accessibly to a wide public audience. The problem Eric was complaining about, however, seems to be caused by the fact that many mainstream media outlets are captivated by this pseudo-”debate” rather than having a real discussion.

  8. Juan Steedos says:

    Oh and you know what the real discussion really is, I assume? & you and your buddies pontificate in the blogosphere to likeminded “intellectuals” throwing your hands up to those involved in pseudo debate rather than trying to educate in a broader sense than reviewing cases in law school classes and writing in law journals that are unread and should not be read because anyone looking for a little knowledge (including legal knowledge) should steer well clear of law journals (and probably law school – joke).

  9. Juan –

    1. This blog is not just read by likeminded folks; there are many who strongly disagree with me who read this blog. In fact, there are folks who blog here who strongly disagree with me.

    2. There are quite a lot of law review articles published. There’s a lot of crap, but there are many good articles too — including ones read far beyond the legal academy. I’ve grown very tired of flippant generalizations about law review articles. Plus, some law review articles are not written for a general audience. That doesn’t mean that law professors who write them don’t also engage in broader public discourse.

    3. My point, which you still haven’t responded to, is that it is not fruitful to engage in a “debate” with Coulter and the like or engage in a “debate” within the parameters established by certain mainstream media outlets. Refusing to engage in this kind of “debate” does not mean refraining to discuss issues publicly or being insular. Do you honestly think one can engage in a meaningful dialogue with Coulter?

  10. Juan Steedos says:

    Dan J,

    I think you have to engage and I think you have to give as good as you get. Can one really debate with George W. Bush? Probably not. He’s an imbecile. He knows what soundbites he’s going to repeat with his maddening smile to back it up. But what’s your suggestion? Is it slightly Al Goreish – ignore mainstream media and hope that a truer message gets through via internet mediums?

    You may have more appropriate debates but what about praxis? Why can’t liberals hold their own against these buffoons? That’s the real question. It won’t be answered by retreating to the blogosphere.

  11. mrshl says:

    i think the objection, juan, is to what “holding their own” means. that’s pretty much the crux of the discussion.

    in a sense, i absolutely agree that part of the left’s failure (and it’s my “left” too) is an perception that the problems are so complex and our posititions so nuanced, that they can’t be glibly articulated in “low-resolution” forums like radio and television. but NPR and shows like the daily show reveal that time-limited and incisive content can carry the weight.

    while i generally enjoy blogs and magazines more than radio and television commentary, i think an effective, intelligent presence on radio and television is possible if we begin with an attractive antidote to the invective. for example, one of the posts talks about abortion, and that’s a good example. what if kerry had said, instead of “it’s not that simple,” something like, “i too would like to reduce the number of abortions in this country, but our aim should be to change minds, not to change the law.” that’s an excellent way to reframe the discussion around sex education and birth control while keeping choice at the center of the debate.

    one thing it also might require is shifting our politics and rhetoric from the zero sum game favored by conservatives. in basketball, a smaller defender sometimes defends against a bigger opponent by accepting his weight, then yanking the support away. that’s kinda what liberals need to do. to win national elections in this country, the left is going to have to concede that the country has moved to the right on some issues, in order to advance on those issues where america still agrees with us (e.g., paying our bills, avoiding costly wars that weaken our position in the world, advocating comprehensive privacy protections). these ideas lend themselves to brisk, and not necessarily vapid rhetoric.

  12. Juan Steedos says:

    mrshl, this is more wise than previously stated opinions. but i fear you don’t go far enough. with your abortion approach, it’s still too wishy-washy liberal. Here’s how it should go:

    Republican: We can’t allow abortion and the killing of God’s children.

    Democrat: Keep your views about your God out of politics / people’s lives / women’s bodies (and mind your own business you red neck hoosier).

  13. Eric Muller says:

    Daniel Solove asked: “Do you honestly think one can engage in a meaningful dialogue with Coulter?”

    I don’t. But the fact that you don’t have a “meaningful dialogue” doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not worth doing.

    I went toe-to-toe with Michelle Malkin for about a month back in August of 2004, both in writing and on radio, when she published her absurd book “In Defense of Internment” defending the exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans in WWII. At the time, I was definitely frustrated that she wasn’t playing by the rules I am accustomed to from scholarly debate about the causes of internment (careful examination of all relevant primary sources; close analytical argument about the motivations of the decisionmakers grounded as carefully as possible in archival evidence; and so on). But in retrospect, I’m very glad I did it, even if she and I were largely talking past each other. I think it was important for a couple of people with expertise (me and Greg Robinson, and also Dave Neiwert on his blog) to be at least modestly in the public eye, saying, without overmuch sophistication, “It just ain’t so.”

  14. Jeremy says:

    The problem with most politicians and “commentators” (of all stripes) is that they are essentially team players in the worst sense. For most politicians and “commentators,” the primary goal of politics and “news” is not the betterment of the country, but that their team wins, or at least takes the lead. While they probably feel that their team policies are better for the country, the country’s betterment is not their primary goal.

    Consider the kind of coverage that elections get: easy to read maps and box scores, commentators dispensing obscure stats and magic number theories (“If Bush gets Ohio and Pennsylvania, but Kerry gets Missouri…). Politics is the new sports (or sports is the new politics), and debating political issues in the mainstream media has become like debating whether the Heat or the Mavericks should have won the NBA finals this year. It is full of pomp, statistics, and pandering, but low on substance.

    On the other hand, we’re a democracy, and the demos likes sports. Maybe this is the only way to increase voter turnout.

  15. Juan Steedos says:

    This is much better EM. I just had nothing to do yester afternoon so took some shots at DS. Overall, I guess the idea is that you cannot withdraw even if you cannot debate. It’s a crucially important issue & withdrawl will only likely lead to more neo-conservative, born-again-christian, war-mongering administrations. Withdrawl may be appropraite and even right but the upshot of withdrawl – more right-wing mainstream media and uninformed general public – is dangerous.

    “Courage, brave knights!” he shouted. “March up, fall on, the victory is ours! Follow me, and take your revenge!” (or is this hopelessly quixotic?)

  16. Juan Steedos says:

    Jeremy, maybe there should be Around The Horn for political debate[?]

  17. Eric,

    From what I recall, your dialogue with Malkin was mostly in the blogosphere. Did you ever try to debate Malkin on the radio or TV news? I think that the formats of these media make it very difficult to make the points you would have wanted to make. In other words, my point is that the mainstream media (not all of it — there are a few exceptions) is set up in a way that inhibits the kind of meaningful debate or even meaningful response that you might want to make.

  18. Eric Muller says:

    I did, Dan. Two radio debates, one on NPR in Philadelphia and one on talk radio in North Carolina. I was scheduled to do one on talk radio in Philadelphia, but after letting Malkin talk for about 20 minutes the station dumped me without letting me speak so that they could get a “breaking update” from the floor of the Republican National Convention.

    I appealed to every tv show that was hosting Malkin to allow me or Greg or some other internment scholar a bit of time to respond, but none of the shows would do it.

  19. Eric,

    NPR is one of the exceptions in the mainstream media — they actually care about having people talk and discuss, not just shout soundbites across the airwaves. Your experience with TV emphasizes my point.

    There are certainly a few who can trade barbs with the Malkins and Coulters and get attention in the mainstream media format — Keith Olbermann, Al Franken, etc. I applaud them. They are needed. I applaud you for getting involved — and my argument isn’t that you should be disengaged. But we need to think about how to deal with a structural problem — that the parameters created by the mainstream media increasingly make it hard to have a meaningful debate. They give rise to folks like Malkin and Coulter who are well-adapted to exploiting these media formats. The question is how much professors should adapt to these formats to debate the Malkins and Coulters. The adaptation often inhibits or strips away the things that academics can best offer in the debate, which is detailed intelligent analysis and argument. And while some professors can develop some talent for engaging in the slick soundbite conversations in the MSM, they are not the most skilled for this format. In other words, I think Al Franken vs. Coulter would be more effective in the current formats the MSM will allow than most professors vs. Coulter.

    I wish I had the answer, because I find the problem exasperating. The choice often seems to be: (1) engage in a “debate” with the Coulters by adopting a similar style, being rude and aggressive, overly self-assured in your points, and opting for quick soundbites rather than reasoned analysis and fact; or (2) be ignored by the MSM.

  20. Eric Muller says:

    Well, my experience with Malkin tends pretty strongly to confirm that likelihood of your choice #2.

  21. james russell says:

    Al Franken wrote a bunch of “pop” books about politics; Ted Kennedy wrote a straigt-up Leftist Manifesto (“America Back on Track”), and James Carville and Paul Begala wrote “Take it Back.” The point? It is simply not true that the viewpoint of the left is so necessarily nuanced, complicated, and otherwise stodgy as the discussion above might suggest. The problem, dear law professors, is not Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, or MSM. The problem is you: your style of inaccessible, patronizing, footnote-obsessed writing that makes sense only to other law professors. You know why you’re not invited to speak and can’t hold your own when you are? It’s because your heads tend to be way deep up your rears, it’s because you sermonize, it’s because you trade on cheap inside jokes instead of talking to your audience. No speaker will succeed who does not mind the needs of his audience, and that is one talent that law professors, for the most part, do not possess. As for “flippant” comments about law review articles, sure, there are some good ones, but the “flippancy” is justified by the fact that most of them are crap; “flippancy”, therefore, is a mere observation, an accurate assessment of average quality. And hiding behind blogs, footnotes, imaginary complexities, and all the other such–is precisely why we have Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and not law professors on this blog, representing the very simple, and very down to earth opinions of the left, without, mind you, resorting to complaining about the fact that people are too dumb or unsophisticated to understand the left. Get over yourselves, dear leftist (or rightist) law professors. If you want to appeal to a general audience, you have to get your head out of the sand and at least try to make plain, noncondescending sense. The ideas of the left are just as simple as the ideas of the right, but the reason the right is apparently winning the “popculture” war is because too many lefties are inarticulate, cowardly snobs. Quit complaining about being victimized by Coulter, or by readers who don’t appreciate your “brilliant” insights into obscurities. You have something to say to the regular folks to contradict Coulter? For humanity’s sake, do come out of your damn intellectual closets and speak already.

  22. James — The Federalist Papers were written for a broad audience, and now you’re saying we need to write books like Coulter’s in order to appeal to a general audience? Then we really have debased discourse. In today’s MSM, the Federalist Papers would be reduced two a few quick sentences, and some nice one-liners.

    I believe that the general public can understand the views of professors. There are many things professors write and say that are widely accessible. Perhaps you’re being elitist and view most people as dumb. I don’t. I think that they can understand, but my complaint is that the MSM often doesn’t provide a good vehicle to help get academic voices heard. I’m complaining about the medium by which debate is taking place today.

    The assumption in your comment is that for the general public, the current level of rude obnoxious crap spouted by Coulter and others is the level of discourse we must sink to in order to respond. I don’t believe this. Maybe you do, as you seem to resort to calling many lefties “inarticulate, cowardly snobs.” This is the kind of childish banter that doesn’t advance the debate at all.

    Professors are trying to speak out, but as Eric’s experience illustrates, the MSM enjoys focusing on the more provocative views of Coulter-types. Eric’s detailed discussion of the facts may not be as entertaining as Coulter or Malkin, and that’s why he’s shut out. And it’s not the general public who is shutting him out; it’s not that he cannot speak clearly; it’s that the MSM doesn’t want to have him speak, or only gives him a few seconds for a soundbite. Go read his blog posts about Malkin. Why didn’t that get the same level of coverage in the MSM?

  23. Juan Steedos says:

    Oh my days, I’ve started a blogolution – down with these professors.

    -Who do you people want to save: Coulter, the law professors, or Barabus?

    “Save Coulter.”

    “Save Barabus.”

    -And what shall we do with the law professors?

  24. james russell says:

    The federalist papers were not written for a general audience. They were written by and for the white male educated, property-owning elite minority. Today, the literate spectrum is a bit broader, thank heavens, but given the colossaly awful (on average) education the majority of people in this country receive today –the spectrum of literate people is indeed dumber as compared to the readership of the federalist papers. That said, I do not advocate dumbing your views down, but to educate the majority about the views of the left, there does indeed need to be an adjustment of style, not content, an adjustment from longer compount sentences, to shorter, more forceful ones, better organization of ideas, better analogies, and other things having to do with form. My problems with professors is their inability to express important ideas simply, in a way that enables the audience to understand them. That said, not all conservatives are good at comprehensible form, Coulter, if we’re to continue picking on her, often makes no sense, and has horrible structure. So to the extent that she’s popular because she’s controversial, as opposed to eloquent, I agree the media’s obsession with scandal is very blameworthy. Still, professors and academics will have a much better shot at getting heard, if first, they put a lot more effort into making themselves understood by the average person, who, I again submit, is “dumber” than the average slaveowner in the 1700s. It’s not that people are stupid, it’s that education for the masses is bad, and bad (incomprehensible) teachers (professors) are at fault here, at least in some part. There are a million other reasons why education is bad in this country, but my main point is that in light of this practical reality the highbrow professorial style of presenting your ideas is grossly inadequate as a means of penetrating the wall of mass culture.

  25. Mike S. says:

    Daniel-

    For the record (and perhaps as an allocution of sorts) I have sound-byted you. (http://www.law.com/jsp/legaltechnology/pubArticleLTN.jsp?id=1127379915380&rss=ltn)

    Nonetheless, my point remains that I think local publications (read: smaller than 100,000-circulation newspapers like the one I’m working for now) or small TV stations would love to have a “legal affairs expert” on call who could produce explainer articles.

    Blogs are part of the solution, I agree, but they should not be the end-point of the debate. After all, the only way one finds a blog is by looking for it — a luxury an unknowing person in the middle of nowhere might not have. Outreach to small, local newspapers might be a good way to draw in readers and get them interested in complex legal issues (and maybe even cultivate some new online readers too).

  26. James writes: “[G]iven the colossaly awful (on average) education the majority of people in this country receive today –the spectrum of literate people is indeed dumber as compared to the readership of the federalist papers.”

    I don’t agree. Today, more people are college-educated than at any time in history. True, we could do better, but Americans are not a dumb bunch of people. The media treats them as dumb and panders to the lowest common denominator. Coulter doesn’t get all the attention because her work is as smart as most Americans can handle; she gets the attention because she’s entertaining and controversial and the MSM exploits that. It’s not as fun to have on somebody like an Eric Muller who is balanced, armed with real facts and arguments. When the TV news show calls for a 5 minute segment, best to get Coulter on and find some equally obnoxious talking head for the other polar extreme and let them go at it. My point is that I wonder whether it’s a good thing for us to play along in this game when the format of the game guarantees that we’re already 10 points down. This doesn’t mean disengagement — it is why I cheer the blogosphere, because at least it allows engagement on terms that don’t already make a mockery of the debate.

    Socrates was astute in recognizing that even smart people can be seduced by sophistry and even smart people find it challenging and hard to engage in deep critical thought and discussion. That doesn’t mean, however, that people can’t handle it, or, after being exposed to it, don’t appreciate it. On the other hand, we all know what happened to Socrates.

  27. james russell says:

    the state of education is bad, but this is a matter of perspective. I don’t think college education means much these days, there are too many friends from my hometown who moved back after college to live with their parents because they couldn’t find decent paying jobs. Also, ‘state of education’ in my mind brings up the No Child Left Behind debacle, our lack of competence in math and sciences compared to China and Europe, etc, etc, etc. In any event, however, Sophocles was a gadfly because he could talk to people, and he was clever enough to interest and engage his listeners. I think the ability to interest and engage your listeners requires precisely the skill that many law professors do not have, based on ‘law review scholarship’ as a whole, which, save for few good pieces, is, in my opinion, filler. As evidence of this fact I offer the simple notion that save for law professors, nobody reads law review articles, because they’re horrificly dull. Blogs fare better, ok, I take back my zeal against blogs, sorry. Also, again, I agree that media eats up scandal and feeds it to its customers. But, this simply begs the question of whether the media steers the public, or whether public demand steers the media. If people were interested in deed debate rather than reality tv or scandal, deep debate shows would be the money-makers, not FearFactor. I suppose my faith in humanity is somewhat sapped when American Idol, but not, say, Due Process on PBS, is the talk of the town. People choose what they watch, after all, and I contend that lack of interest in weighty matters is a product of a culture which doesn’t care about education, rendering a society that is, for the most part, undereducated despite proliferation of colleges. Basketweaving Colleges don’t do the trick. So, should professors “play along” as you say? I assume you think not. There is professor pride at stake, or something. Well, I think otherwise. I think that to get our average college edumaficated Joes off the couch, professors have a duty to do whatever it takes to get attention to their cause, because the cause of education is worth the sacrifice of professorial highbrow style. It seems, however, that we are arguing about value judgments, which, by their nature do not lend themselves to being resolved. At the end of this day, however, I feel a little less empty having engaged in an interesting debate, especially one that pounces all over Ms. Coulter.

  28. Juan Steedos says:

    DJS, Why don’t you realize that law is for the preservation of the bourgeois conservative society? Law professors are oh so pathetic petit-rebels usually from their lawyer parents who prance around wearing bow ties and discussing minutiae. “But don’t wrangle with us so long as you apply, to our intended abolition of bourgeois property, the standard of your bourgeois notions of freedom, culture, law, etc. Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all, a will whose essential character and direction are determined by the economical conditions of existence of your class.”

  29. Ima Fake says:

    DJS,

    I am a lawer and have been one for almost 20 years. A good portion of my practice is appellate work. I have never found a law review article to be of any use. We don’t read them, judges don’t read them and they are not helpful to the practice of law.

    Sorry,

    Ima

  30. Ima,

    Law review articles might not be helpful to everybody’s practice area. Your argument assumes that law review articles should be assessed by their usefulness to the legal profession. But many law review articles are not written for the legal profession but for different audiences — for legal academics, for professors in other fields, for policymakers, etc. I’ve written some articles to an audience of policymakers, for example. One piece got cited several times in Congressional testimony and read by may congressional staffers and state legislative staffers. It wasn’t written for practicing attorneys — it was written for an audience of policymakers. So I think that you’re viewing the purpose of law review articles too narrowly. They are written for many purposes.

    Second, there are law review articles that have been quite influential. I blogged about it at this post: What Law Review Articles Had a Major Influence on the Law?

  31. Juan Steedos says:

    DJS,

    The point from all of this which you repeatedly miss is this:

    Don’t presume that you speak for the left and that your retreat from mainstream media will be any loss. Indeed, your position, inactivity, continuance of self-inflated importance, and so on is exactly what the left doesn’t need.

  32. Juan,

    It’s too bad that you consistently make assumptions about what I’m saying without actually reading and addressing what I am actually saying. I’ll let what I wrote in the many comments here speak for itself. Having a dialogue with you has been frustrating, as you really don’t seem to care about responding to my arguments. So go ahead and keep calling me self-important and inactive, despite the fact that I do tons of media interviews. Go ahead and make wild assumptions about me and ignore what I’m saying. I’ve tried repeatedly to engage you in an argument, but I think we’ll just continue talking past each other. I still don’t quite understand what your position actually is; as one who gets quite a lot of media calls and does many media interviews, I was sounding off about a more systemic problem I’ve noted and was hoping to have a more constructive dialogue about how to fix it. Instead, the dialogue with you has proven rather unhelpful and unproductive. That’s unfortunate. I hope that the left does whatever you think it ought to do, and that self-important assholes like me don’t get in the way.

  33. Juan Steedos says:

    DJS,

    Aha, a last word freak to add to everything else. I side with much of the criticism of you that has come around to my way of thinking in the comments above.

    You do not understand what I’m saying because you are alienated from the group of people that you claim to speak for. The people have no interest in you speaking for them in mainstream media, law review articles, or otherwise. I do not claim to speak for the people or the left. You do.

  34. Juan — Where exactly did I say that I am claiming to speak for the left? I’m not.

  35. Bruce says:

    Dan, I’m reminded here of the old joke about teaching a pig to sing…

  36. Juan steedos says:

    DJS, it’s implied throughout your initial posting.

    Bruce, nice name.