The Smartest Dude at the Times?

Does anybody procure the New York Times for its news coverage? Nah.

For its cutting-edge coverage of the culture industry? Probably not. OK, you go looking for David Carr on Mondays, you wonder what A. O. Scott or Manohla Dargis will make of a movie you want to see, you’re pretty sure that Neil Genzlinger and Alessandra Stanley will say something interesting about the TV programs you don’t want to watch. Until Dwight Garner decided Katie Roiphe was a great writer, you’d read his book reviews all the way through, to make up for the fact that you never got past the first two paragraphs of Michiko Kakutani’s fussy pronouncements.

Still, “Arts & Leisure” is not why you subscribe.

Let’s be honest. Whether you’re holding the hard copy or noodling with the iPad, the first thing you do as a sentient, caffeine-driven being is go to the Opinion pages. But the op-eds are mostly homework, things you have to read just to feel like you know what’s happening at the middlebrow level of intellectual controversy—they’re abridged editions of essays you’d read at The Atlantic or The New Republic or The American Prospect.

In short, you can’t expect anything from the op-eds because they’re about everything. So you start at the back of the front section to see what the regular columnists are up to.

And now, among these, who’s the smartest dude—the one you turn to first and last? The one you can count on to say something that will (a) enrich or amplify what you have only surmised, (b) change the way you think, or (c) move you to inspect your premises? I don’t mean that this columnist has to bring you a weekly conversion experience. I mean that he or she is more or less than predictable. He or she makes a habit of violating your expectations—making it new from week to week.

Nominations are now open. In order of preference determined by these criteria, my choices are: Ross Douthat, Thomas Byrne Edsall, Stanly Fish, Mark Bittman, and Paul Krugman.

Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins don’t qualify because both are reaching for the title of snarkiest kid on the block, the former by imitating the alliterative idiocies of William Safire and following Leon Wieselthier’s lead on everything, the latter by alerting us to the provincialisms of state politics in what she styles as a kinder, gentler mood than the locus classicus, H. L. Mencken.

Thomas Friedman and David Brooks don’t qualify because each has charged himself with the impossible task of deciphering the future by means of personal anecdote, anthropological energy, and the current state of social science. They’ll grasp at any straw if it lets them suck a sound bite out of what their research assistants pour into their liquefied brains. Friedman will say anything that comes into his head about globalization, no matter how inane. Brooks will say anything that comes into his head. And yet you’re never surprised by what they say.

Charles Blow doesn’t qualify because he’s there to fill the shoes of Bob Thomas—to remind us that race matters. He’s brilliant on the question of public opinion (how to measure it, how to interpret it), but his columns typically function as a kind of retort to criticism, from both Left and Right, of Obama’s policies and sensibilities.

As for Nicholas Kristof, Joe Nocera, Frank Bruni, and usually at the remove of the website, Timothy Egan. Has any one of them ever written something that made you think harder, or differently? Have they articulated anything apart from liberal pieties? Nah.

OK, so why Douthat, Edsall, Fish, Bittman, Krugman, again in that order? Range of interest, depth of perception, to begin with. None of them is satisfied with the corporate liberal order as it’s presently constituted, and each is equipped to criticize it in fundamental ways, by examining the assumptions that legitimate it rather than remaining at the level of this or that policy. Bittman and Krugman are the most confined in these terms—they walk a beat, whereas the other three have slipped into plain clothes—but they, too, have become more and more radical in their criticisms of business as usual.

I’ll leave it at this for now. Let the argument begin.



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6 responses to “The Smartest Dude at the Times?

  1. randystearns

    Edsall, no argument.

    But Alessandra Stanley? WTF? She is the laziest media writer out there (which is no small thing) who predictibly coughs up little fur balls of “I didn’t actually watch it” criticism for the “I don’t even have a TV” crowd. Or maybe that’s what you meant.

  2. brian connolly

    i’m intrigued by your inclusion of Stanley Fish here. It’s been a long time since anything he has written has smacked of anything other than the thoughts of contrarian, which might be interesting occasionally but too frequently announce him as the smartest kid on the block simply because he has seen what his leftist intellectual colleagues have not. What is appealing about him to you? And I ask about Fish as currently constituted. In this I think he is much like Zizek (who, of cousre, is not a columnist for the times….yet). If you are familiar with Zizek or Fish, it is hard to be surprised by anything they say.

  3. Wow, Randy, that sounds like insider trading on your knowledge of the biz. She does go highbrow from time to time, but usually not that high. I like Neil G. better anyway. Brian, you worry me, because I’ve been feeling Fishian lately, like the guy who can’t seem to align his opinion with anything available, which, for an avowed Hegelian, is a death sentence.

  4. brian connolly

    i guess i would say when i read your stuff, jim, you may have trouble aligning with anything available, but there is something at stake in that position, right? and i also think that your difficulty aligning stems from an ideological fracture, wherein to speak from teh left requires willful rejection of anything deemed right or one’s position, and vice versa. so there are things, ideas, etc., out there with which to align, but not wholesale, which leads to a rather moralistic rejection of contrary work from both left and right. It just seems to me that with Fish I can never tell what is at stake, besides a banal stance of transgression. wherein Fish will upset your pieties to show how beholden to them you are, but he is actually just upholding rather traditional lines of thought. Witness his rather absurd writings on 12 years a slave

  5. Jim Bruggeman

    I don’t read the fucking rag. I live far to the west of the Mississippi River and choose to ignore the “National Newspaper of Record.” So, color me provincial if you will … or if you won’t, I will. Above all, it splashes too much ink over too much paper (Maybe I should get an I-Pad or a on-line subscription.). But, I do like Krugman and read his blog every day. Doughyhat? …. really?

  6. Krugman, by reason of credentials that dwarf the rest of the crew combined (yes, even Fish). It’s one thing to try to interpret what other, smarter people, are saying about things so complex the average reader can’t begin to analyze it. It’s another to just skip the middleman. Fish may be an expert on Milton, say, but he’s a moron politically and his latter-day legal credentials have hardly left me awestruck by their cogency or relevance.

    Krugman might not be the fanciest writer, but he’s the smartest on the subject of political economy. No brainer.

    And Douthat shouldn’t be on the list. Or Fish for that matter.

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