Sunday, April 30, 2006

John Kenneth Galbraith’s Advice to Young Bloggers (and some older politicians)

It was just yesterday that I found myself reflecting on the recent deaths of Jane Jacobs and William Sloane Coffin, and the death, five months ago, of Eugene McCarthy, and wondering, “who’s left of the left?”

My thoughts devolved a bit as I contemplated “old left” vs. “new left” or something in between, but I really knew what I meant. I was thinking about those big names, names I had heard since my youth, names that actually had some influence over the evolution of social thought. These were people whose words I always read when they showed up on the op-ed page, and whose voices I always listened to when they were interviewed on the radio.

I thought about George McGovern, and how right-on but frail he had sounded the last time I heard him, and I thought about Tom Hayden, and that, while I have been wanting to reread the Port Huron Statement lately, Hayden didn’t have the same gravitas or charisma as the great trio that had got me to thinking about all of this in the first place. I did not think about John Kenneth Galbraith at the time, but the minute I heard of his death, I realized I had forgotten one of the biggest of those big names.

And I was very sad.

It is not that the likes of McCarthy, Coffin, Jacobs, and Galbraith didn’t lead long, productive lives, and it is not like all of them hadn’t been acknowledged (to a greater of lesser extent) for their work, thought, and import during their lifetimes. But, I am saddened again, this time by Galbraith’s death, because at a time like this, a time so full of bluster and bloviation, so full of people who talk the talk without ever walking the walk, or even worse, at a time when so many are so quick to discount the so-called “failed policies of the past” and insist on rhetorical baloney like “triangulation” and reclaiming the “center,” we have lost another voice with the rare combination of weight, perspective, experience, and rigor.

To me, one of the great things about Galbraith was that he was so good with words, but didn’t hide behind them. He was witty (some would say to a fault—though not me), but was rarely so just for a cheap laugh. He wrote educated prose, but he eschewed jargon. After writing The Theory of Price Control in the early Fifties—which he thought was his best work—he said:

The only difficulty is that five people read it. Maybe 10. I made up my mind that I would never again place myself at the mercy of the technical economists who had the enormous power to ignore what I had written. I set out to involve a larger community.

It was, perhaps, because he sought that larger community that Galbraith was often dismissed by others in his field as a “social economist” (as if that’s a bad thing), but it was his genius for explaining economics in the context of history and culture that made him so much more important than his wonky brethren. While it is popular today to gather around the altar of Alan Greenspan, the former Fed Chair’s purposefully obscure language will never be more than the stuff of impulse-buy paperbacks. Meanwhile, Galbraith’s The Affluent Society is read, taught, and revered almost half a century after it was written, with its ideas so internalized, that its prescience is taken for granted.

Galbraith had the ears of Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, and is credited with shaping LBJ’s Great Society—perhaps America’s greatest unrealized domestic policy initiative. He was something that seems almost like a platonic ideal today (or a joke, depending on your point of view), an advisor sought because he was a deep thinker with an intellectual paper trail.

And, yet, Galbraith, though not known for his humility, was also not content to be in the good company of the powerful.

Unlike so many in today’s punditocracy, John Kenneth Galbraith was not given to noblesse oblige. Though he accepted JFK’s appointment as ambassador to India, Galbraith let it be known that he thought he was being kept at arm’s length from the new President, and Galbraith had a very public falling out with President Johnson over the war in Vietnam. He enjoyed his place of privilege, but he did not make it his mission to preserve it. Rather, Galbraith tended towards an adage he helped popularize: Comfort the afflicted; afflict the comfortable.

It is a theme that runs throughout Galbraith’s life and work, and one that seems to have inspired his famously large literary output.

One of my greatest pleasures in my writing has come from the thought that perhaps my work might annoy someone of comfortably pretentious position. Then comes the realization that such people rarely read.

And therein lies not only his typical wit and an atypical moment of modesty, but also a very important reality check for all of us who hope by word or deed, by pen or keypad, to afflict the comfortable or, maybe even, comfort the afflicted.

John Kenneth Galbraith, like Jane Jacobs, was a person of deeply held beliefs. Both were outspoken and articulate, and strove to reach beyond the boundaries of their supposed expertise, and, so, both were often criticized by the alleged experts for not exactly knowing what they were talking about. Both opposed the Vietnam War and stuck to that opposition in spite of some hard choices that it engendered.

Most importantly, at least right now, to my mind, Galbraith, like Jacobs, wanted his ideals to be popular because he wanted to see them come to fruition, and, so, he sought to communicate his beliefs to a broad audience with engaging and accessible language. However, in an effort to be inclusive, he (as was so with Jacobs) never tried to fudge where he stood. He was able to cast a broad net without being all at sea. He was able to communicate a position without compromising it. Galbraith and Jacobs, and Coffin and McCarthy, actually meant what they said and said what they meant. They stood fast, stood tall (in Galbraith’s case, very tall), and, this is critical and rare, they were able to explain why.

Let us all win by being so winning. Let us all be so winning that we might win.

—Cross-posted over at Daily Kos, where I go by the
nom-de-blog “Red Wind.”


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