Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Friday, April 9, 2010

ON PUNDITRY

A while ago, I bought a new desktop computer [on which I am now writing this blog post]. It is a pretty vanilla HP tower which I tarted up with an extra large monitor. When I mentioned the purchase to a young friend, he said, "Congratulations." That struck me as really odd. I have never thought of buying something as an accomplishment, any more than I consider eating dinner an achievement [though in some circumstances, of course, getting the food for dinner might be.] Young people nowadays [grump grump] seem to have manner of peculiar attitudes, such as viewing shopping as an entertainment.

This got me thinking about pundits. There are now a sizable number of people in our society whose entire work consists of having opinions. Not building things, not providing services, not even knowing things -- just having opinions. They get paid outrageous sums of money for expressing those opinions. Now, it takes no skill at all to have an opinion, anymore than it does to buy a computer. To be sure, it may take considerable effort and skill to form an intelligent opinion, just as it may require some knowledge and good sense to make a wise purchase. But these people are not paid for the intelligence of their opinions. If they were, most of them would go broke.

Everyone has opinions, and most of us are not at all hesitant about expressing them, even though no one pays us for the effort. So why in heaven's name do we pay David Brooks or Cokey Roberts or George Will or David Broder or Pat Buchanan so much money to tell us their opinions?

For a long time, the monopolistic control of the public discourse by a handful of newspapers and television stations made it appear that only a handful of people had opinions, and I suppose scarcity here, as elsewhere in the marketplace, drives up price. But the advent of the Internet has had a quite unexpected consequence. It turns out that in a nation of three hundred million people, there are vast numbers of people with opinions, which they are quite happy to express for free. What is more, a great many of them express their opinions in quite as lively and engaging a manner as do the paid opinionators. Furthermore, even a cursory surfing of the Web reveals that many of those opinions are better informed and wiser than the ones we pay for.

There is, to be sure, one ability possessed by the paid opinion-mongers that I, for one, find genuinely impressive. People like Brooks and Will and Friedman and their brethren have the capacity to form an opinion instantaneously about virtually anything. Iraq? Couldn't find it on the map yesterday; know exactly what we ought to think about it today. Net neutrality? Not quite sure what it is, but I know which side of it I am on. Cap and trade? Is that something to do with second-hand clothes? No problem. I have an opinion.

I will venture a prediction. As time goes on, the market demand for opinions will decline, and a number of currently well-compensated people may be forced to look for work.

7 comments:

NotHobbes said...

The bourgeoisie furnishes the proletariat with weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie

Your opinion Professor, do you see the internet as such a weapon?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Yes I do. More to the point, I see the Internet as a weapon against all entrenched power or supposed authority. It is genuinely anarchic.

Ugly said...

This sort of thing has been thematized quite frequently in "continental" philosophy. Guy Debord has a book called _Society of the Spectacle_ that may interest you.

I really am *extremely* hesitant about your prediction: certainly trends point in precisely the opposite direction. People aren't looking for opinions because they want to know what to believe, they want entertainment...and in that sense, I don't see how the itnernet or a _plurality_ of opinions helps us at all. It rather confuses people (who don't want to have to wade through so much information and so many perspectives) and just further re-entrenches "mainstream" punditry, which is quickly consumed and easily grasped.

I'm hoping you're right, but I very much doubt it.

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Robert Paul Wolff said...

You may be right, but at seventy-six, I prefer to hope that things will move in the right direction before I pass on. As various people have pointed out, I tend more toward the Tigger end of the spectrum than the Eeyore end.

Jim said...

I see two possible problems with your prediction. The first is that many of the more popular pundits with wide public exposure tend to be offering up entertainment in the form of opinion. Consequently, their opinions may not really be their own, but rather what they think will generate a large response (and higher ratings). Secondly, it appears that most people (not all) follow pundits that tend to mirror their own views. This may be to shore up vindication for their own beliefs or to derive smug satisfaction from attacks upon those that they disagree with. There are of course multiple differing opinions available to be readily accessed. The thing is, how many people will seek them out (or let them into their insular discourse)?

Ann said...

"The monopolistic control of the public discourse by a handful of newspapers and television stations made it appear that only a handful of people had opinions, and I suppose scarcity here, as elsewhere in the marketplace, drives up price."

Gee, finally economics put to good use! :-)