Why I Stopped Reading Arts and Letters Daily
Do academics have a responsibility to reach beyond the narrow confines of their disciplines? Does scholarship, specialized by its very nature, translate well into broader public discourse? What exactly is the difference between an “academic” and an “intellectual”? How do they overlap and where exactly do they differ?
Philosopher Denis Dutton, who died last week at the age of 66, presents a telling example of a scholar who attempted to bridge the gap between academic rigor and public accessibility. In 1999, Dutton founded what would become the popular website Arts and Letters Daily. A high-brow (and infinitely more sophisticated) version of the Drudge Report, the site provided links to what Dutton and his editorial partner, economist Tran Huu Dung, considered the web’s best articles, op-eds, and book reviews. Often eclectic, the links could treat everything from Ancient Roman historiography, developments in economic theory, to the relationship between ideology and bathroom etiquette. At the height of its influence in the early 2000s, it was probably one of the most widely read blogs among American academics. As a young college student aspiring to greater intellectual heights, I made it my homepage.
The site was popular among scholars in spite of the fact that it routinely linked to articles mocking academic pretensions (although it’s equally plausible that this helped explain its success). Dutton despised the turgid prose that he believed dominated academic writing and frequently linked to articles that lamented its dominance. As editor of the journal Philosophy and Literature, he even launched a “Bad Writing Contest” in which correspondents submitted the most egregious examples of such prose that they had found in an academic text. Since Dutton also hated critical theory’s influence on scholarship—which he considered little more than an academic fad—it was not surprising that theorists such as Homi K. Bhabha, Frederick Jameson, and Judith Butler were all awarded the bad writing prize (the difficulty of their prose, however, certainly didn’t help). Dutton rejected many of his academic colleagues focus on discourse, power, and difference, and instead used his perch at Arts and Letters to champion the human universalism implied by much work in evolutionary psychology—an entire field treated with skepticism by most scholars in the social science and the humanities. (His recent book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Evolution, applies insights from evolutionary psychology to aesthetic theory.)
The apparent contrarianism conveyed in the articles on Arts and Letters helped make it a formative influence on my own intellectual development. I started reading the site at the age of 18 and it introduced me to the world of public intellectuals. I devoured essays by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, and Martha Nussbaum. Arts and Letters convinced me that serious public discourse required style, sophistication, and skepticism. I began reading the site as a fairly dogmatic liberal, but its frequent links to conservative intellectuals and unclassifiable political heretics helped me to constantly reassess my own positions. Perhaps most importantly, Arts and Letters introduced me to an expansive and evolving intellectual community. In fact, my exposure to the site probably played an important role in my decision to pursue American intellectual history as a graduate student.
Since it has exerted such a strong affect on my intellectual development, it’s been sad for me to gradually give up on reading the site, and it seems as though I’m not the only one. Some of this has to do with the proliferation of new sites competing for intellectually-engaged readers, but I believe there are broader reasons for its relative decline. For me, and I’m sure for many others, Arts and Letters’ linking choices during the first few years of the Iraq War damaged its credibility. While occasionally highlighting pieces by the war’s opponents, during this period, the site mostly provided a steady barrage of links to the war’s intellectual cheerleaders—whether they were neo-conservatives such as David Frum, “Burkean” conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan, left-wing apostates such as Christopher Hitchens, or “liberal hawks” such as Peter Beinart. These writers believed that Iraq contained Weapons of Mass Destruction, that America could create the foundation for a democratic Middle-East with relatively little bloodshed, and routinely questioned the motives of the war’s opponents. The vitriol such thinkers expressed for the war’s critics is difficult to remember in our current era when a majority of Americans (and an even broader portion of intellectuals) consider the war a huge failure, which did little but empower Iran and cost hundreds and thousands of lives in the process.
At the time, I did not see these articles as the embarrassment they would later become to some of their authors, but I did feel that their enthusiasm for war and the certainty with which they defended their cause, troubling. As the years went on, and the evidence of the war’s failures became apparent, I came to believe that Arts and Letters had let its readers down. The site had constantly lauded the values of intellectual rigor and skepticism, but did much to promote the views of the war’s loudest and most misinformed supporters.
Dutton’s development of an online forum, prominently advertised on Arts and Letters, devoted to debating the reality of climate change represented the next blow to the site’s credibility. The fact that Dutton, who considered himself a vigorous proponent of the scientific method, would give equal time to the scientifically marginalized (and industry beloved) deniers of global warming, as if a serious “debate” was actually taking place marked a major turning point in my trust for the site. When I first saw the advertisement for Dutton’s climate change project on Arts and Letters, my heart sank. I felt less anger than disappointment for a website that had one exerted such an influence on my intellectual development.
Finally, I stopped reading Arts and Letters a few years ago because of my ongoing “professionalization” into the world of academe. Let me illustrate with an example: as a freshman, I once sent a link to aldaily to an art history professor that I respected: I thought she would be impressed. Instead, she told me that many of the articles were right-wing polemics and that all lacked the rigor of peer-review. At the time (and to an extent, to this day), I felt taken aback by her pronouncements: the site was not conservative, I thought, it just frequently attacked liberal pieties. Plus, I didn’t think everything needed to be peer-reviewed—the site was up to date, relevant, and lacked the dryness that I had come to associate with much academic writing. This was how public debate moved forward.
Over the years, however, I came to understand my professor’s position. Once I started to actually read writers such as Foucault, Derrida, and Butler, I realized that many of the denunciations launched against them—frequently promoted on Arts and Letters Daily—were unfair, to say the least. I still refuse to genuflect toward any intellectual authority, but such theorists have triggered debate because their ideas are often profound, complex, and troubling—they need to be treated with intellectual seriousness. Of course, all of these figures are worthy of critique, but this is very difficult to do well in an op-ed format often better suited for polemical takedowns.
This brings me back to my original question about academics navigating the world of public discussion. Many scholars already cringe when they are forced to trim their research down to fit a 10-page conference papers; an op-ed generally cuts that material down to 2 pages. Translating specialized academic training into the often intimate, humorous, and generalist medium of blogging represents a serious challenge, but in the past few years, many have risen to meet it. These sites generally succeed because they refuse to dumb down expert knowledge even as they make it more accessible, avoid fruitless polemics, treat claims to infallibility with skepticism, and make valuable contributions to public debate. Even though I stopped reading it, these are all points that, at its best, Arts and Letters Daily continues to encourage.