Border Guards

I was thinking of writing a One-a-Day post about Tim Weiner’s compelling history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes. (I’ve been reading books, just not blogging about my reading. I’ll catch up soon.)

Then I read Stephen Weissman’s critique of the book at TPMCafe, and Weiner’s reply to Weissman.

If you read the sharp exchange between the two authors, you might be surprised at the mismatch of the tone to the substance. Weissman puts on an injured tone in replying to Weiner’s response to him, but take a look at his original post: he asks if Weiner’s book indicates that the standards for investigative reporting are slipping, he says that Weiner’s book contains “gross distortions”, says he is “shocked” by the mishandling of evidence. Weiner fires back with some very strong adjectives of his own, as well as an accusation that Weissman is carrying water for people inside the CIA.

What’s the substance? Primarily it’s about Weiner’s interpretation of a statement by Eisenhower that includes the phrase “legacy of ashes”. That’s what Weissman thinks is the “smoking gun” of gross distortion, that Weiner has made Eisenhower out to be a critic of the CIA when he really wasn’t. There’s a bigger disagreement in Weissman’s original post about whether the CIA has had some successes in covert action, but Weissman clearly recognizes that that particular argument is and will always remain a matter of interpretation, that it can’t be reduced to simple charges of inaccurate quotation.

This past week, I spent some time talking with students in my classes about the need to control their use of adverbs and adjectives so that they don’t get drawn into an implicit argument that they didn’t mean to make because of the intensity of their word choice. And yet here we have a scholar using words like “gross distortion” and “shocking”, a scholar who is criticizing another author on points of fine detail and calling for precision.

You can always tell when a serious scholarly pissing match is about to kick off in a journal or a listserv or a conference panel: it’s exactly when you see this mismatch between the intensity of the adjectives used by one scholar to describe his opponent and the alleged errors being described. Reading the exchange between Weissman and Weiner, I’m almost convinced that Weissmann is right that Weiner is bending the Eisenhower quote a bit, though once things get to this intensity of disagreement, I don’t blindly trust anyone’s representation of the source material. But it’s not much of a bending, really, and it amounts to next to nothing compared to the book as a whole. If this is what Weissman has to lead with in making a claim of “gross distortion”, the case for the prosecution is really weak. The book as a whole is strongly researched, compellingly written and forcefully argued. Getting caught up on a handful of quotes is petty.

The real challenge, if Weissman disagrees about the overall argument, is to deal with the overall argument not in terms of inaccuracy and accuracy but in philosophical terms. Weissman believes as a matter of principle that covert action (as opposed to intelligence gathering) is possible, and that the CIA has succeeded at times with covert action. Weiner, if I read him right, is fundamentally skeptical about covert action. That’s not a disagreement that’s easily resolved on the facts: it runs far deeper.

Another example of where the disagreement ought to be more collegial and subtle: Weissman is right that Weiner isn’t much interested in the technological improvement of intelligence in the last fifty years. As I read Weiner’s book, that’s partly because he thinks the intelligence-gathering work of the CIA doesn’t pose a philosophical problem, just a technical one, and that the real issue is with human intelligence and analysis, with the interpretation of the intention and interior deliberations of other governments, or with subjective readings of the state of other societies. It is up to Weissman to argue about why signals intelligence compensates for those problems if he feels that Weiner’s lack of interest in intelligence technology is a major issue. That’s an interesting disagreement, the kind of rising tide that floats all boats.

If this was a case of two scholars working in a field who basically had a friendly relationship, the kind of points that Weissman makes about Weiner’s work could be tossed off in a genial, collegial manner, even if there were some sharp needles buried underneath the cottony surface. Most of the time this is what happens in debates between colleagues who see themselves as part of the same field.

When you see this kind of adjectival intensity associated with such a relatively picayune point, one of two things is going on. One possibility is that there is a major analytic disagreement about the overall substance of a book, and both parties to that disagreement represent substantial schools of thought or factions with a long-running history of antagonism. I think that’s partly the case here.

Or the critic whose tone is mismatched to substance is a gatekeeper: someone accustomed to personal ownership of a given subject, to disciplinary ownership of a subject, or who is trying to keep non-academics off of turf perceived to be a scholarly monopoly. (Sometimes it’s as simple as one scholar who was planning to work on a subject trying to ruin the market value of a competitor’s work.) I think that’s part of what is going on in this exchange: Weiner’s being painted as a trespasser.

Gatekeeping happens a lot in academia, and it’s yet another reason that other professionals sometimes resent the professoriate. Generosity really does seem to me to be the best policy as a matter of professional ethos for scholars, for a whole host of reasons. If we really believe in knowledge production, we’re obligated to be generous and welcoming, and to try and disagree about the main substance of rivalrous works.

Gatekeeping often achieves its goals, however. I know that reading this exchange makes me feel very uncomfortable about what lies ahead for me in my next project, which is a general history of Africa in the Cold War. I’m especially interested in the history of intelligence, and Weissman’s book A Culture of Deference has already been a very valuable, interesting source for me. I’m very conscious that I’m an outsider moving into a heavily inhabited area of specialization. I’m hoping that’s the value I add to the subject, as a cultural and social historian whose usual methodology is wholly qualitative. Anyone who has been around academia long enough, however, knows what is likely to follow when an outsider moves into new territory which is heavily patrolled by intensely protective gatekeepers. Archives can be difficult to access, funding can be hard to come by, anonymous peer reviews will be brutal, and there are inevitably going to be conference panels in the future where bruising attacks will come from the floor. That is enough in many cases to deter scholars from crossing borders, to encourage them to stick to their own social networks and areas of established expertise.

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1 Response to Border Guards

  1. PreachyPreach says:

    I read the book last year – for me, although it was an eye-opener about what exactly the CIA has done, where I thought it was lacking was that it didn’t make any significant attempt to explain how and why exactly chinless non-entities with delusions of mediocrity have consistently over the past 70 years or so ended up in a position to effectively ignore restrictions on their power and activities…

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