Michael Lewis’s Case Against “Abroad”
The New Republic has an excellent piece by Michael Lewis about the sort of self-serious analysis of foreign affairs one finds in such journals as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy and, yes, the New Republic. (To TNR’s credit, Lewis is allowed to mention this: “How many articles in The New Republic on foreign policy do you remember? Me, none except an unintentionally funny one about rebuilding Israel on a reclaimed island in the Mediterranean.”) Lewis makes a very sophisticated case against a certain kind of sophistication — the “prestige of distance”; the deceptive allure of grand, abstract geopolitical theories; the dull, eat-your-vegetables prose:
If there is nothing under the sun that hasn’t been predicted by someone in Foreign Affairs it is because the price of guessing wrong is low and the rewards for guessing right are high. The global thinkers of the recent past who have enjoyed the greatest acclaim are not those who have been right but those who have been melodramatic. Being wrong by itself does not ensure success, of course. George Kennan was mainly right about the Soviet Union, for example. But everyone now knows that if you are able to make an outlandish prophecy about the globe, or some large part of it, plausible for just a little while, you will forever be treated with respect, as was Malthus….
Thus the other common trait of this sort of writing: the banality of its language. At first glance you wouldn’t expect it. If you had a Big Worldview to air you’d think you would want to serve it to the reader as a giant neon pink soufflé—for all the world to see. But reading the various global prophecies and analyses in prestigious journals is more like eating the hole of a doughnut….The telling detail goes unreported because no detail is observed. No detail is observed because the writer is not interested in what is right under his nose, assuming he actually ever gets his nose abroad….
The globe-thinker’s world is not the world around him. It is the world he sees down there from up here. His flight from one kind of idiocy takes him nearly full circle into another, into the small group of people who allow themselves to think of the world from above. The delusion of omniscience follows naturally.
The counterpart of this delusion of omniscience is a illusion of scale: stick the world “international” in front of anything and it seems to become more important.
Coming out of college in the early 1980s, I remember, you would ask some lucky person who had gotten admitted to the Harvard Business School or the Harvard Law School what he or she intended to do afterward, and invariably he or she would reply, “international finance,” or “international law.” I’m now almost sure that no college student really knew what was meant by international finance, and there wasn’t any international law that mattered. (I don’t think these people had the sea lanes in mind.)
What appealed was the notion of “international.” This collegiate internationalism was not the romantic, Byronic lust for foreign adventure—though there was some of that in the air, too—but the anti-romantic quest for importance. To be suspended between nations sounded portentous. The trick was to remain forever uprooted; to go home was an admission of failure. (Nevertheless, home clearly remained the reference point; people left it to see distant things, no doubt, but also to be seen from a distance.)