Understanding the career of a counter-intellectual
By now, some of you will have heard of the “Twitter Files,” while for others, the news will have been suppressed. No matter; the truth will out. But for anyone who has no idea what I’m talking about, check out:
or if you don’t have Twitter:
Now, I’m an academic social scientist, and like many of my colleagues and students, I revel in speaking truth to power. The secret to understanding the strange course of my heterodox path, however, is to realize that I revel in speaking unpopular truths to popular powers. And so when I wrote a short book about populism called The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts, it wasn’t to join in the near-universal academic assault on Donald Trump, or to defend the most powerful man in the world against those attacks. It was to speak the truth about a thoroughly marginalized group — the Trump electorate — to a powerful elite: the global intellectual establishment.
A simple principle behind all of my academic work is the belief that right is right and wrong is wrong, regardless of who is right or wrong. Whatever you may think of Donald Trump, and whatever you may think of his behavior after the 2020 election, it was wrong of Twitter to suppress the truth in the interest of preventing his reelection. It was wrong of the global intellectual establishment to marginalize Trump supporters. And it was wrong of so many American states to bend (or break) their own election laws in an attempt to give one party as much advantage as possible without violating the overarching framework of the US Constitution. It was also wrong of Trump not to graciously accept his defeat, but graciously or not, it should be remembered that he did accept it. January 6 was a protest, but it was not a coup.
Since August (and especially since November), I’ve been on the receiving end of many allegations that I’ve swapped Donald Trump for Narendra Modi. In August, I published an article exposing the many errors and (frankly) lies behind India’s international democracy rankings:
and in November I gave an interview at the India Today Conclave defending the results of that paper:
As with my Trump book, the main goal of my writing on Indian democracy has been to speak truth to popular: to tell the global intellectual establishment that it can’t present its own political views as objective social science and get away with it. It should be even more obvious with regard to Modi than it was with regard to Trump that I have no particular connection to the leader in question. I’m not Indian; I’m not Hindu; I have no horse in this race. But right is right and wrong is wrong, regardless of who is right or wrong — even in India.
I have many colleagues who pride themselves in standing up for subaltern, Third World, organically non-Western viewpoints. Well, if that doesn’t describe the Modi phenomenon, I don’t know what does. But in any case that doesn’t matter for me: I don’t pride myself in speaking for the voiceless. India is a democracy, and its people can speak for themselves. I’m not speaking for India, or for Modi. To use the local term of art: I’m not a “Modi-bhakt.” I’m a truth-bhakt, even when the truth is unpopular among my own social class. If I can be forgiven a bit of personal pride: especially when the truth is unpopular among my own social class.
For anyone who thinks that my interest in India has come out of nowhere … I’ve been studying India since co-authoring a 2017 book on the BRICS economies, and intensively studying India since 2020, when I started research for a book on Indian democracy. India is fascinating for being a truly extraordinary example of democratic success. For anyone who thinks that Indian democracy has been “in danger” since the election of Narendra Modi in 2014, let me disaggregate the proposition: we all seem to agree that India was a truly extraordinary example of democratic success until 2014, and I’m happy to argue that any alleged deterioration since 2014 has been wildly overstated. So the country would still be worth studying, if only to understand how it was so successful up until 2014. Anyone who disagrees, please let me know why.
We academics live privileged lives, insulated in our ivory towers from the vicissitudes of popular opinion. We can use that privilege to promote our own parochial opinions, and in the absense of any meaningful oversight, we can get away with it. We can use the “peer” review process to insist that other academics toe the class line, and get away with it. We can, pretty much, do whatever we want, and almost always get away with it. But why should we? Isn’t academic freedom there, not to be abused, but to be used? I’m proud to use it, and if my colleagues want to vilify me for that, I’m happy to be a class traitor. I never much liked my social class in the first place.
But to all the academics, intellectuals, and media professionals who believe that the means justify the ends: they don’t. If you hate Trump, campaign against him. If you hate Modi, do the same. But no, claiming to serve a deeper truth doesn’t justify a lie. If Elon Musk hadn’t bought Twitter, none of us would know (for sure) about Big Tech’s outrageous interference in the 2020 elections; such claims would be relegated to the realm of conspiracy theory, and suppressed by Big Tech itself. If I hadn’t done some basic forensic research into the international democracy rankings, no one would know (for sure) about the mendacity of the expert panels that inform them. Don’t blame Elon (or me) for bringing lies to light. As the Washington Post likes to say, democracy dies in darkness.
To all those who have supported Twitter and Big Tech censorship for the last three years, and called for even more censorship in the future, let me quote Jewel Kilcher, a true organic intellectual if ever there was one:
Who will save your souls?
After all those lies that you told;
Who will save your souls?
If you won't save your own?
Yes, all of us who have tenured positions insulated from public oversight can lie and get away with it. We can tell ourselves that we’re lying for a good cause, or even that we’re not lying at all. But that’s just plain wrong. We should tell the truth, even when it contradicts our own opinions. Especially when it contradicts our opinions.
Thanks for reading, and remember: the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.