Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Memorializing Robert Silvers

As a reader of The New York Review for more decades than I recall, I did not have to be reminded of the significant role that Robert Silvers played in editing the content of that "paper," as he called it. Indeed, I had mixed feeling about reading all the memorial encomiums in the latest issue, even when they were by some of my favorite contributors. Nevertheless, one sentence by Zadie Smith struck me as worth singling out of attention:
He [Silvers] was even a little suspicious of formal academic expertise, at least it came at the price of a readable sentence.
This may be the best diagnosis of the current backlash against expertise that I have encountered thus far. Yes, Michael Gove was probably on to something when he declared, "We've had enough of experts;" but, like many who make such sweeping generalizations, he could not distinguish the baby from the bathwater. Rather, he was incorrectly generalizing expertise as the work of a "great expert, primarily for the edification of other great experts," as Anna Russell put it in making fun of rabid Wagner fans. Indeed, the last time I invoked Russell's turn of phrase was in a reaction to a full-page advertisement by the Harvard University Press (in The New York Review, no less) touting the number of "experts" they had published.

On the other hand, it is hard to avoid the feeling that, while I believe in the "readable sentence" as much as Silvers and Smith do/did, it is hard to avoid feeling that it is an endangered species. Ultimately, it is being driven to extinction by the proliferation of tweets, suggesting that the Darwinian process may be as applicable to mindsets as it is to organisms. Put another way, we now live in a world in which our very resources of information, broadcast media as well as the Internet, no longer required the "readable sentence" as a useful too for communication. Indeed, those who even care about "readable sentences" are probably, themselves, doomed to extinction over the next decade or so. How else are we to explain the dangerous expressions of extremism that we encounter wherever we choose to look, even at the ballot box?

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