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My Thesis Defense

I'm sure everyone is more than tired of my Obama-thesis musings, which were out of proportion to the importance of the issue the first time through, and are preposterously so now that I'm on take three. But since it's a lazy, largely news-less, Friday, and since two people I like and admire have blogged about my comments, I thought, what the hell. Why not weigh in again?

First, in response to my surprise that Obama couldn't remember his thesis topic, Ed Kilgore writes:

I'm not sure exactly how old Noam is, but I suspect his senior thesis was written a lot more recently than Obama's, while my own Emory senior thesis was submitted (and was promptly destroyed, more than likely) much earlier than either. And all I really remember with any specificity is that I decided I had to reinterpret the history of Western Thought at least back to the Nominalists and Realists in order to explain the prose works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Even today, I cringe with embarassment every time I hear a reference to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Fair enough--and I appreciate Ed's (totally appropriate) levity. Then again... this is kind of my point. I didn't expect Obama to recite the first ten citations in his bibliography. Just to remember the general topic. Ed, who is older than either me or Obama, gives a far more detailed description of his own senior thesis than I was looking for.

Relatedly, Matt Yglesias writes that:

When I was in college, I wrote a senior thesis. It was even, in a sense, on a politically relevant topic having to do with John Rawls' Political Liberalism. You might think that if you really wanted to understand what I thought about certain political issues you'd need to dig up that paper to gain some insights. But realistically, insofar as I can recall what the thesis said (I don't have a copy, but I believe it's in the university archives) it says stuff I don't believe anymore. If you really want to gain additional insights into what Matt Yglesias thinks about the issues, you should probably read my frequently updated blog.

Similarly, if you want to know what Barack Obama thinks about arms control you should listen to his speeches about arms control, look at his record in the United States Senate, and perhaps look at the stated views of some of his close associates on these matters. Just like the secret key to understanding John McCain's foreign policy views is to read the various major foreign policy speeches his given over his past ten years' worth of presidential campaigning and, again, look at the record and stated views of his associates. Journalists pride themselves on their sleuthing abilities -- trying to find new information and bring it into the public record -- but when you're talking about public officials the odds are that the most important information about their character and their policies is going to be the stuff that's already a matter of public record. An old college paper is just an old college paper.

I think this reflects a difference in the kind of journalism Matt and I do. Matt writes about politics primarily through the prism of policy. If that's what you do, then obviously what you care about is ascertaining a candidate's views on a particular issue, in which case a thesis written twenty-five years ago isn't especially relevant.

I write about politics through the prism of policy, too, but also through the prism of biography*, sociology, etc. (I'm not saying one genre is preferable to the other--they're both completely legitimate.)

So, for example, I might write a piece about how a candidate's foreign policy views have evolved over the last 25 years--I think that tells you something important about their capacity for growth, how they assimilate new ideas, who their intellectual influences are, and, therefore, how they might further evolve--whereas Matt cares most about where they are today.* Now, if I were writing such a story, I certainly wouldn't build it around a candidate's college thesis. But it would clearly be a relevant data point.

*Please don't confuse "biography" with the dread "personality" or "character." I agree that political journalists focus too much on vague notions like personality. And the focus is invariably arbitrary and often favors Republicans, who are better at defining opponents as out-of-touch elitists on totally flimsy grounds.  

Update: A commenter asks: "Do you think he's lying about not remembering?" No, not really. At least he probably wasn't at the time. (He would be if he gave the same answer today.) I think Obama probably could have figured it out if he'd thought about it for a minute or two, but it wasn't really in his interest to do that--just more potential gotcha-fodder--so he didn't. 

Also, it's interesting that, despite all the complaints about how trivial this discussion is, my original item was our fourth most-viewed post of the week--out of 40. Not that those two things are incompatible (trivial topics often generate a lot of interest). But I think this topic kind of crystallizes a lot of people's feelings about campaign coverage generally.  

--Noam Scheiber