U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading

Since I’m stuck between several posting ideas, I decided to split the middle with another edition of “Light Reading.”

1. Hidden in the ongoing debate about AP credits and student progress towards college graduation are deeper questions about the meaning of a college degree and university life in general. My frustration boiled over in a long comment to the linked InsideHigherEd article by David Moltz. Those who care about the current and future prospects for U.S. intellectual life should see something of their concerns in debates about the AP program.

2. I’ve been following Britannica Blog for well over a year now. I love their tagline: “Where Ideas Matter.” They host 5-6 posts a day covering history, politics, the arts, etc. I was thoroughly invested in their recent 12-post forum on the Great books—instigated by Alex Beam’s recent book, A Great Idea at the Time. However, Brent Baker‘s ongoing series, Liberal Media Bias (The Worst of the Week), is the least attractive, most obviously slanted post series at Britannica Blog. In a comment on today’s post I express my displeasure. According to Britannica Blog’s “Principles and Guidelines” page, it seems to me that Baker comes close to breaking #6: “Nothing that would offend most reasonable people.” Any reasonable person observing the news today has to see that the “liberal media bias” myth is just that. It’s a relic of the 1970s-1990s phase of the Culture Wars. I don’t mean to deny the existence of “liberal media.” Rather, it’s just not the case in 2009 that one has no alternative. A reasonable person today might even persuasively argue that the U.S. media has taken a fairly strong turn to the right. Anyway, it’s disappointing to me that Britannica Blog is helping perpetuate a date, dishonest myth about the U.S. media.

3. Here’s a celebratory obituary/retrospective on John Patrick Diggins by USC professor emeritus Ronald Steel. The pieces comes from The New Republic. Aside: Someone needs to write an intellectual history of “political correctness.” Speaking philosophically, if political correctness is a bad thing, then what that implies is some significant portion political discourse is dishonest or disconnected. It also implies that a democracy where political correctness is prominent is also sick. Can any democracy survive where its citizens believe that reality is one thing and political discourse another?

4. Eric Kaufman evaluates Samuel Huntington as part of the intellectual elite of the United States. I didn’t know a lot about Huntington before reading Kaufman’s piece, but Huntington appears to have similarities with Diggins in that the former was seen sometimes as a liberal and at other times as conservative.

5. This January 29 Reuters article by Claudia Parsons outlines the need for a solid history of business ethics focused on late twentieth-century America. Here are some passages of interest (links and bolds mine):

Alex Brigham, executive director of The Ethisphere Institute think tank, said many companies paid lip-service to corporate ethics and compliance [over the last dozen years or so], maintaining such departments but sidelining them in major decisions.

Brigham said that at crippled insurance giant AIG (AIG.N), rescued with $150 billion of U.S. taxpayer funds after bad mortgage bets nearly bankrupt it, Joseph Cassano, then head of AIG Financial Products, kicked the company’s compliance officer out of key meetings.

Brigham last month launched the “Business Ethics Leadership Alliance,” inviting corporations to commit themselves to a set of ethical standards and pledge to follow both “the letter and spirit” of the law to curb illegal behaviour.

Companies that have signed up and will submit themselves to Ethisphere’s audit include PepsiCo (PEP.N), Wal-Mart Stores (WMT.N), Dell (DELL.O), General Electric (GE.N) and United Airlines, owned by UAL (UAUA.O)

Ethisphere has ranked major companies on their ethical standards for the past three years, and Brigham said there was a marked correlation between ones that had a strong commitment to ethics and transparency, and strong financial results.

In the financial sector, he said three victims of the banking blood bath — Wachovia, Washington Mutual and Countrywide — received low scores, while relatively strong survivors, HSBC 005.HK (HSBA.L) and Standard Chartered (STAN.L), scored highly on transparency and ethics. …

“Executive compensation … sourcing, labour, unions, producing quality products, deceptive marketing, pricing, packaging — these are all fundamental concerns of consumers and the public, but very rarely addressed by ethics and compliance types,” he said [—“he” meaning Steve Priest, president of Ethical Leadership Group, a consulting firm that has worked with 50 of the biggest U.S. companies and firms in 40 other countries.]

Priest said people were always quick to blame greed in every scandal, but “greed is part of the fuel of the capitalist system. We’re never going to see a time when individuals or businesses all behave ethically and responsibly.”

I think Parsons successfully outlines some of the major themes that would be involved in an intellectual history of business ethics covering the 1980-2010 period.

– TL