Posted by: sean | November 21, 2008

Wonking out, or wanking off?

The name of this post on Somali piracy by Yglesias really annoys me. I’m sorry, but browsing the ICG page for the horn of Africa and Enough’s page on Somalia doesn’t make one a wonk on piracy or the political affairs of the Horn. So despite his post’s title, Yglesias is not “wonking out” on anything here, he’s voicing a vague idea he has about an area of the world he knows very little about. Which would be fine, if he weren’t telling us that he’s a Somalia wonk in the same breath.

This is a common theme in the blogosphere today. Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s great that people like Yglesias bring up issues like Somali piracy that don’t get enough coverage, but I’m just annoyed by the word “wonk” being thrown around all the time. From his entry, I can move on over to the Wonk room, or I can cool my heels at Ezra Klein’s blog, where he tells us, while Cool James no doubt cringes: “Mama said wonk you out.”

Give me a break, guys. I think you’re letting stories like this one go to your head. (By the by, I don’t know anyone who would seriously compare Klein and Yglesias with Isaiah Berlin.) Sure you seem like smart guys, but if you want to “wonk out” on Somali pirates, why don’t you go do a couple years of doctoral research on Somali clan structures or maritime conflict or international piracy law?

I think it’s great when people are intellectually curious. I like the fact that I know a little bit about the literature of Argentina and ethnic tensions in Uzbekistan. But to pretend that I’m an expert on, or even exceptionally well read in, either of these areas would be intellectually dishonest, even though I’ve read a ton of Borges and have spent some time in Samarkand. It’s one thing to fire off a blog post or two or make a good impression at a cocktail party. It’s quite another to sew myself a merit badge of wonk.

Postscript: This post should not be construed to mean that I don’t enjoy reading the above-mentioned blogs. I do. The Wonk Room’s Matt Duss, in particular, has many interesting things to say. Also, for an example of a blog that I think really is wonky, check out Balkinization.



  1. […] in The Economist in an article about Isaiah Berlin and the role of the public intellectual. As I’ve said before, it’s hard for me to imagine how anyone could compare Berlin with people like Ezra Klein or […]

  2. […] by a lot of the talk about Yemen lately, because, as we’ve already seen in the past with Somalia, it’s become a topic du jour. This means that lots of people who don’t know much more […]

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