I’ve written here before about the question of expertise, especially as it relates to places like Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. This is a subject that, much to the chagrin of my friends, I think and talk about a fair amount. The question of expertise is a large one with many manifestations, from the contemporary NGO industry to 20th century decision-making in Egypt, but since this is the internet, I usually find myself griping about “expertise” in the media, which I generally consume online.
In the last couple of years, I’ve started getting put on a lot of email lists through this blog — everything from the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington to PR firms to US senate campaigns. (By the by, the latest press release from Caracas’s man in Washington tells me that Venezuela has decided to cancel Haiti’s debt, and so good on them.) Lately, I’ve been getting emails from a certain PR firm pitching expertise on a wide range of issues, such as:
- “extremist ‘Islamitization’ of Africa in Kenya and Zimbabwe”
- “battles between the Saudi Arabian coalition and Iranian coalition”
- “the FBI Terrorist Arrests Linked to Zazi”
- “Haiti quake and disaster relief”
- “Afghanistan and Taliban negotiations”
What’s interesting is that the expertise they’ve been hawking is that of a single person, a certain “right wing political analyst and human rights attorney” who previously served as an adviser for Mitt Romney and now works at Robertson’s response to the ACLU: Jordan Sekulow. According to Wikipedia, he was born in 1982 and has just graduated from Pat Robertson’s law school. Now, I don’t know anything about Sekulow except for what his PR agents routinely send to me and what it says on Wikipedia. Maybe he’s a really smart and well-read guy, but I fail to see how a twenty-something with a professional degree can be an expert on much of anything, not to mention Haiti, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Kenya, counter-terrorism, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Oh, and Obama and the Supreme Court. (Incidentally, I imagine that those like Sekulow who think Obama’s comments on the recent Supreme Court ruling are “inappropriate” probably haven’t read Roosevelt’s swipe at the court in his 1937 State of the Union Address.)
I don’t know Sekulow and don’t mean to pick on him here, but he’s symptomatic of a larger problem that is running rampant in the American media. His case even goes further than I thought by introducing an even more disconcerting aspect to the issue: the fact that so-called “experts” are being represented by PR firms to shore up opportunities for them to expound on whatever the topic of the day is.
I’d be curious to know who’s paying for Sekulow’s public relations. Is it his employer, or is this an initiative that he’s taken upon himself? In any case, this illustrates how in today’s media environment, expertise has ceased to be in-depth knowledge of a subject, becoming instead a talking-point commodity that needs to be advertised and peddled like fake Rolex watches or ginsu knives but which has little or nothing to do with any actual understanding of the place or issue ostensibly being discussed.