September 22, 2011 - Wong Auditorium, MIT - In 1967, as the Vietnam War escalated, Noam Chomsky penned The Responsibility of Intellectuals, a stunning rebuke to scientists and scholars for their subservience to political power. Today we face a similar array of crises, from wars to escalating debt. What are the obligations of intellectuals in this day and age? Introduction by Joshua Cohen.

Ideas Matter, a joint project of Boston Review and MIT’s Political Science Department, is a lecture series that brings our writers together with other experts and practitioners for substantive debate on the challenges of our times. The series, free and open to the public, will offer four events in the 2011—12 academic year.

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
William Blake, quoted by Co-editors Deb Chasman and Joshua Cohen in reference to this month’s New Democracy Forum with lead essay by Nobel Prize economist James Heckman on equality of opportunity and the accident of birth
Just a small (entirely anecdoctal) observation: I showed the Hedges article to my father, now 88, who fought in six major campaigns in WWII (including D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge). He LOVED the article. To be very clear: he was not responding to the issues about bottom quintile/top quintile, but about the success of the article in describing the utter horrors of combat and in puncturing efforts to describe it as something glorious, as anything but total hell. (Half the guys on his D-Day landing craft drowned before they got to the beach.)
BR Co-editor Joshua Cohen comments on Chris Hedges’s cover story, “War Is Betrayal" (Boston Review, July/August 2012).

The May/June Issue

From the Editors

review cover May/June 12

We’re excited to announce a new feature. Beginning with this issueBR will run a regular column by Claude Fischer, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Fischer is known for his work on social history, technology, inequality, and social networks. He’s also a powerful critic of fashionable ideas about trends in American social life reported in the mainstream media. His column, “Made in America,” will expose such claims to social scientific scrutiny.

In this issue Fischer examines the “culture of poverty” argument—the idea, now back in circulation, that the poor stay poor because of their values. The long-term poor are, Fischer observes, a very small group, and their values are best understood as adaptations to limited opportunities. The poor, to paraphrase Hemingway, are different from us because they don’t have much money. Correspondingly, the best policy is to expand opportunities, not to work on their values. (In a Web-only column, Fischer also challenges warnings—found in new books and the latest issue of The Atlantic—that technology is making Americans lonelier.)

Fischer’s column aligns closely with BR’s core mission: because ideas matter, they need to be taken seriously. And taking them seriously means testing them with fact and argument. Other articles in this issue are written in that same spirit.

In her moving autobiographical essay, Sandra Tanenbaum weighs in on the antidepressant wars. Both defenders of the drugs and opponents, she argues, are too focused on how people on average respond to medication, not enough on the experiences of individual patients. Anne Fausto-Sterling asks whether genetics research is the best way to address health problems that seem to correspond to race. And Glenn Loury subjects the legacy of James Q. Wilson to searching criticism. Wilson’s ideas about crime and policing had a powerful impact on our criminal justice system—powerful and profoundly damaging.

In every issue of the magazine, we test ideas with a debate. This issue’s forum focuses on the limits of markets. Leading it off, political philosopher Michael Sandel observes that our market system offers just about everything at a price, from wedding toasts to kidneys to college admission. But the spread of markets to all areas of life may crowd out moral virtues worth caring about.

At the heart of Sandel’s argument is the idea that markets are not simply efficient tools for achieving goals. They embody values. And the question we face—ultimately a political and philosophical question—is whether we think that those values ought to govern our lives.

Deborah Chasman & Joshua Cohen

BR Co-Editor Joshua Cohen on Mobile Tech and Global Development in Kenya

Stanford GSB: How can academic research best be used to help alleviate poverty in the developing world?

Joshua Cohen: It’s easy to think that, with the right technology or the right design method, we can solve lots of problems. I think that view is seriously misguided. In our course, all of our projects are relationship intensive. We have worked hard to build partnerships at the University of Nairobi, where we now have friends and colleagues. And we have also worked hard to build collaborations with the Nairobi-based organizations that make it possible for our students to do these projects. Our idea is that if we can build and strengthen these ties, maybe we can help the organizations address challenges they have not yet been able to tackle. In the end, the projects will only work if they are owned by the partner organizations. You have to approach these issues with lots of humility, with an appreciation of why the challenges are so hard to overcome, how the best intentions go astray, how important it is to be persistent and committed, and how essential it is to increase the capacity of existing organizations, which are filled with smart, serious, dedicated people.

From an interview of BR's Joshua Cohen by Stanford's Graduate School of Business