Jeff Weintraub is a social and political theorist, political sociologist and democratic socialist, currently teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. His peripatetic academic career, due mostly to a persistent writer's block, has also taken him to Harvard, the University of California in San Diego, the European University in Florence, Williams College, and Bryn Mawr. His work includes co-editing Public and Private in Thought and Practice, being the author of an embarrassingly well known not-quite-finished book on Freedom and Community, and co-authoring several pieces in socio-cultural developmental psychology with his wife, Ageliki Nicolopoulou, who is at Lehigh University. Jeff blogs at Jeff Weintraub.
Why do you blog? > I sometimes like to think that, at its best, the blogosphere is the closest equivalent we have to the old eighteenth century Republic of Letters. (Whether this is an optimistic or a pessimistic observation is another matter.) It's a way of carrying on extended conversations and debates in an age when few of us write the kinds of letters, pamphlets or polemical essays they used to write so fluently in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. I never quite intended to be a blogger, actually. I slid into it by degrees. It started with long, dense email arguments I had with various people about political questions, above all the Iraq war. Then I gradually found myself sending out items regularly to a longer and longer list of email recipients. Along the way some bloggers, including Norman Geras, generously invited me to tidy up some of my messages and guest-post them on their blogs. Other recipients began to press me to stop being a virtual blogger and just set up a blog, since this would make it easier to find previous items and to forward items to others. I was hesitant to do this - partly because I was afraid it would suck up all my time, rather than just too much - but I finally had to concede that they had a point. I suppose that, like most bloggers, my main reasons for blogging combine the illusion that I have something to say with the pressing sense that certain things need saying.
What has been your best blogging experience? > My best experience so far came before I had a formal blog of my own - getting involved in the struggle to repeal the AUT blacklist of Israeli academics in the spring of 2005. I wrote a lot of emails, helped prod some academic associations in the US into issuing condemnations of the blacklist, posted various things on other people's blogs, and set up an online petition that wound up getting over 5,000 signatures from around the world. In the end, the forces of good triumphed (for the moment), and it was satisfying to have played a part in the process. I suppose this was also an introduction to the possible practical uses of the blogosphere.
What has been your worst blogging experience? > Letting a friend of mine, who unlike me is an Alpha Blogger, post part of an email exchange between us on his blog. Taken out of context that way, what I was saying didn't really make sense to his readers, so instead of serious disagreement they responded with incomprehension, misinterpretation, and a lot of silly vituperation. It was depressing - but also a useful lesson.
What would be your main blogging advice to a novice blogger? > Think twice before getting sucked into it.
What are your favourite blogs? > What's most illuminating about the question is that I can't really answer it quickly and straightforwardly. That's partly because I look for different things from different blogs, so the answer depends on where my interests and attention are directed at the moment. And it's partly because blog-surfing shades off for me into reading articles, essays, and columns on the web (though some columnists are becoming bloggers, too). I guess if I were forced to list the three blogs that I visit most frequently and/or with the greatest interest right now, they would be the (unofficial) Christopher Hitchens web-page, Juan Cole's Informed Comment (with which I don't always agree), and (honesty compels me to say) normblog.
Who are your intellectual heroes? > My major intellectual heroes are nineteenth century social and political thinkers like Weber, Durkheim, and Tocqueville. Among contemporaries, the name that comes most immediately to mind is Kanan Makiya.
What are you reading at the moment? > Re-reading Mark Mazower's Salonica.
What is the best novel you've ever read? > It may sound strange to say this, but somehow no other novel I've read has ever matched the quiet but concentrated force of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier.
What is your favourite poem? > Yeats's 'The Second Coming'.
What is your favourite movie? > I'd have to name two very different movies, both of which I've seen more than 15 times. One is Inagaki's version of Chushingura, the classic Japanese story of the loyal samurai who avenged the death of their lord. The sensibility of this movie is pervaded by a deep sympathy for Japanese traditional society, and for the samurai ethos in particular, and Inagaki manages to work this into an epic of almost Tolstoyan sweep. The other is the remarkable, multi-layered, still under-appreciated one-time cult classic released in 1970, Performance, directed by Donald Cammell, filmed by Nicholas Roeg, starring James Fox as Chas and Mick Jagger as Turner.
What is your favourite song? > It would have to be a song of Bob Dylan's. Right now I would say 'Visions of Johanna'.
Who is your favourite composer? > Beethoven.
Can you name a major moral, political or intellectual issue on which you've ever changed your mind? > Around the time I started college, I was a radical and comprehensive relativist. Over time, I came to realize that this position is incoherent and pernicious - but also that finding an entirely solid and convincing alternative position isn't easy.
What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to disseminate? > That humans are fundamentally social animals, and that society and social phenomena are not simply reducible to individual phenomena, but constitute (as Durkheim put it) 'a reality sui generis'. That may sound like two theses, but they're inseparable and add up to a single orienting vision.
What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to combat? > That human beings are simply determined by external forces and have no capacity to act independently, creatively, and responsibly - either individually or collectively.
Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major and lasting influence on how you think about the world? > I have re-read Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation many times and learned many things from it. But I recall that when I first read it four decades ago, I really understood for the first time that unfreedom doesn't only take the form of being dominated by other individuals, but can also involve being in the grip of an uncontrolled system. Some people learn this from Marx, some from other thinkers and/or experiences. I think I first learned it from Polanyi.
Who are your political heroes? > They've changed over the years. Right now my list would start with Abraham Lincoln. Somewhere along the line, it would include Tony Blair.
What is your favourite piece of political wisdom? > Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely - but powerlessness is also corrupting. (Though he never puts it quite that way, this is a central theme of Tocqueville's.)
If you could choose anyone, from any walk of life, to be President, who would you choose? > I wish we could elect Tony Blair as US President.
What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world? > Hard to choose, since there are so many. But I guess the most frightening single threat is the prospect of an uncontrolled epidemic proliferation of nuclear weapons. Somehow it hasn't happened yet, but it's hard to believe our luck will hold indefinitely.
What would be your most important piece of advice about life? > It turns out that Freud was right - in the end, it comes down to love and work.
Do you think you could ever be married to, or in a long-term relationship with, someone with radically different political views from your own? > Probably not.
Do you have any prejudices you're willing to acknowledge? > When people mention some fashionable terms or ideas in the course of making an argument, such as 'orientalism' or 'rational choice' or 'essentialism', I confess that I sometimes have to make an effort not to simply shut off further consideration and just dismiss the rest of what they're saying. I try to remind myself that not all arguments which include these catch-phrases are necessarily absurd or fraudulent, and some may even be worth taking seriously.
What is your favourite proverb? > I'm not sure I have a single favourite proverb, but my favourite proverbial image is probably re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic - something I see people doing all the time.
What, if anything, do you worry about? > Lots of things, large and small. For myself, one persistent worry is that I will wind up having lived my life without ever having accomplished anything great or distinguished.
What would you call your autobiography? > Better Late Than Never?
Where would you most like to live (other than where you do)? > Berkeley, California. Both my wife and I were graduate students there - at different times - and like most people who are forced to leave the place, we've never quite given up the fantasy of returning some day.
What do you like doing in your spare time? > Reading.
What talent would you most like to have? > Learning foreign languages easily.
What would be your ideal choice of alternative profession or job? > Job? Ideally, I'd like to be an independent intellectual (which I suppose would require an independent income).
If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true, what would you wish for? > I'd like to be less neurotic about writing.
[The normblog profile is a weekly Friday morning feature. A list of all the profiles to date, and the links to them, can be found here.]