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Political Scientist Dominic Tierney on Communicating Global Politics to a Public Audience

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Associate Professor of Political Science Dominic Tierney discussed how he communicates global issues to a public audience during his Second Tuesday Café talk. The series, which is sponsored by the Aydelotte Foundation and held in Kohlberg Hall’s Scheuer Room, is in the midst of year-long focus on how faculty engage in collaborative research across the world to analyze global issues, address global problems and consider globalization’s impact in the arts.

Tierney gave tips ranging from writing op-ed to how to deal with angry comments on an article. He explained how being a public intellectual is one of many ways to be a scholar here at Swarthmore. He urges professors to go out and speak intelligently about politics to end superficiality and take advantage of the knowledge that they possess.

“We do have to be realistic of course about what kind of influence we're going to have. Some professors get frustrated because they can't change American foreign policy overnight," says Tierney. "But why should we be able to, right? American foreign policy is representing a country of hundreds of millions of people. It's like a huge tanker that's going to be very slow to turn around. Even Trump has limited influence over American foreign policy, but nevertheless you can as a public writer have a meaningful impact."

Tierney is associate professor of political science, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and a contributing editor at The Atlantic.

Audio Transcript:

Carina Yervasi: So good afternoon and bon appétit. I am Carina Yervasi, in French and francophone studies. I'm also the interim program coordinator in black studies for this year. Ayse Kaya in political science, who's on maternity leave who could not be here today, but she and I both welcome you to the Second Tuesday Aydelotte Café.

Carina Yervasi: I always begin these events by offering some thanks. As always, I thank the Aydelotte Foundation and Tim Burke, Rachel Buurma, and Pam Shropshire for helping us launch this. I also wanna thank my faculty colleagues because since our Aydelotte Café series talk, my colleagues voted to approve a new interdisciplinary program in global studies that Ayse and I will be running, thank you, next year. Yeah, we're very excited, so thank you, colleagues. And thanks to everyone across the campus who helped us put that together.

Carina Yervasi: In fact, this series came out of all of those conversations that we had with faculty staff across departments and across divisions. Ayse and I really felt that this Aydelotte forum would be a great way for us to explore the issues around the global. In particular, listening to colleagues when we talked about this idea of a global studies program, how they in fact do the work of the global every day on this campus. It's been our great pleasure to pull together this group of speakers, and to have them talk about their discipline, their research, their work, and their thoughts on global research, global Swarthmore research across the borders.

Carina Yervasi: It seems appropriate today, one week post election and one day post Veteran's Day, that we introduce a discussion through the optic of political science. So today's talk "Communicating Global Issues to a Public Audience" is with Professor Dominic Tierney, a Political Science Professor and contributing writer to the Atlantic. As a Swarthmore professor and a public intellectual, Professor Tierney straddles several public worlds in his research and writing.

Carina Yervasi: Just as a short anecdote to introduce him, I wanna say that I remember meeting him when he started at Swarthmore, but I actually could not tell you when or where that was, but I do remember listening to him speak about his first book, "How We Fight," in an interview with NPR's Marty Moss-Coane, as I said, in the Hicks parking lot one day back in 2011, taking up the parking spot of someone else. I apologize, maybe you're here.

Carina Yervasi: But it was also the fact that because both of my brothers, my father, and both of my grandfathers, have fought in European and American wars since World War I. Yes, my paternal grandfather did fight in World War I. I was fascinated by his discussion of an American way of fighting and imagining war.

Carina Yervasi: Since then, I have followed with interest and sometimes just curiosity his work on American foreign policy, in particular his take on America's presence and perceived presence in the world. In many cases, these are articles that Professor Tierney has written that are online that I forward to friends and family, and sometimes to colleagues. What I've always appreciated about his work is his accessibility to readers of all stripes.

Carina Yervasi: Today, his talk will focus on this particular kind of writing, to mass audience, about global issues that the United States faces. As he says himself, a quote-unquote foreign observer of the US and its place in the world, Professor Tierney in fact showcases a particular kind of embracing or implementation of intercultural communication that Ayse and I have been very interested in, in terms of thinking about global studies. But he's sort of implementing this as he navigates writing and communicating as a public intellectual in our new era of American politics.

Carina Yervasi: So, just one other thing to mention. He is an expert in international politics, again, with a particular interest in US foreign policy, public opinion, and war, and broader issues around international security. His latest book is "The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts," which came out in 2015.

Carina Yervasi: So I ask you to help me in welcoming Professor Tierney.

Prof. Tierney: Thank you so much for that extremely kind introduction, Carina, and congratulations on global studies.

Carina Yervasi: Thank you.

Prof. Tierney: Very near and dear to my heart. And thank you to the Aydelotte Foundation, and everyone else involved with these terrific events.

Prof. Tierney: I'm gonna discuss today communicating world politics, world issues to a public audience, especially an American audience. I've written a column for the Atlantic for a few years. I've also written for New York Times and a few other venues, and been on television and radio a few times.

Prof. Tierney: The way I'm gonna talk about this is firstly start out with the challenges of trying to reach a broader audience as a professor, and then the opportunities, and the reasons to attempt to do that despite some of the challenges. And then hopefully we can have a little bit of a discussion.

Prof. Tierney: Let me just work through some of the challenges, the first is that the media is extremely short term in its horizons. Media interests tends to operate like a wave that rises suddenly and then just crashes. You see this with say Ebola, right? Or even ISIS, no one's talking about ISIS even though we're facing critical issues about the post-caliphate era in the Middle East. Zika, all of these things.

Prof. Tierney: Now this is not a new issue, of course, I'm sure at the time of the Salem witches there was the same rise and crash in media interest. But it does, I think it is getting a lot worse in the age of Twitter and social media. What this means is as a writer, if you're pitching op-ed articles, you have to move quickly. You have to move extremely quickly.

Prof. Tierney: As professors, we like to ruminate, think about things for a day or two. I'm afraid that is too long. There have been times where I have pitched an article 48 hours after the event happened, and had editors say that things have moved on. Instead, the best time to pitch an article is two hours after the event happens with an aim to submit the 800 to 1,000 word piece about say in the next 12 hours. That guarantees you, or nearly guarantees you, that say the Atlantic will not only publish it, but will make it their lead article on the whole website, increasing your readership by tenfold or so.

Prof. Tierney: You might be thinking, "How on earth can people do that without writing nonsense?" Well, one option is to write nonsense. But the other key tactic, I would encourage you if you're thinking of doing this, is basically to have prewritten op-eds. At least some of the key ideas, obviously not the whole thing. Then you can sort of frame with the event, and then it's ready to go quickly. That's the tactic you're almost forced to do.

Prof. Tierney: The second problem of public engagement is superficiality. I've been on CNN several times to discuss the crisis in Syria. I often get three to four minutes. That's less time than the commercials. It's absolutely absurd. Some venues are better than others, mentioned Marty Moss-Coane. If you go on Radio Times, if you've ever had a chance to do that, you get an hour to discuss an issue. That is just incredible. You can really do a deep dive. So some venues are much better.

Prof. Tierney: The third problem that I wanna mention is that public engagement is not highly valued at many universities in the United States. Especially at big research universities. It's actually dangerous to write too many op-eds, or be too involved in the public realm, especially before tenure. It may well sabotage your tenure file if you are too engaged.

Prof. Tierney: In political science, for instance, there has been a shift over time toward ever more sophisticated, methodological approaches, ever more quantitative approaches. In some ways that's terrific and represents progress in the discipline and greater rigor, but it does mean that PhD students trying to get jobs have incentives to do highly methodologically sophisticated work rather than big political questions that we're dealing with on a global stage.

Prof. Tierney: Now, interestingly, at liberalized colleges that doesn't apply to the same extent. There's a much greater appreciation of the life of a scholar in a kind of a broader way. That would include public engagement, it's obviously not the only way to be a scholar here at Swarthmore, but it's one way. Swarthmore encourages interdisciplinary approaches, for example, which again is an important part of being a public intellectual.

Prof. Tierney: A problem I wanna touch on is that universities have less influence in the public realm than they used to, or at least that's my conjecture. I'm always struck when [inaudible 00:10:08] go back and look at America's historical wars because up to a few decades ago, it used to be a big deal if a university president weighed in on a big pressing national issue. If there was letter in the New York Times by the president of Harvard on a war or crisis, that was a big deal. I think that that's not quite true today.

Prof. Tierney: For instance, when college professors run for political office, I notice that their opponents, who are usually Republicans, will publicly label them as liberal college professor. "My liberal college professor opponent," right? Now, they would never mention the profession of their opponent if their opponent was say a veteran and from the military, or even say a physician, or various other occupations, you just don't mention. But they are labeled liberal college professors.

Prof. Tierney: What we've ended up with is a small number of conservatives at think thanks have a great deal of influence, and a huge number of liberal professors have relatively little influence. Now, interestingly, and this is somewhat provocative, but I think it's true. One reason for the decline in national influence of universities is that there are so few conservative professors.

Prof. Tierney: As a result, it is easy to dismiss opinions emanating from universities and from colleges as liberal bias, and therefore something that doesn't need to be taken as seriously. If let's say the number of conservative professors at Swarthmore now swelled to, let's say, 20 or 30% of the total, it's probably much less than that at the moment, I suspect that liberal professors would have more influence in the national debate.

Prof. Tierney: Even if you're only goal was to advance the progressive project, it would actually make sense to get more conservative voices on campus. I think it would give liberals more influence.

Prof. Tierney: So the fifth problem with wading into the arena is you have to be ready for some pretty harsh criticism. Now I stopped reading the comments section at the Atlantic because it was mainly written by a coven of hateful witches. In fact, the Atlantic has actually removed the entire comments section now because they feel it doesn't add to the debate. We can discuss that if you like.

Prof. Tierney: Over the years I received hundreds and hundreds of emails from people, many of them very angry. One critic was so angry with a piece that I wrote that his entire message was just in the subject line of the email. He was so full of wrath that he couldn't bring himself to move down to the main body of the message, and just wrote this long message that I was scrolling along in the subject line, which ended with comma you moron. I thanked him for his helpful criticism.

Prof. Tierney: A couple of strategies by the way that you might want to employ if you get this kind of pushback from the public. The first is a strategy that is used by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, who some of you may know. Adam says that if he gets a nasty review of say a book he's published, he's always very tempted to write a letter to the publication. You always see the letters pages full of letters from authors whose books got negative reviews. The letters always say the same thing. They always say, "I love receiving criticism. I welcome it, but I must point out several inaccuracies with the review of my book."

Prof. Tierney: Even if the author is 100% right, they still always come across as whiny. There's really no upside in doing that, unfortunately. So Adam Gopnik is tempted to do that, but he resists. Instead what he does is he waits two or three months until the nasty reviewer publishes something. It could be anything, just a short article, book review. And he writes that person an email. The email says, "I just read your article on whatever. I have to say I thought it was terrific. Thoughtful, really original analysis. Congratulations, Adam."

Prof. Tierney: Well, this completely screws with their mind, right? Trying to work out is Adam being sarcastic? According to Adam, they always do the same thing. They always write back and they always end up apologizing for their nasty review. They say, "You probably saw my book review a couple of months ago. In hindsight, I was probably too critical. I did enjoy the book."

Prof. Tierney: What that points out is the incredible power of graciousness. People are ready with their defenses against criticism, and they just ignore it or they counterpunch. When you are gracious, they just melt, and remember that.

Prof. Tierney: The other option is a strategy, which I quite love. It was originated with a British politician actually, a couple decades ago. He would get nasty, in those days, handwritten or typed mailed letters. Let's say he got one of these from, let's say Jim from Wales. He would write back to Jim in Wales, and say, "Dear Jim, I'm afraid I have terrible news for you. A lunatic is writing letters under your name using your address. See attached. Good luck tracking him down or her down. Best wishes, [inaudible 00:16:22]."

Prof. Tierney: What are they gonna say? "No, I'm the lunatic!" So that's very effective. I've been very tempted to do that in the US except for people here have guns, and so I decided witty as that strategy is, it's also dangerous.

Prof. Tierney: The sixth problem, of course, is that we're in an age of partisanship and ideology, which now infects almost everything. The NFL is now a partisan issue, Hollywood is a partisan issue, et cetera.

Prof. Tierney: What about foreign policy in thinking about global issues? Well, in one sense there's less of an ideological framework at the moment with foreign policy. There's a great deal of confusion on all sides about exactly how to think about international issue.

Prof. Tierney: There is, however, plenty of partisanship. A lot of people look at an issue, especially say from the left, they look at an issue and think, "I'm not really sure what to make of it." Find out Trump is on this side of it, and think, "Okay, great. My mind's made up. I'm on the other side." Of course, there's plenty of knee jerk support of Trump as well.

Prof. Tierney: I see this very often with the students at Swarthmore, who I think are in some ways mirroring the left more generally, since most of them liberal in America. They have a combination of heightened interest in international issues with great uncertainty about the world. It's terrific that we have global studies because students have never been more global in the classes their taking, the studying abroad, working abroad, languages, et cetera, et cetera. But they are deeply uncertain, and I would say that the students here are in some respects quite inward looking at the moment.

Prof. Tierney: When I first arrived at Swarthmore, the big issue on the campus was the Genocide Intervention Network. Now there's evil happening in the world, and we need to do whatever it takes to tackle that evil. If that ultimately means send in the Marines, we send in the Marines, right? And that was the big issue. But now, it's much more about domestic issues, identity politics. There seems to be more anger or energy on say trans-rights than there is on Syria. Climate, the environment is a partial exception, but I think broadly that holds.

Prof. Tierney: Now, why is this? Well, in part I think there's sort of a deep-rooted force, which is the end of the Cold War, which removed America's nemesis, and led to actually an era of confusion about the direction of American foreign policy. But perhaps as or more powerful is Iraq and Afghanistan, which have had just a fundamental effect on how Progressives and others see the world. They're such a grim experience that they have just taken the wind out of the sails of liberal interventionism and the kind of missionary sentiment.

Prof. Tierney: When I first came here people were thinking, "We must stop this evil. We have a responsibility to protect." Now I tend to hear students say things like, "Who are we to lecture other countries? Our misguided interventionism will backfire." I would suggest that the left is sort of like a pendulum, which tends to swing from a more missionary crusading mindset to a "we got our fingers burned, let's be cautious about getting involved" mindset. And this is definitely where we are right now.

Prof. Tierney: Let me turn then to why it's still valuable I think to enter the arena, to write for a public audience about global issue. Well, we do have to be realistic of course about what kind of influence we're gonna have. Some professors get frustrated because they can't change American foreign policy overnight. But why should we be able to, right? American foreign policy is representing a country of hundreds of millions of people. It's like a huge tanker that's gonna be very slow to turn around. Even Trump has limited influence over American foreign policy, but nevertheless you can as a public writer have a meaningful impact.

Prof. Tierney: If you make your writing a little bit more accessible, you can increase your readership by say a hundredfold. If you make it a lot more accessible, you can increase it by a thousandfold. Important people will sometimes read your stuff. Recently one of my friends had dinner with National Security Advisor, former National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, who said that he read some of my stuff. By the way, don't blame me for the Trump administration's foreign policy.

Prof. Tierney: Also, although you get this irate criticism, you also receive quite thoughtful and meaningful feedback from people. I did a piece a couple of years ago on Afghanistan as a forgotten war. People literally do not want to think about Afghanistan. Raising the subject of Afghanistan is like talking about mortality. People literally just change the subject to something else within five seconds.

Prof. Tierney: Anyway, in responses I received this long message from a mother of a soldier deployed to Afghanistan, who said that it really helped her sort of frame the conflict and understand how people were thinking about it, and why they were just ignoring this issue that obviously was so fundamental in her household.

Prof. Tierney: Also, if we don't enter the arena, then we're leaving the arena to others. I've been backstage at CNN, and I've seen the hacks literally starting at a piece of paper before they go on stage, desperately trying to remember their four talking points, which represent, honestly, the sum total of their knowledge on the issue. Those are the people who will be speaking to the American people if we and others don't make an effort.

Prof. Tierney: I just wanna say a word about being a foreign observer of the US. As you can tell, I'm British. Although, actually, I'm very strategic in playing up my Britishness. As was mentioned, one of my books is called "How We Fight." When I do radio interviews sometimes you have people sort thinking, "What do you mean we, you Brit?" I'll use "we" when it's to my advantage, and then if the US screws up, I'll say, "Why are you guys doing that?" It's very cunning.

Prof. Tierney: There are advantages and costs to being a foreign observer. Of course, I'm not the first, and I'm certainly not the best. In 1831, age 25, Alexis de Tocqueville set out for the United States. He brought with him a great coat, various hats, a leather trunk, two guns, an alarm clock, sketchbooks, and a flute, which he used to entertain his passengers, his fellow passengers, on the 38-day voyage across the Atlantic. When he came to the US, he traveled 7,000 miles by horse, stagecoach, steamer, and canoe. From cultivated East Coast cities he went to the wilderness, which at the time was in Michigan. Met the president, Andrew Jackson, and observed the progress of the young Republic.

Prof. Tierney: One of the lines he wrote that I enjoy. He said, "On my arrival in the United States I was surprised to find so much distinguished talent among the subjects, and so little among the heads of the government." So not much has changed there.

Prof. Tierney: The US as a nation of immigrants is actually unusually open to foreign observers. You might think, "Well now, the US is very hostile to immigrants at the moment." And that may be true in some quarters, but relative to Europe, America is still a very open society, and very welcoming.

Prof. Tierney: The way that Americans talk about illegal immigration, that's the way Europeans talk about legal immigration, right? In the sense, no one in Europe talks about illegal immigration, it's just assumed that those people will be thrown in the Mediterranean. The question's whether you want any immigrants at all. So the US is, trust me, is in a very different place. Part of that means that there's an openness in the US to foreign observers.

Prof. Tierney: For example, I teach a class American Foreign Policy. People may wonder, but at least they don't say it out loud, "Why is a Brit teaching us about our own country?" It would be very difficult for American college professor to go to Britain and teach a class on British history. I think it would be more challenging.

Prof. Tierney: Of course, as an outsider, there is a culture gap. Like, for example, my efforts to explain cricket to Americans. People's eyes just sort of glaze over. But being an outsider gives you a different angle, and perhaps you can spot certain biases and illusions. Americans often believe, for example, that if you scratch beneath a foreigner, there is an American trying to get out. That is a long-held belief. Chinese people do not believe that if you scratch beneath a foreigner there's a Chinese person trying to get out. It's very important US foreign policy.

Prof. Tierney: As a foreign observer I can tell you that at the moment there is little global confidence in American leadership, with a few exceptions. Yet for all its sins, I can also tell you that America retains an immense appeal. One anti-American protester in the Philippines had a banner that said, "Yankee go home, and take me with you." That captures the duality of how a lot of people around the world think of the US.

Prof. Tierney: However, what I would say is although I encourage people to reach out to a broader audience, what we desperately need is to diversify the range of voices in the public sphere. In particular, women are underrepresented in public writing and on television. One reason, I think, for this is that men are more overconfident than women. One poll for instance, found that 94% of French men said they were above average at making love.

Prof. Tierney: You also see, for instance, that of the army of people who update Wikipedia entries, about 90% of them are men. The reason for this is that men and women have a different standard for what represents expertise. Women think that in order to be an expert you need to know something about the subject. Men are not encumbered by that requirement.

Prof. Tierney: Instead, if we skim a New York Times article, then we feel that we know everything there is to know about genetics, and can happily go to the Wikipedia page and start messing around with it or, alternatively, write an op-ed on some issue. Men are more overconfident, and that's been shone time and again in psychological experiments. Perhaps as the positive effect, meaning that you are willing to write for a public audience, and I wish there's a way to overcome that since we desperately need more diversity.

Prof. Tierney: All right, let me just end with a quick story that sort of illustrates perhaps the unexpected benefits that can come from public engagement. A few years ago I did short CNN interview, and being a dutiful son, I sent the link to my parents back in England, and my two brothers who are called Ben and Christian.

Prof. Tierney: Now, I was pretty exhausted after this interview, so it's just autofilling in the emails. There's Mom, there's Dad, there's Ben, but instead of Christian, it autofilled to one of my students here at Swarthmore, Christopher. Just to be clear, this kid Christopher, very quiet kid, never really spoke in class. I wouldn't say the most academically talented, sort of like a B- student, very quiet.

Prof. Tierney: Well, this email he got from me transformed my relationship with Christopher. He writes back the next day. He is so flattered that he got this email from his professor. He writes back the next day. He's found all these sources online about Syria, and he's talking a bit on the points that I made in the interview, this long email. So he started coming to office hours. He started putting his hand up in class. He started saying hello to me much more in around the campus. He must have wondered why the four people that I sent this email to were very clearly my mom, my dad, and my brother, and Christopher.

Prof. Tierney: I've also told my brother Christian that he has now been supplanted in my inner circle by Christopher. Now, of course, the lesson here is it shows the power of reaching out to a student individually, particularly the non-obvious student. Not that A kid, who's always putting her hand up in class, but the kid who's getting a B-, not doing as well, very quiet. If you just reach out with even a little message that shows some interest, they just can get blown away. They're at an age where that is incredibly important and incredibly powerful.

Prof. Tierney: Once I realized this mistake, I thought to myself, "Should I tell him? Should I tell Christopher?" I decided, "I'll wait to tell him until the day he becomes US ambassador to France." All right, I'll stop there. Thank you very much.


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