How do you feel about a new “Genius List” of the “top 100 public intellectuals” that was decided by — and then published by — Foreign Policy in May?  Yesterday we had a curious, and oddly strange, addition to that list as voted by their readership to create the “top 20 public intellectuals.” 


Do these lists unite us or set us against each other?

Foreign Policy worried about the effect of their list:

Rankings are an inherently dangerous business. Whether offering a
hierarchy of countries, cities, or colleges, any such list–at least any such list worth compiling–is likely to generate a fair amount of debate. In the last issue, when we asked readers to vote for their picks of the world’s top public intellectuals, we imagined many people would want to make their opinions known. But no one expected the
avalanche of voters who came forward. During nearly four weeks of voting, more than 500,000 people came to ForeignPolicy.com to cast ballots.

That sort of rabid response from readership is bothersome because one begins to wonder why there is such fervor over the “public election” of the ascertained, but not ascribed, intellectual elite:

Such an outpouring reveals something unique about the power of the men and women we chose to rank. They were included on our initial list of 100 in large part because of the influence of their ideas. But part of being a “public intellectual” is also having a talent for communicating with a wide and diverse public. This skill is certainly an asset for some who find themselves in the list’s top ranks. For example, a number of intellectuals–including Aitzaz Ahsan, Noam Chomsky, Michael Ignatieff, and Amr Khaled–mounted voting drives by promoting the list on their Web sites. Others issued press releases or gave interviews to local newspapers. Press coverage profiling these intellectuals appeared
around the world, with stories running in Canada, India, Indonesia, Qatar, Spain, and elsewhere.

As Foreign Policy was right to reveal, there was a certain amount of “online ballot stuffing” that adversely affected the scope of the intellectualism being celebrated on their pages:

No one spread the word as effectively as the man who tops the list. In early May, the Top 100 list was mentioned on the front page of Zaman, a Turkish daily newspaper closely aligned with Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. Within hours, votes in his favor began to pour in. His supporters–typically educated, upwardly mobile Muslims–were eager to
cast ballots not only for their champion but for other Muslims in the Top 100. Thanks to this groundswell, the top 10 public intellectuals in this year’s reader poll are all Muslim. The ideas for which they are known, particularly concerning Islam, differ significantly. It’s clear that, in this case, identity politics carried the day.

If I were the editor of Foreign Policy, I would’ve tossed out those voter-generated results as fatally flawed and wholly fraudulent because there was confessed politicking and influence-peddling at play in the minds of those casting the ballots. 

The results of the Foreign Policy reader poll were actually non-intellectual and rather emotional — and that clash of the opposite-ending inherently poisons, and therefore negates, the effort because it creates a “Fake Genius” list.

Does this Foreign Policy “reader poll” hit you in your gut as a sham — or do you think that was, perhaps, the purpose of the public vote? 

Did Foreign Policy want to smoke out the pockets of power and influence at play in the world and tip over the who and the what and the where of caring about how wearing an “international intellectual” label echoes in the marketplace of politics, publicity and economics?

Here’s how Foreign Policy self-describes their overall mission:

Founded in 1970 by Samuel Huntington and Warren Demian Manshel, and now published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., FOREIGN POLICY
is the premier, award-winning magazine of global politics, economics,
and ideas. Our mission is to explain how the world works–in particular,
how the process of globalization is reshaping nations, institutions,
cultures, and, more fundamentally, our daily lives.

What’s your final verdict? 

Is the Foreign Policy “Genius List” helpful — or does a stuffed effort actually hinder international understanding by playing to the worst of us and exploiting its fakery for publication profit?

10 Comments

  1. David!
    I think you got that right on! it’s “fatally flawed” and a “sham”! this sad version of the beauty/popularity contest is no measure of genius or intellectual achievement.

  2. Dananjay —
    I agree the “voter poll” is flawed — as was the original “top 100” since we don’t have access to their decision making process — so why publish the voter results? Why not do a story explaining the stuffing but not publish, and give value to, the false results?

  3. Hi David,
    I was halfway through your article and my reaction was – “this voting is hedious!!!”…
    The reason being the same – I would only vote for them who I know – so the reaction is emotional!

  4. So what was the point of the “reader poll” before the votes were cast, Katha? To try to bring a public — but inherently false — sense of public participation to the anointing of the intellectuals on their initial list?

  5. The poll, having been tarnished by ballot stuffing, was in fact a mockery of a sham of a joke.
    Reminds me of the Sabado Gigante story. Initially, the producers didn’t like the host they chose and they decided to fire him. The host was so upset that he thought he could rally his friends and get them to call the station to complain about his being fired. The only problem was that none of them could get through as the phone lines were full of calls from people he didn’t know at all who were calling to complain! His plan failed yet he still got to keep his job because he legitimately had the vote, so to speak. (He is still the host of Sabado Gigante today!)

  6. That’s a great story, Gordon! I think the whole initial “Genius List” in the first place was ridiculous and unquantifiable because there are many paths to genius and very few of them mean anything when given the application of a number to justify the result.
    I was planning on only addressing the Genius List today when I re-visited the site and saw the results of the “reader poll” were now online! It was a great gift! SMILE!
    The publication of the fake voting goes directly to the heart of the problem with mega-media publishing today that is supposed to be well-trained and non-partisan: Everything’s a jewel — even though the very compound that created it is fake.

  7. So sorry I am so late to the party today.
    This reader poll might’ve been a way to smoke out the guilty. Who wants attention? What groups will numbly respond to such manipulation? Important questions. Are there any answers?

  8. I don’t know about answers, Anne, but sometimes the questions beg their own conclusions, eh? It is fascinating to see the manipulation of the “reader list.” What a crock!

  9. Ha! I love it that you’re on with a 3G modem, Anne. I’m so happy the software worked out for you.
    I’m in the same boat — err… same line? — as you. My voice line went down today. My DSL line was fine. Verizon fixed the voice line and, of course, broke the DSL. So now I have to wait for the DSL line to be “fixed” tomorrow after Verizon broke it today. It makes you want to Go Cable for sure or at least drop your voice line and go for “dry DSL” only.
    So I’m on my 3G modem — a perfect solution to the nasties at Verizon.