There is a consensus that Reihan Salam is good at what he does, but what is that exactly? Take the blog that he writes for National Review , the Agenda . By what standard could we say that the Agenda is a good blog? You can’t go by accuracy, because Reihan assiduously avoids taking a firm stand on much of anything, so accuracy is inapplicable. In the future, your city bus will be “the belly of a mythical beast, transporting [you] to a new adventure”? That’s not a prediction, that’s a baked guy’s summary of My Neighbor Totoro .
When his claims aren’t tripped-out fantasies, they’re almost always buried under several encrustations of “One might think A” and “I’m inclined to be skeptical of B” and “On the other hand C, but on the other other hand D, and there are 22 letters of the alphabet to go so get comfortable.” Then there’s his habit of just asking questions , and whether or not there are stupid questions, there certainly are no falsifiable ones, lucky for him. Basically, Reihan’s three favorite modes are outlandish futurism, guarded musing-out-loud, and noncommittal question-posing, none of which can really be called correct or incorrect.
You can’t say Reihan offers sound analysis, because nine times out of ten he offers no analysis at all beyond calling a topic “interesting”—or his favorite word, “fascinating”—and saying you should read more about it. Saying “Take up and read” over and over changed a smart man’s mind once , but that was a long time ago and divine intervention did most of the leg work. Reihan, with his many interests and scant actual opinions, is like a child, good at expressing curiosity but bad at inspiring it in others.
This doesn’t mean that Reihan Salam is bad, per se, just that his work can’t be judged by the usual standards. The only standard for him, then, the thing that keeps the masses coming back for more, is Reihan-ness . Reihan-ness is measured on the Reihan Salam Scale, a snotty little metric of my own devising. To show you how it works, lets see how Sunday’s batch of posts tallies up.
THE REIHAN SCALE OF REIHAN-NESS
The Agenda, July 15, 2012
I. How many superfluous expressions of flattery or chumminess does he use?
“an extremely important article”; “particularly helpful”; “extremely important 2010 book”; “I was delighted to read his thoughtful reflections”; “it was fascinating to see”; “his fascinating book”; “a review of the book that is well worth reading”; “a fascinating post”; “Collins has written awesome posts” “particularly rich and informative”; “an intelligent take”; “a number of interesting conclusions”: 12
II. How many weasel-word hedge phrases?
“While many argue that”; “to be sure, legalization could ”; “that should certainly be taken into account when we weigh the pros and cons”; “it happens that these arguments are often pretty sound”; “there is definitely something to Conn Carroll’s argument . . . yet it is also true that”; “the better long-term strategy, I would argue, would be to somehow”; “one obvious rejoinder would be”; “I imagine Conn and I would agree”; “yet it is worth keeping in mind”: 9
III. Take the last sentence of each post and give it a score between 1 and 10 according to how uncontroversial and pointless it is.
“Though Wax’s book is focused on how to think about the historical disadvantage of black Americans, it has broader implications for how we think about anti-poverty policy, family structure, and the difference between ‘brick walls’ and ‘hard struggles’”: 3
“Kirn’s essay has my highest recommendation”: 7
“I should note that Collins has written awesome posts on a number of subjects, including a particularly rich and informative post on bullying”: 7
“It happens that these arguments are often pretty sound, but it is nevertheless helpful to have a sense of the structure and provenance of the arguments we make”: 6
“I imagine that Conn and I would agree that the state probably wouldn’t work brilliantly in the absence of these requirements, yet it is worth keeping in mind”: 8
“I love humanity”: 10
IV. How many posts begin “[X] has written a [fascinating/thought-provoking] [article/post/paper]”?
Oddly enough, only 1 (“Jason DeParle has written an extremely important article”).
V. How many titles have the structure “[Name] on [Topic]” or begin with the words “Brief Thoughts on” or “Quick Note on”?
So that day’s score is 68, which gives a per post average of 11.3. Not bad.
The Reihan Scale is imperfect, of course. It doesn’t give points for characteristic absurdities like income inequality is okay if it yields the optimal number of trapeze artists or poor people will show up to work on time if their iPhones tell them that work is like a video game . But, as Reihan himself might say, Helen Rittelmeyer has written a fascinating post and we should all watch her future trollings on this important topic with close attention.