On Public Intellectuals

23 Aug

Once upon a time, or so the tales go, a group of people stood astride the world, casting about learned opinions to large audiences. These people were known as public intellectuals, and while they were often academics or writers or somehow involved in political affairs, they often defied categories and showed impressive range. People who like to see grand debates instead of people yelling past each other on the television networks will lament these lost days of yore, back when these learned men and women (mostly men, but sometimes women) offered reliable voices of authority, or at least a formidable argument. From Sartre to Milton Friedman, from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Vaclav Havel, from Gore Vidal to Bill Buckley, to some of my old favorites like Octavio Paz and Hannah Arendt, these people shaped the thoughts of nations in the 20th century.

Such debates never capture the national imagination anymore, and while we could point to a few people on the New York Times editorial page and other such venues that have some claim to the title, no one has the reach of those in earlier eras. This isn’t because intellectuals have stopped intellectualizing; I could do a quick search and find a few billion videos of people blathering about topics of their choice, but very few rise above the din. The sheer power and authority of those old figures doesn’t hold up well in an age where everyone has an opinion on everything.

A couple of things happened. The walls of old media came crashing down, and a couple of TV networks and newspapers no longer set the terms for polite debate. Anyone with a keyboard or a camera can now take a stand. Academia deserves some of the blame, too: universities have grown more and more specialized, and a publish-or-perish culture forces academics to churn out an endless heap of articles on obscure topics in even more obscure journals that will never gain any broader purchase. This siloed thinking has inevitably led to more clouded language and at times reinforced a sense that the academy is a cloister where people can go earn salaries to pump out inane thoughts rather than engage with the world beyond ivy-covered walls. Relatively few scholars manage the range necessary to sound intelligent in a wide variety of fields, and to weave together literature and politics and moral philosophy in a satisfying way.

Or so some would have you believe: I always try to stay skeptical of tales of decline and woe. We remember the handful of brilliant mid-century thinkers whose reputations deserve to endure, for good or ill; all the middling thinkers of that era have drifted away, and in twenty years, maybe we’ll be able to look back on the early 2000s and identify a few people whose ideas on what was going on were sharper than most. And some of those past intellectuals were so colossally wrong that their bloody legacy lives on today. David Brooks (who has to rank among the top handful of people with a contemporary claim to the title) diagnosed the shift away from public intellectualism in a sympathetic but hardly uncritical column earlier this year: we live in an era of thought leaders who offer quick TED talk pitches, not intellectuals laboring to understand the world through a distinct moral lens.

Every now and then, though, some people try to follow the exact road prescribed by Brooks. Take the boys at American Affairs, a journal that is the second generation effort of some men (here, basically all men) who are trying to put some intellectual meat on the bones of Donald Trump’s presidency. Obviously, a lot of people (including a fairly large class of conservative intellectuals that includes David Brooks) are not fans of what they’re trying to do for conservatism or American politics more broadly, but when the journal appeared, a little part of me was kind of pleased to see that a handful of people with big ideas can still jump into the fray and broadcast their opinions like that. Even wholehearted critics of their project can acknowledge that they probably had a much better handle a broad swath of America than their more established fellows in the intelligentsia.*

But to what end? To their considerable credit, the American Affairs founders recently invited Anne-Marie Slaughter, an Obama-era State Department official and no one’s definition of a Trumpista, to comment on the content of their first two issues. She did so, and with devastating effect. She approaches the journal authors’ efforts in good faith while at the same time skewering them for their narrow thinking as they claim to reinvent American politics. She challenges them to either reflect the country they purport to speak for or make peace with being a mouthpiece for Trump’s 2016 electoral coalition, and no more. They risk either becoming just another grumpy group of self-righteous thinkers in that cottage industry of well-written and narrowly-read journals of political thought consigned to be a footnote in a David Brooks column.

This is the point at which I make a self-serving confession: as someone who has long had vague pretensions in this realm, the direction of Slaughter’s attack is reassuring. I turned my back on Washington think tanks and instead went to work back home, but (as if this blog wasn’t obvious enough proof) I won’t pretend to have abandoned my desire to hold court on issues great and small. Getting there, however, won’t come from burying myself in intellectual circles or typing out thoughts late into the night that I then blast out into cyberspace. It won’t come from hammering on certain principles over and over again, hoping that this time someone will listen. It will come from practicing politics in the old sense of the word: trying new things in concert with other people, honestly assessing one’s efforts, and being willing to say that my experience to date does not make me some sort of authority. Sure, I have ideas on how to do things based on a very wide range of reading and an increasing amount of practice, but I recognize that I need more than that to move any sort of needle.

This requires patience. This requires tact. While there are certain circles in which I’m happy to launch into a debate on Aristotle or John Locke, I’m not going to force them on any unsuspecting victims. It requires translating messages for a bunch of different audiences, not because the plebes can’t handle intelligent thought but because no two people see the world in the same way. Knowing one’s classics or cutting-edge scholars or being able to construct abstract theories are signs of intelligence, not wisdom, and divorced of some understanding of human politics in all its gritty flaws, the best-laid theories and plans are all for naught.

The best of the public intellectuals I mentioned at the top of this post were highly self-critical, always revisiting old thoughts and willing to admit mistakes. This is a lifelong project, and one that may never really end. I can’t say that my plan for my own little pulpit is fully formulated yet, but I’m okay with that, and I have some idea of how to get to where I want to go, and why it is I’m going there. For now, that’s enough.

 

*One of the founders of American Affairs, Julius Krein, disavowed Trump in a widely circulated New York Times column last week. Of course, a wide swath of Trump critics were hardly impressed: it really took him this long to see that this man’s character would lead him to operate in this way? I can probably include myself in that category of critic. Even before the election, I wondered if Trump’s ascendance might not do more damage than good to the platform he (sort of, sometimes) espoused, as it chained various principles to a baggage-laden man unlikely to ever implement them. The impulse to support him, or some comparable figure elsewhere on the political spectrum, in spite o those concerns only reveals the pervasive extent of the god-worship of the presidency, and a national obsession with Important People and Big Ideas that plagues so much of our political culture. Perhaps the real problem is much closer to home than many of the figures who trade in these tales would like to believe.

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