Monday, May 26, 2008

On Public Intellectuals

I once wrote a mildly funny post on this breed of celebrities. But Daniel Drezner takes them more seriously (click on the document he links to in the post):

The remaining claim is that there are no more Big Thinkers and Big Books. Jacoby repeatedly challenges critics of The Last Intellectuals to name the names of current public intellectuals in order to compare with the past. But this is not a very difficult task. Among periodicals, The New Yorker has Malcolm Gladwell, James Surowiecki and Louis Menand on their payroll; Andrew Sullivan, James Fallows, and Virginia Postrel write for The Atlantic; Harper's contributing editors include Barbara Ehrenreich, Thomas Frank, and Tom Wolfe; Vanity Fair has James Wolcott and Christopher Hitchens; Newsweek employs Fareed Zakaria, Daniel Gross and George F. Will. Despite the thinning of their ranks, unaffiliated public intellectuals like Paul Berman, Michael Beschloss, Debra Dickerson, Robert D. Kaplan, John Lukacs, Joshua Micah Marshall, Rick Perlstein and Robert Wright still remain. The explosion of think tanks in the past thirty years has contributed to a rise in partisanship – but it has also provided sinecures for the intellectual likes of Robert Kagan, Joel Kotkin, Michael Lind, Brink Lindsey, Jedediah Purdy, and David Rieff.1 Within the academy, there is no shortage of public intellectuals: Eric Alterman, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Michael Bérubé, Joshua Cohen, Jared Diamond, Jean Behke Elshtain, Amitai Etzioni, Niall Ferguson, Richard Florida, Francis Fukuyama, John Lewis Gaddis, Henry Louis Gates, Jacob Hacker, Samuel Huntington, Tony Judt, Paul Kennedy, Paul Krugman, Steven Leavitt, Lawrence Lessig, John Mearsheimer, Martha Nussbaum, Steven Pinker, Richard Posner, Samantha Power, Robert Putnam, Dani Rodrik, Jeffrey Sachs, Amartya Sen, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Joseph Stiglitz, Laurence Summers, Cass Sunstein, Michael Walzer, Sean Wilentz, E.O. Wilson, and Alan Wolfe.

Note how being of the girly persuasion appears to conflict with being a public intellectual, or at least Drezner can't think of as many female foghorns as male ones. Perhaps there are indeed fewer women who are regarded as public intellectuals, but it could also be that Daniel Drezner can't see them or defines the term in ways which tends to bias it towards men.

I started wondering if we have lots and lots of private intellectuals, many of them women, talking like silent thunder (cp the next post below) and nobody hears them. Then I wondered what makes a person into "a public intellectual." Surely it is more than being an intellectual?

The list Drezner gives doesn't help very much as it seems to consist of both wheat and lots of chaff, the latter including some who blow their own horn very loudly.

Anyway, I created many tentative definitions of the term, ranging from "a shameless charlatan" to someone who is excellent in communicating difficult theoretical concepts to laypeople and who is also willing to participate in public debates. But none of them capture that odd whiff of elitism that I associate with the idea of public intellectuals: Like poet laureates (poets laureate?) that are supposed to tell the rest of us what to think. Yet many people in Drezner's list are ideologues for one field of politics or another.