Richard Posner’s book Public Intellectuals has always seemed to me like a greased pig: fast, inelegant, hard to pin down, and finally, without much utility. But occasionally even a gassy book yields something worth a second look. Early in his study Posner writes:
With the flowering of the modern university, an institution that fosters scholarly research and places only limited calls on its faculty’s time the better to encourage creative scholarship, it became apparent that intellectuals had a career path that would enable them to write exclusively for other knowledge workers if they wanted to. But it would also allow them time to write on the same subject for two very different audiences, one consisting of students and academics in the writer’s field, the other of nonspecialists, the educated general public, itself expanding with the expansion of university education. To the extent that his academic reputation or intellectual gifts were portable, an academic might even be able to write for the educated general public on subjects outside his area of specialization.
One wonders when the modern university “flowered” for if the answer, predictably, is one hundred years ago, its worth remembering that institutions of higher learning in the United States were teaching “the white man’s burden” and eugenics. Let’s say the flowering occurred sixty years ago, just after the second world war. If that’s the case then knowledge workers had three different audiences rather than Posner’s two–students and academics in the writer’s field, the non-specialists of the general public, and a new and very hungry post-war media. Non-specialists and the hungry media are not the same audience. Public intellectuals should know the difference. Some do. One good way to know the difference is to hold something that’s a bit like the golden rule though perhaps harder to achieve–an Augustinian Golden Rule that depends on past knowledge and self-irony. It goes like this: never do unto others what you wouldn’t want done unto you, plus, while you reflect on this, remember you used to be capricious, shallow, and self-absorbed…
Almost everyone is capricious, shallow, and self-absorbed as a child or teenager and these characteristics are often the catalysts for strong ego formation and adult success so let’s raise a glass to whatever isn’t timorous and fearful in children. But there does come a moment when you’re “in the world”–when self-awareness is not only necessary for preservation, its the key to inclusion in a diverse and just social order. The Augustinian Golden Rule is both ironic and humane. Who are the public intellectuals who have genuinely understood this–who refuse to lie for profit while defending broader human interests?
Cornel West comes to mind for his insistence that all human life has sanctity and his resistance to neo-liberal and neo-con modes of imperial action.
Noam Chomsky for his brave and nearly solitary fight against propaganda regarding Israel and Palestine:
Susan Sontag for living a life of citizenly duty:
Martha Nussbaum defending human dignity in the age of the internet:
The examples above suggest how being a public intellectual requires a muscular awareness of the problems of transmission–that the medium must not be the message. I’ve been thinking about this in part because programs like The Rachel Maddow Show or Melissa Harris-Perry–seen here scolding Edward Snowden–have tended toward neo-liberal positions on imperialism, perhaps in accord with the media and corporate interests that pick up their paychecks. Both Maddow and Harris-Perry appear unaware of the problems of transmission I’m referring to–more than unaware–one might say shruggingly immune to the kind of awareness and resistance to media described here.
Does this resistance matter? If you want to be a public intellectual I think it does.