Wanted: More Public Intellectuals
A traditional intellectual is a scholar, usually ensconced at an academic institution, who speaks and writes for other academics as well as teaching students in her or his particular discipline.
A public intellectual is different. She or he engages not only (or even primarily) other scholars, but the general public–leading, provoking, arguing positions, helping a society engage the great moral and social issues of the day. Now, a public intellectual is not the first need of a society, by any means, but all societies need them. The prophets and sages of Israel were (among other things) public intellectuals. So were Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
America has had, even in our short history, numerous excellent public intellectuals: Jefferson and Madison, Emerson and Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Angelina Grimke, Alice Paul, W. E. B. Dubois, Horace Mann, John Dewey, Jane Addams, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others. But we don’t seem to have many at the present moment –a time of great transition and, potentially, of great good or bad. We don’t need more blowhards on the radio or cable TV–pundits we have in plenty. But we do need those engaged thinkers who can help us form a great national conversation on where we need to be going and what we need to be doing.
To be sure, our current president–whether one loves him, hates him, or (as with me) is somewhere in between–is the first public intellectual elected President of the United States since Lincoln. (Jimmy Carter has become something of a public intellectual–and peace and human rights activist—since LEAVING the White House, but he didn’t govern that way. Bill Clinton had the capacity for such–and loves high powered intellectual engagement with a variety of people–but he dabbles. Neither as President, nor since leaving office, has he really sought to help shape public conversations–although he claimed once to want to start a national dialogue on race. ) But he can only be one voice and, as president, he cannot devote his whole attention to the role of public intellectual.
The lack of strong public intellectuals is most notable currently on the political right (although from 1980-2001, the right had far more public intellectuals than the left or center). With the passing of William F. Buckley of The National Review, there isn’t really a strong intellectual defender of modern movement conservatism. I thought George Will would fill that slot, but the election of Obama seems to have so frazzled Will that he is no longer able to clearly articulate a reasonable conservatism. Peggy Noonan, the closest thing to an intellectual center for the Reagan admin., bravely keeps on, with help from Mary Ann Glendon and Jean Bethke Elshtain, but they do not have a wide enough audience–and Elshtain’s credibility took a great hit from her endorsement of Bush II’s war policies.
But the left and center aren’t much better off. In previous generations, we had Howard Zinn, Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Herbert Marcuse, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (yes, we sometimes elected such public intellectuals) and many more, but few of that caliber are here today. I can think of a few: Princeton’s Cornel West, Georgetown’s Michael Eric Dyson, PBS’ Tavis Smiley, Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun, Kentucky’s Wendell Berry, Martha Nussbaum, Naomi Klein and Kristina Van Den Heuvel of The Nation, but that’s about it. Virtually no prominent clergy (other than R. Lerner) are both sufficient theologians and well enough known by the general public to count–though this has not always been true.
We need more public intellectuals–and we need more public fora for the kinds of discussions about “Where do we go from here?” on any number of issues. We have plenty of pundits, plenty of politicians, plenty of activists–but remarkably few well known public intellectuals.
Unless, of course, everyone just wants to watch America’s Got Talent or Ninja Warrior and forget everything else.🙂
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