Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

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. 🙂

June 27, 2009 - Posted by | citizenship, moral discernment, philosophy, politics


  1. Unfortunately, public intellectuals in this country today are marginalized, as far as the general public is concerned. In my opinion, of course. The pundits overpower them with their bully pulpit. The blowhards ridicule them because they aren’t smart enough to understand them. In today’s world, if one must be read and not heard, most of the public will never know that they exist.

    Comment by Ralph | June 27, 2009

  2. I realize now the difference between public philosopher and public intellectual- thanks.
    We can repost this essay at WP Writers Group at pochp09.wordpress and I invite you to.


    Comment by pochp | June 27, 2009

  3. What about Paul Kruger, the Princeton economist and NYT columnist? Also, I would consider Jim Wallis to be the Evangelical counterpart to Rabbi Lerner.

    Most public intellectuals on the center-left are simply not well enough known and don’t have a large enough audience to have the same impact as the heavyweights you’ve listed above. Miguel De La Torre and David Gushee, for example, are both committed to writing and speaking on ethical issues for the general public but, unfortunately, have not gotten near as much attention as they should. But much of their voluminous writings directed towards the public are just a mouse click away for those who will take the time to read them.

    Comment by haitianministries | June 27, 2009

  4. I’ll take Bill Buckley head and shoulders above the rest. I like Camille Paglia too.

    Comment by Paul | June 27, 2009

  5. P.S. Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Sowell !

    Comment by Paul | June 27, 2009

  6. The definition of public intellectual is a little slippery and seems only to be discernible after the fact. Most of these figures were marginal to the broader public awareness at the time (there were always numerous now-forgotten small newspapers/pamphleteers with more power than these figures). The intellectual just became a symbol to hang the memory of a movement on; a movement that was progressing with or without their engagement. Now however with the centralization of politics in Washington and the saturation of media entertainment there is little engagement with “big issues” since they are very complex, highly disputable, and entirely out of our hands. We are in a period of stasis (ironically with a ‘change’ President).

    I still dispute the idea that Obama is a public intellectual. He carefully did not unequivocally commit to any particular action in the campaign (and that wasn’t the attraction anyway) but rather made “change” and sympathy to his biography the issue. Even his “dialogue on race” was meaningless symbolism that has led to zero dialogue as intended (i.e. ‘Remember I have a white Grandma and STOP talking about Rev. Wright!).

    Comment by stan | June 27, 2009

  7. Dan, I assume you mean Paul Krugman? Yes, he’s a public intellectual as is Robert Reich.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 27, 2009

  8. I’m not assuming that one must be seen and not heard. Cornel West put out a Hip Hop CD in order to communicate more widely.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 27, 2009

  9. If I contend that Obama is, at least in part, a public intellectual, I am not referring to the way he campaigned. I am thinking of some of his major speeches: the Philadelphia speech on race and religion in America; the Cairo speech; the speech at Notre Dame.

    But it’s a tiny part of his job.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 27, 2009

  10. Fukuyama counts–as the Neoconservative support, but I doubt that Neoconervatism has any real future. Sowell is just a pundit.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 27, 2009

  11. I think Dr. Sowell is much more than a pundi.He holds opinions that, in some cases, are not politically correct.

    Comment by Paul | June 27, 2009

  12. What about Shelby Steele and John McWhorter, Michael ? Are they “pundits” too ? I think not !

    Comment by Paul | June 27, 2009

  13. Political incorrectness doesn’t make one a public intellectual–influence does.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 27, 2009

  14. Pope John Paul II

    Comment by KGray | June 27, 2009

  15. Shelby Steele is a conservative public intellectual, Paul, sure, but he has a very small audience. I have never heard of John McWhorter.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 27, 2009

  16. Yes, K. Gray, Pope John Paul II was a very important public intellectual. He’s dead and his successor, Benedict XVI, has not been able to engage people beyond the Catholic Church the way that John Paul II could. (This is not surprising. As Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, was a rabid rightwinger that offended many Catholics and non-Catholics. No one outside the very conservative wing of the Catholic Church could greet Ratzinger’s elevation to pope as a good thing.) In fact, the death of John Paul II, K., is more evidence that we do not have enough public intellectuals.

    In fact, K.,

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 27, 2009

  17. What about Noam Chomsky?

    Comment by mountainguy | June 27, 2009

  18. GOOD POINT! Yes, Chomsky is a brilliant public intellectual on the left. I could wish that he was far more influential with the mainstream than he is. It’d be nice, for instance, if he was interviewed by a news show that got more ratings than Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now. (Great show–small audience.)

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 27, 2009

  19. The papal encyclicals remain — comprehensive, thought-provoking and relatively timeless (that is, in comparison to many others). Benedict has added interesting pieces on moral relativism.

    As for other intellectuals, I just don’t know. Wish I did.

    Comment by KGray | June 27, 2009

  20. Michael you have a decided Left lean and it is apparent. You disparage Thomas Sowell who is a classic intellectual. Oh well Alice in Wonderland eh ? 🙂

    Comment by Paul | June 28, 2009

  21. I have a decided Left lean? You are just now figuring that out, Paul? I have proclaimed that at every point. It is part of what I announce as the perspective of this blog? If you are just now figuring out that I have a “Left lean” no wonder you kept trying to get me to read Joe Scarborough’s book.

    Yes, Sowell is an intellectual. I don’t disparage him as lacking in scholarship. I find his ideas completely unconvincing and his audience small–and I think he is a self-hating Uncle Tom. But I don’t deny he is a conservative public intellectual. But his views are completely inadequate for our time. Like all modern movement conservatives, the laboratory of history has completely disproven his views. I am glad his voice is not one greatly heeded right now and I am very sorry that his voice and those of others like him were heeded for so long (basically 1980-2005). But this isn’t to disparage Sowell, just to reject him.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 28, 2009

  22. “I think he is a self-hating Uncle Tom”

    Michael you are a committed Leftist obviously, but it is only your pride and delusion that you can’t be wrong about your political views that keeps the above statement from being flat-out racist. If you at all countenanced the fact that you might be incorrect you would allow blacks the intellectual freedom to hold differing views and simply call them incorrect. You however would never say that a certain race leads to a certain necessary political position or else they are psychologically sick. They may just be correct you know. It is possible. But since you are a true believer, I will simply say it is patronizing and might ‘white’ of you to police the boundaries of ‘black thought’.

    Comment by stan | June 28, 2009

  23. Stan, of course African-Americans can and do have many different views across a wide range of politics. But Sowell’s views, like Clarence Thomas’, actively hurt the majority of African-Americans. Thus, I think he is self-hating. I cannot see why that statement is racist.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 28, 2009

  24. Your view of his ‘self’ is imposed on him. To you he is a black man first in such a way that his political views must be subsumed by his racial interests. Blacks should vote to the benefit of blacks. But Sowell perhaps sees his ‘self’ as an American or professor or pundit and seeks to benefit all of American society.

    Of course he would also dispute your idea that he is actively hurting any people with his ideas. If he is right then black people are free to believe as they choose and you are racist for telling them that blacks must prioritize policies to benefit blacks particularly despite the merits of other arguments that benefit society as a whole. You see it as a racial argument with blacks only on one side or else they are racial betrayers.
    If you are correct then you are just limiting their intellectual freedom and they are cruel or naive Uncle Tom’s. If Sowell is correct however and you even POSSIBLY wrong(just a hypothetical!), then you are telling blacks they must vote for the argument with less overall perceived merit because of their race as if their race constrains their interests in social goods.

    You will reply “But of course” they hurt blacks and aren’t beneficial to society etc.. and it is that true believer’s stance that keeps you from being (or, in my view, seeing that your position is) racist. Otherwise Sowell is just a black man who disagrees with you, with braoder interests than race, and may be right about overall benefits.

    Since you perceive the left’s policies as beneficial to blacks AND society, you even have a handy racial label for the black men in society who disagree with you. Don’t you see that if it is possible to be wrong then you are ascribing the most ugly racial motivations on those blacks (and the whites who agree with him!). You perceive racial malice where there is none. It’s as racist as the white guy who tells the black friend “you’re one of the good ones”.

    Rather than reflexively deny this, examine your position.

    Comment by stan | June 28, 2009

  25. As a Eurasian I know what stereotypes can do and Leftists are as guilty as Right Wingers of using negative stereotypes and saying what is good for African – Americans and other minorities.. Thomas Sowell and Clarence Thomas have a right to express their views just like Angela Davis or H. Rap Brown do. Michael you need to take an inventory of your pride !

    deadly sin.. Michael

    Comment by Paul | June 28, 2009

  26. Sheesh! I never denied anyone the right to express his or her views. Nor am I much of a fan of the reverse racism of H. Rap Brown. Angela Davis is far more complex and includes insights I find valuable, but I am not a fan of hers, either: She is (or was in her heyday) a thoroughgoing Marxist and I am not. Further, she rejects nonviolence thorouughly and I am deeply committed to it.

    I may be full of pride–it is something most humans are tempted to–though failure to gain a tenured post certainly tempers that, I think. But whatever my sins, and I don’t doubt they are many, I don’t think I dictate what is good for African-Americans or others. And I try to learn from people with whom I disagree strongly. Rejecting strongly the conclusions of a Sowell or Clarence Thomas is not denying them the right to express their views–but I won’t pretend that I find them extremely wrongheaded.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 29, 2009

  27. I even read books by Davis and Chomsky even though I generally disagree with their viewpoints. I respect their intellects. I give a person the opportunity to change my viewpoint. I cannot say that for a lot of people especially some Leftists.

    Comment by Paul | June 29, 2009

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