Taking the Pulse of the Public Intellectual

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 03/09/07

(Note: this post is part of a blogger symposium being held at Cliopatria.  The topic is Sam Tanenhaus’ New York Times article, History, Written in the Present Tense, about Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s death and the role of the public intellectual in modern society.)

Ask a group of average Americans to name the first intellectuals that come to mind, and I think you’ll find their responses fall into three distinct categories.  On the one hand, you have the iconoclastic radicals, people like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, and Ward Churchill — those whom our conservative friends are pleased to call the Academic Hard Left.  On the other, you have the equally extremist reactionaries — neocons like Dinesh D’Souza and Paul Wolfowitz.  (For the sake of convenience, I’ll lump intelligent design expert Michael Behe into this group as well, since he, inexplicably, is still a tenured professor too.)  And in between, you have the “popular” academics, best-selling authors such as David McCullough, and Doris Kearns Goodwin — authors with lyrical style and beautiful prose, but not much to say when it comes to deriving current meaning from intellectual and historical studies.

What’s missing from this calculus is the kind of mainstream academic leadership that characterized the previous generation of intellectuals.  This group, which included historians Richard Hofstadter, C. Vann Woodward, and the just-deceased Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., is the subject of Sam Tanenhaus’ article History, Written in the Present Tense.  Tanenhaus’ retrospective of the three men asks a question whose answer is more critical today than ever:

Why do current historians seem unable to engage the world as confidently as Mr. Schlesinger did?

The answer to the present dearth of public intellectuals lies not simply in a changing of the academic guard; rather, its cause is a sea change in the perception and role of academia both within and without the ivory tower.  In order to understand the roots of this situation, some history is in order.  And it’s worth noting that the story I’m about to tell flies in the face of decades of liberal tradition — unusual, perhaps, given my own avowed political liberalism.

The key to the almost universal acceptance of such liberal public intellectuals as Schlesinger, Woodward, and Hofstadter was their coexistence with equally-respectable conservatives.  These intellectuals, who included John Foster Dulles and the young Paul Henry Nitze, occupied no less important positions in the public sphere than did their liberal counterparts.  Individuals such as Nitze, Douglas Dillon, and the liberal George Kennan bounced around between Democratic and Republican administrations, their searching critiques of American foreign and domestic policy no less useful to those who disagreed with them than to those who agreed.

The first step away from this collegial yet effective public intellectualism occurred in the 1960’s, when, as UPenn professor Bruce Kuklick points out, neoconservatives affiliated with the Rand Corporation, including Robert McNamara and a newly-militant Paul Nitze, reached positions of power in the Johnson administration.  The same militant reactionary clique, now represented by Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, were ascendant through the Nixon and Ford administrations.  These intellectuals, Kuklick argues, had a divisive and profoundly negative impact on American foreign policy:

In the long period of the Cold War, there is little evidence that the authority of intellectuals was benign. They usually offered up self-justifying chatter to the powerful. Sometimes they displayed a tin ear for politics and lacked elementary political sense. Academics in the corridors of the Defense Department often substituted what they learned in the seminar room for what only instinct, experience and savvy could teach.

Concurrent with, and immediately following, this ascendant neoconservative movement came a group of radical intellectuals no less shrill in their iconoclasm than their conservative fellows.  The most successful of these academics, outspoken anarchist Noam Chomsky, has transformed the study of linguistics into a quasi-cognitive science using some rather questionable theories.  Chomsky’s historical counterpart, Howard Zinn, called the European tradition in America into question with his People’s History of the United States.  Less famous but just as controversial members of this radical academic clique include Jacques Derrida and Edward Said.  (To be clear, Said’s Orientalism is the one work of all these thinkers’ output that is now generally considered beyond reproach.)

Like Schlesinger and his counterparts, these academics were liberals, but unlike Schlesinger’s cohort they sought to alter the political discussion first and the academic discussion second.  There’s nothing wrong with political activism in academia, but it ought to be solidly based in the subject matter of intellectual pursuit, not constructed of diatribes held together with spit and polish.

Ohio University professor Kevin Mattson, in his recent magnificent multi-book review, perfectly encapsulates the singular failure of Howard Zinn to reach beyond his political views to achieve a searching interpretation of history:

To be fair, there is nothing wrong-and quite a few things right-about bringing to light heretofore unappreciated aspects of American history, whether they involve working people, women, or minorities. But Zinn is less interested in the episodes themselves as he is in stringing them together to tell a sweeping, ideology-heavy narrative that leaves no room for contingency or nuance.

Despite the shrillness of Zinn and his fellows, they were largely integrated into the academic world.  And while the Academic Hard Left moved into the circle of university power, the neoconservative right represented by the Rand analysts quitted the university scene altogether, finding success more readily available both in government and in a new network of right-wing think tanks.

It was at this juncture that liberal intellectuals made a critical error.  Instead of calling attention to the intellectual flaws in the reasoning of Zinn’s cohort, they allowed themselves to be constrained by politeness and, perhaps, by a hint of liberal solidarity.  As a result, with Zinn and his crowd firmly ensconced in the ivory tower, conservatives decided that the battle was lost; it was time to assault the citadel itself rather than attempt to reclaim territory through debate.  Enter David Horowitz, that intellectual saboteur, and his nefarious campaigns against outspokenness in academia.

And so the situation stands today.  The thoughtful liberal intellectual stands at an impasse with regard to public commentary.  Radical shrillery sells books, as does popular storytelling sans meaningful interpretation.  But for the academic who wants to combine solid research with bold commentary, the current scene holds few encouragements.  Advance a mainstream liberal point of view, and you’ll find yourself either assailed from the left as a sellout or tarred by the right as one of Horowitz’s 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.  Attempt to find a thoughtful conservative academic to debate, and you’ll discover they’re mostly either firebreathing reactionaries like Daniel Pipes or so self-conscious that they’ve developed a Horowitzian obsession with objectivity.  Thus, even if you do manage to speak with an intelligent yet meaningful voice, you’ll swiftly find yourself speaking to the walls of an echo chamber — there will be no meaningful response from the other side.

Mattson astutely sums up what the goal should be for public intellectualism today:

We won’t get there if we look to history the way Rumsfeld and Zinn do. And we won’t get there if professional historians continue to hibernate in academia. We’ll only get there if historians start to make their work relevant to public debate while pursuing the best qualities of their craft-objectivity and complexity. By showing citizens that there is a more fruitful way to turn to the past, we might do a service to our future public discussions in more ways than one.

There is no credible public intellectualism because conservatives have declared war on all intellectualism.  But having identified conservatives as the immediate source of the problem, it’s important to understand that their actions have been not altogether unreasonable.  There is an Academic Hard Left, though it’s certainly not so pervasive as many conservatives like to think.  And there is an excess of intellectuals on both the left and right injecting their personal beliefs inplace of sound research and analysis.  Finally, there is a critical failure on the part of mainstream intellectuals to speak out and reclaim their viewpoints from the extremists on both sides.

If we want public intellectuals to once again do rhetorical battle over the events of the day, we first need to coax conservatives back onto the field.  As liberals, this means we need to eschew faux civility toward the extremist members of our profession, while encouraging the contributions of both reasonable liberals and conservatives in the public sphere.  We need to call a spade a spade and a crackpot a crackpot, and we need to call a conservative a worthy adversary and friend.  Only thus can the ivory tower ascend once again to the plane of political relevance.

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