In the beginning, the term “intellectual” — which first appeared to describe Dreyfusard writers in the 1890s — was a catch-all that described just about anyone who engaged in public debate and discussion in order to influence political opinion, for the sake of political allegiance, or in defense of abstract principles.
But true public intellectuals emerged only with twentieth-century Cold War writers, many of whom were European: Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Václav Havel, and even George Orwell (though he would have never considered himself one). They were literate, learned (though not always formally), and passionate. They transcended political and ideological dogma, and in many cases fought to understand, engage, and combat it. They wrote books. And they have been endangered since the moment of their birth, according to books like Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, and Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline.
In their place, says this litany of cognitive decay, we have the modern pundit, who trades in innuendoes and sound bites rather than ideas and principles. They thrive on reducing politics into a kind of soap opera: all plot and no story, designed for visceral rather than cerebral effect – hence the full-throated outrage of Bill O’Reilly or the sneering sarcasm of Rachel Maddow, for example. Tacked on to these mass-media pundits are the majority of political bloggers, whose authority depends on neither expertise nor hands-on experience but on sheer popularity, which is achieved through vitriolic or snarky commentary, a refined sense of self-promotion, and enough money to pay for web hosting. Although it seems rationally absurd to take political direction from anyone who can be described as a “pundit,” since many are either current party operatives or self-made ideologues, we do it anyway — to the general detriment of civil society.
But political scientist Daniel Drezner paints a much sunnier picture of American intellectual life in his May 2008 essay “Public Intellectuals 2.0″. He argues that there are plenty of intellectuals around (he lists 65), that the United States has a preponderance of them, and that their audience has not really shrunk because it was never big to begin with. In fact, the only real difference he sees between the intellectuals of today and those of 50 years ago is that most contemporary ones come from social science rather than humanities backgrounds. And to top it all off, he says that blogs have not killed off long-form intellectual discourse but have become “a powerful complement” to the printed word, either acting as a sandbox of ideas or as a speaking platform for those otherwise without access to one. With lowered expectations on the one hand and the promise of an internet-fueled democratization on the other, an intellectuals’ renaissance seems all but inevitable.
So if Drezner is right, then we are on the cusp of a revolution of ideas; if the traditional narrative is right, intellectuals are dying off thanks to a paucity of venues in which to promote their ideas, a decrease in their public stature, and a fragmented and inattentive audience. And amid all this hand-wringing over whether they are coming or going, one question remains: what is it, exactly, that intellectuals do?
There’s no question that intellectuals are “opinion-leaders” — and although any idiot with a blog can claim to influence public discourse in some small way, at least prominent academics and authors get a disproportionate share of web traffic, which means that they exert a proportional influence on mainstream media’s coverage of the blogosphere. Still, the intellectual’s stock and trade has always been in ideas and words, whether in the form of pamphlets or blog posts. And while it might be easier than ever to get ideas out there, it’s not clear that doing so is a public good.
Let’s start with the period between September 11 and the Iraq War. For the right, the years of the Bush administration marked a political heyday, with neoconservatives above all directly influencing foreign policy in a way that few, if any, intellectuals since Henry Kissinger and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. have done. But neoconservative thought proved disastrous in practice. It went into the idea mill of the White House policy team, and came out as the “Bush Doctrine,” which was based on a series of fictions — and not just ones about the existence of weapons of mass destruction.
That is, neoconservatives grossly underestimated both the effort required to reconstruct a nation’s political and social fabric, and the difficulty of spreading American ideals abroad. They reduced the world into an ideological binary, with supporters of democracy on one side and terrorists/”Islamo-fascists” on the other. They believed that the post-September 11 world was entirely without precedent, and that the attempts of other nations to impose their political systems through force (the U.S. in Somalia, Britain and its imperial colonies, the USSR in central Asia) had no bearing on their calculations. And when neoconservative intellectuals outside of the policy realm took a step back and engaged in ass-covering en masse (see, for example, Peter Berkowitz’s “The Neocons and Iraq”), they, in the words of historian Tony Judt, “focused their regrets not on the catastrophic invasion itself (which they all supported) but rather on its incompetent execution.” Daniel Drezner points out that “the dismal performance of intellectuals in proximity to political power” has always been a universal, and that neoconservatives are no exception. They resemble the bomber pilot “King” Kong from Dr. Strangelove more than anything: so dedicated to their ideology that they are willing to ride it into the ground, even if it’s been discredited by both historical precedent and contemporary experience.
The same period marked leftists’ failure to seriously oppose the war in what Judt called the “strange death of liberal America.” Those leftists who attempted to oppose the war from a “scholarly” (as opposed to “political”) perspective had no effect on foreign policy or on their own cohort. “Security scholars” Stuart Kaufman and Patrick Thaddeus Jackson termed this practice, rather pretentiously, “Weberian activism,” whose goal was to “intervene in a political debate without giving up [our] scholarly credentials.” Trying to draw such a distinction is fair enough – but if “Weberian activism” succeeds only in giving its practitioners the (slightly smug) attitude that they never compromised themselves, it hardly seems worth the trouble. At the same time, other leftists such as Christopher Hitchens and Thomas Friedman became some of the war’s most prominent cheerleaders. They lost sight of the intellectual left’s traditional hard-nosed skepticism and suspicion of all political ideologies. Leftists have become either toothless or rootless, and if they could only look back after the fact and say “I told you so” — especially to those who should have been its spokespeople — then what good were they?
In other words, although most intellectuals might be kings in the free-floating world of discourse, they haven’t managed to make much of a splash outside of it — and neocons are the exception that proves the rule. The Iraq War is just one case study of failure among many. With a few exceptions such as Nouriel Roubini, intellectuals didn’t — couldn’t — see the approaching economic train wreck. They couldn’t bridge the ideological divide on global warming. They haven’t managed to rehabilitate the idea of increased government intervention in the free market or the creation of a stronger social safety net or reframe mainstream views of major ethical debates (although Ross Douthat has made a good start on the politics of abortion). They haven’t even successfully debunked the neoconservative attempt to reduce the world to a Cold War-minded clash of civilizations.
Ironically, all of this might explain the Faustian bargain that the neocons made with the Bush White House. One of the reasons that Cold War intellectuals could thrive was that they reacted so strongly against totalitarianism at precisely the moment when it seemed poised to overrun the Western world — everyone agreed on the threat and its severity. Nowadays, there’s nothing to react against, no common ground on which everyone can base their ideas and expect an attentive, fearful audience (the postmodern fate of political discourse? identity politics run amok?).
As a result, intellectuals have become outsiders, either in terms of real political power or mainstream media attention, and even ones with broad platforms have a hard time translating their ideas into action. And so the impressive array of statistics that Daniel Drezner marshals in order to show the endurance of intellectual life doesn’t get the entire picture. Web rankings and hit counters show that people are reading the words that intellectuals write, but is getting someone to look at a page tantamount to getting them to engage with the ideas on it? If an intellectual is doomed to be detached from all reality — due to an inflexible attachment to ideology, or due to the self-imposed oblivion of “Weberian activism” and highbrow media outlets — they could do worse than leaving a mark on the outside world.
My point, I suppose, is that intellectuals’ soaring aspirations have to contend with limping reality. They have apparently reduced themselves to a kind of social guilt reflex — a castrated social conscience — that can criticize and analyze the past just fine but has trouble making much of an impact on the present and the future. In vain, intellectuals strive to retain their credibility and distance from the political machine; or else they ally themselves with that machine and, by doing so, become a grotesque parody of their former, powerless selves. And they have restricted themselves to a small cognoscenti that pays attention to literary and culture magazines (or their web presences) and university-sponsored lectures.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are left in a kind of cognitive darkness, without access to the world of intellectual discourse, and without any idea why that’s a problem. Because, by and large, it isn’t: we’ve forgotten the power of ideas.
For the record, I’d like to be wrong about all this.