Tuesday, April 15, 2008

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The oldest theme in the business

I'm beginning to wonder if there's a cognitive tic in my system that causes me to "not get" Jacob Heilbrunn's published output.

Last month I was puzzled by Heilbrunn's assertion that Samantha Power represented a vanguard of angry Democrat foreign policy mavens.

This month, Heilbrunn has an essay in World Affairs that bemoans the decline of the public intellectual:

For all the heat it has generated, for all the moments of good theater it has provided, the debate over the War on Terror has also called into question the role of public intellectuals today. In a prior time, these intellectuals could be judged by their output; today it is by the noise they make and the comment they generate....

With lifelong fights over changes of position, charges of intellectual treason, and tortured explanations to rationalize the party line, the political was personal in the 1930s and 1940s in a way it never was during the 1960s. But in recent years something has changed. Those who’ve set up shop as public intellectuals, with their keen sense of how high-stakes arguments were waged in the past and their equally keen appreciation for the role figures such as George Orwell played in those debates, have tended to be referential and self-referential in positioning themselves for maximum effect. Rather than the hard and solitary work of writing and thinking and achieving an output that far overshadowed their public presence, today’s intellectuals often succumb to celebrity culture, shouting on FOX News and MSNBC rather than arguing their ideas in books or in the pages of magazines.

While the stakes are arguably as high today as they were in the 1930s, our current crop of public intellectuals has resurrected some of the acrimony of those heady times, but little of the substance. What in an earlier era were battles grounded in strenuous intellectual engagement today often amount to little more than highbrow food fights and, in some cases, nifty career moves. The life of significant contention that the critic Lionel Trilling once lauded as the intellectual’s calling has been overtaken by a life of competing for significant attention. Compared to their predecessors, who staked everything on disputes over fascism, Stalinism, and imperialism, today’s rank-breakers are mere epigones.

Having battled this meme for several years now, I'm beginning to observe a few pathologies in the standard "decline of the intellectual" essay:
1) Provide as little evidence as possible for your argument: Heilbrunn tries to persuade by asserting that, "Most of the intellectuals who stepped up to the mics at FOX News spent more energy wondering if they were the next George Orwell than writing books that would cast light on what the country faced in a time of terror." This is truly odd for two reasons. First, the only effort Heilbrunn makes to substantiate his argument about intellectual decline is to look at the trajectories of Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens. This would be fine, except that neither Sullivan nor Hitchens have been shy in writing books on this topic.

Second, beyond Hitchens and Sullivan, what other public intellectuals have appeared on FOX? Seriously, I want to know.

2) Repeat past assertions of intellectual decline -- if you do it enough times, it will sink in: For example, in this essay, Heilbrunn notes that, "Richard Posner cites the craving for celebrity—and its availability because of radio and television talk shows and the Internet—as a reason for the decline of public intellectuals." Actually, no. Posner hypothesized that the professionalization of the academy was responsible for the decline in public intellectual output -- and, to be blunt, he never provided any systematic evidence for his assertion of decline.

Later on, Heilbrunn approvingly quotes Lee Seigel's thoughts on the matter -- also not a point in his favor.

3) Evoke intellectual nostalgia for the 1930's. Seriously, these kind of essays appear to be the only genre that looks back at the yeas of the Great Depression with something approaching fondness.

This matters, because even Heilbrunn seems to acknowledge in his essay that the state of public intellectual debate in the 1960's was pretty God awful. This raises the question -- what's the baseline point at which one starts to talk about a decline?

The decline-of-the-public-intellectual trope has been repeated so often -- and so baselessly -- that I'm going to make a request to readers, even though comments are down. Is there any way to objectively measure the quality of current public intellectual output?

E-mail me if you have ideas, because I'm getting tired of swatting these kind of articles down.

posted by Dan on 04.15.08 at 08:50 AM


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