The case for public intellectuals

public-intellectuals-02Convincing people stuck in bipolar ‘either or’ paradigms of anything is almost an insurmountable challenge. And why would you try?

Because they make up the majority that determine how the entire planetary population gets to live out its collective and individual lives.

Why do so many people think that that there are simple yes/no answers, and fixed truths to which we can cleave?

Because it’s easy.

Traditionally this has been the refuge of scoundrels using religion and ideology (same thing?) as the vehicle.

But in today’s fractured world even the people notionally championing rationality are prone to distorting life as being an artifact of their own obsessions with numerical truths.

Missing in all conceptions along this reductionist determinist path is everything that matters immediately. The existential grant or denial of whether we will eat today, or not. Sleep safely and comfortably, or not. Receive medical care or not. Be shot and killed by people sworn to protect us, or not.

What we get instead is an increasingly echoing vault of absolutists who seek to reduce all purpose and striving to live to ever more precisely defined abstracts (the reductionists), and who then find from such prescriptions ever more precisely defined ‘righteous’ paths or resolutions (the determinists).

You can just picture this as a vast grotto of yelling and screaming five-year-olds.

‘My brother took my dolly, and now I hate him and everything about him.’

‘It’s not true. She lies. She always lies.’

Partisan positions indeed.

In reality they will have both forgotten the cause and objects of the argument in minutes. Sadly, as adults, that is no longer true. And I wouldn’t care if the imbeciles pursuing this pathology were not so influential in my life as well as that of everything on the planet.

Of particular concern here is the fact that this kind of silliness is not confined to known children and adult cretins: the religious zealots, conspiracy theorists, political absolutists, and all their offspring.

Today it actually includes many people who label themselves as rational and sane. Scientists. Mathematicians. IT professionals. Administrators. Managers. People who don’t understand that when they confuse their tools and artifacts with human truths and fixed paths they become totalitarians.

What is left, then, in a world gone completely insane?

In order to limit this discussion to some manageable time-frame, let’s just say these thoughts began with a self-promoting essay by n+1 publisher Mark Greif in the Chronicle of Higher Education (

Greif used a generous word count to pay homage to an overtly communist American publication of the 1930s, Partisan Review. That publication was able to survive and morph into a dissenting fixture until it ceased publication in 2003. Its defining feature always was content with a view for an America different than that imposed by people whose only religion and ideology is their own profit. Today we see its influence mainly as its antithesis: Fox News and News Corporation, or all their emulators.

Greif used his editorial space to promote his own venture in an almost tastelessly artless fashion, meaning that n+1 probably can’t marshall the same intellectual power of Partisan Review in its worst issues. Nevertheless, he made a few points that elude self-professed rationalists today.

Public intellectuals,” as Russell Jacoby defined them near the start of this culture war, in 1987, are simply “writers and thinkers who address a general and educated audience.” … undamaged by specialization and professionalism, pretension and ideology!

The idea of the public intellectual in the 21st century should be less about the intellectuals and how, or where, they ought to come from vocationally, than about restoring the highest estimation of the public. Public intellect is most valuable if you don’t accept the construction of the public handed to us by current media. Intellectuals: You-we-are the public. It’s us now, us when we were children, before the orgy of learning, or us when we will be retired; you can choose the exemplary moment you like. But the public must not be anyone less smart and striving than you are, right now. It’s probably best that the imagined public even resemble the person you would like to be rather than who you are. (And it would be wise for intellectuals to stop being so ashamed of ties to universities, however tight or loose; it’s cowardly, and often irrelevant.)

What I think Greif is reaching for is the contempt that partisans in one or another meaningless bipolar opposition have for their counterpoints. The idea that there can be none but a sole answer to any position, issue, and problem. The idea that we should all chop off our left hands because our right does the only meaningful work, or the other way around, if we don’t ‘agree’ with the first option for retarded nihilism.

Personally. the biggest obstacles to a rationalist renaissance I can see in the USA and Europe is the clannish elitism inherent in gathering together ‘acolytes’ in the private discussions of Reddit, under Wikipedia’s skirts, and on Google Plus itself (among many other other umbrellas) which seek to determine terms and conditions on which others will be admitted, or their arguments considered valid. This is a rearguard action by people admitting they have already lost. Lost to the overt ideologists/theologists.

Such frat-boy efforts aren’t going to change things. They will just fold into broader movements determined by accountants about how to channel the angst and impotent rage so that it profits someone at the end of the stream.

But how can any of us refuse that hemlock cup?

Like this.

When I use the term intellectual, I tend to exclude merely vocationally trained specialists, particularly programmers and other IT technicians, who have nothing much to say about anything else.

Along with many others, I see an intellectual being someone able to apply critical thinking across a range of ideas and issues.

The public intellectual does this more than just idly or passingly. For a public intellectual it is daily business to consider how we live our lives, and how that might be hindered or improved by a variety of means.

If the intellectual is an academic, that might include connecting academic ideas about the arts, economics, politics, and the sciences to immediately practical ends, but in a language that isn’t bogged down in the faux neutrality and frigid ‘scientism’ of the academy. It is not a paper to be peer reviewed by dullards looking only for validation by research or experiment to suit faculty requirements. It is a comment attempting to connect with people outside the academy in terms they can reach for from the breakfast table, the street, or the workplace.

If the intellectual is not an academic, public comment might instead be based on a professional or vocational insight. An architect might have interesting things to say about urban planning. A concert pianist might say insightful things about designing an opera house or an orphanage. A metal fabricator might have proposals for changing how we measure labour productivity or national income statistics. And so on.

The common thread in public intellectuals is that they bring their insights into a public forum as a stimulant for thought and discussion. That implies the existence of a public forum, which used to be mainly newspapers and journals, but is many other things beside today.

Public intellectuals, as I see them, are not merely engaged with issues, but are capable of a literary level of prose or speech, meaning they don’t fumble with words or degenerate into ‘umms’ and ‘ahhs’. They can address their points clearly, and more than that, with eloquence that makes them literary rather than pedestrian or merely vernacular.

How are such public intellectuals different from, say, Paul Krugman writing in the New York Times, or Lewis Black doing an angry stand-up satire about social inequality?

Well, they probably share many features, but public intellectuals usually don’t make a living from their commentaries on public issues. They pursue careers that might have little to do with their public statements. Noam Chomsky has been described as America’s greatest public intellectual. He is notionally a linguist, but his political comments probably don’t relate to his original academic discipline at all. Bertrand Russell was an academic philosophy instructor, but won a Nobel Prize for literature, and became synonymous with Britain’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Tom Paine’s corset-making days had nothing to do with his aspiration for people as free individuals.

A final defining feature of public intellectuals, in my view, is that they deal with questions and answers in which absolutes have no place. These are all ‘wicked’ problems in that they relate to choosing one or more of many possible paths to address some problem or issue seen as of contemporary relevance across society.

The ‘wicked’ problem was thus defined in the 1970s to acknowledge the difficulty in social policy of addressing competing demands with a limited toolkit and resource base, possibly also at the risk of choosing a path that creates unanticipated new problems. For example, by constructing cheap, affordable housing for the poor today, are we creating the ghetto of tomorrow?

So, public intellectuals are educated or knowledgeable people capable of articulate, even literary, prose and rhetoric, discussing issues of public interest in public forums, and without having vested interests in the outcomes.

There is a secondary point made by Mark Greif in the Chronicle of Higher Education: public intellectuals don’t talk down to their audiences. They grapple with words and language to deal with difficult problems, and they don’t pretend this is bubble gum territory, or that audiences get a pass when it comes to trying to understand difficult ideas. This isn’t quite the same as supposing that all people understand jargon and acronyms, which they undoubtedly don’t. It is more about not using euphemisms to describe the real: ‘lady parts’ refers to the idiocy of the user of such a tern, not to ‘pussy’, ‘ass’, tits’. Let alone to vagina and mammaries. Such euphemisms should not be allowed to stand. ‘Pacification’ to describe legally sanctioned murder is just a lie to excuse elitist murder. ‘Security’ used as an excuse to deprive liberty is Soviet-Nazi bastardry, nothing in any way more meaningful than that.

Patronising audiences by reducing complex problems to meaningless simplicities serves no one but demagogues. The attempt at understanding difficult issues ought to reflect the difficulty of the issue itself. Reducing everything to models and examples stripped of complexity annihilates the intellectual content of any discussion, and likely misses the original point.

If that were not bad enough, we now have a crop of hipster rationalists who argue: ‘This is wrong because science.’ Quite apart from the aphasia involved in trying to decipher such statements, it is simply a religious argument restated along new lines of fashion catalogues.

Science and know-how tell us nothing about what to do with scientific research findings or the many toolkits we have available to us. Human judgement in the context of social environments are the only mechanisms for working out what we do, why we do it (the ends we are trying to achieve), and which options we favour.

That is the point of public discussions, and this is where public intellectuals come in to question, advocate, oppose, and encourage public engagement with decision-making processes.

My perception is that quality of debate has declined sharply since the 1980s, being edged out by a radicalised anti-intellectualism favouring solely materialist, utilitarian conceptions of education, intellect, discussion, and social ends altogether. No room in there for the ‘limp-wristed’ literary critiques of which I’m so fond as fodder for thought. Just suspicion about all things that cannot be reduced to formula or money. And that works both sides of the religious divide in the USA, meaning there isn’t really any divide at all.

As a parting note, many people complain about TLDR. This is a danger in itself. Some ideas require more than abstracts to convey, and the increasing trend to reduce all things to pithy headlines, illiterate tweets, or semi-literate summary is intensely anti-intellectual in itself. Traditional public intellectuals have never bowed to ‘popular demand’ that only abbreviated snippets cater to an ‘attention deficit’ public. An illustration of this problem taken to absurd lengths is the idea that E=mc, can be abbreviated meaningfully as E=?

If and when you are a parent, consider how you will frame an argument or rebuttal. Will you surrender to the immediate demand to annihilate one of your progeny in favour of the other, or will you exercise judgement?

How much of the contemporary bipolar debate requires that you obliterate things that don’t need to be? How much of that insane commandment do you follow by trying to pin down sole and immutable answers? What sort of parent would you be if you imposed this logic on your children?

In a world devoid of adults, are public intellectuals possible, I wonder.