Sunday, February 1

Public intellectuals

A November article in The Chronicle of Higher Education disputes the apparently popular claim that the public intellectual is dying out. For the curious, blogs are the alleged coup de grâce. Daniel Drezner challenges this idea and argues that blogs provide an alternative communications outlet, more accessible to those outside the ivory tower, and have thus increased the level of the conversation.

I can buy that. At their most fundamental, blogs are a communication medium and have their own unique set of attendant advantages and disadvantages. In this way, they are no different than television or magazines or any other mediums going all the way back to papyrus scrolls and stories around the fire.

The more interesting questions to me, however, are avoided by Drezner. What does it mean to be a public intellectual? What does the public intellectual do? Drezner takes the answers to these questions for granted. He makes several lists which enumerate over 30 "public intellectuals," and offers only the scantest of possible definitions. "[Those who] write serious-but-accessible essays on ideas, culture, and society." In all fairness to the following, the only two people whom Drezner lists and whom I am reasonably familiar with are Christopher Hitchens and Malcom Gladwell, and my thoughts on these two have been repeated plenty often.

Anyway, Drezner's definition. It's a good start but should only be taken as the bare minimum. I think we need to pay more attention here to the form and transmission of thoughts, ironic since Drezner spends this article defending the blog as a medium. It bothers me that Drezner makes a particular effort to include journalists and editors among his public intellectuals. It's another irony since my own major is journalism, and were I to one day be considered an intellectual, that would be a good day. However, I like to think this also makes clear to me more of our profession's collective weaknesses. We're not bad at writing, especially for mass audiences, but we tend to treat issues and ideas as finished products. We have to deliver something, and ambiguity does not fit nicely into a box. We often give some space to quotes by opponents of the idea, but that is all. We hardly ever go behind this, describe the competing arguments. Ultimately, the ideas and issues we write about end up positions to take based on anecdotes and soundbites rather than critical thought.

More important than "serious-but-accessible essays on ideas, culture, and society," public intellectuals should be framing the important debates of the day in such a way that the arguments come to the fore. They should not be giving Americans ideas but asking them to consider the ideas. We shouldn't be looking toward the quirkiness of the ideas, those most out-of-the-box, but the reasons which support them. The public intellectuals should be writing for and speaking to each other, not the masses, but making these debates open to the public. Yet another irony, I think televised debates may be the best medium for this, stained as they may be by cable news show shouting matches. In speech, jargon tends to fade. For all the thought in it, the Chomsky/Foucault debate is very accessible and demonstrates the possibilities for civil discourse. In the meantime, writing, though it permits deeper arguments, is meant for the crowd and not as often for one another. A final irony, blogs then become the worst form of public intellectualism. The opportunity for them to become insular "echo chambers," linking only to and read only by those who share their thoughts is incredible. Drezner's public intellectual may not be dead, but they could be so much more.

No comments: