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Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals

February 24, 2002

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There are few things less useful, and more attractive, than a good list. Top 100 movies. Hot or not. Best of Vancouver. It’s tempting to say that the list—kind of a cheat-sheet subgenre to self-help lit in the way it promises you answers through instant wit and broad erudition—is both the most popular and pointless form of literature thriving in the Western world today. In the world of ideas, lists provoke heated discussion between camps of opinion: they are exercises in hair-splitting and excuses for intellectual chauvinism.

Such rankings are rarely un-entertaining, but they scream that someone knows more—or at least more important stuff—than you.
Little wonder, then, that the book of the season for academics and eggheads is a four-course banquet of rankings of themselves. Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline (Harvard, 2001) even boasts in its author a pundit more qualified than you or me, for Judge Richard Posner is a leading public intellectual himself. Known principally for creating an entire field of legal theory, the law and economics movement, Posner has written widely on a number of scholarly, social and political issues. He’s a smart and fiercely prolific guy, and that’s why this book’s shortsightedness comes as a real disappointment.

Despite that, Public Intellectuals is an informative and entertaining read: an illuminating take on how smart people are rewarded for acting pretty dumb in public, and more pertinently, why they clamour to do so. It may get a major point in its thesis wrong—a classic case of shooting the messenger—but it still has much to offer those who’ve ever been curious about the climate of intellectual discussion in North America. Why do some trend books or jeremiads develop a lasting following, and when did pundit become a derogatory term? In its depiction of the demands on public commentators of both the modern university and the media, it serves as a valuable reminder of where our culture’s priorities now lay.

Posner begins by first defining the public intellectual. While people in many occupations—journalists, politicians and professors are among the most recognizable—may be considered public intellectuals, there is no hard and fast rule. They are individuals of varying formal education who take interest in communicating their ideas about public affairs to a wide audience, a larger one than that of most university-bound scholarship. You can recognize their work from radio and television appearances, op-ed pieces, public lectures, and especially from books and magazine features. “Most often they comment on current controversies or offer general reflections on the direction or health of society,” Posner offers. The public intellectual acts as “a social critic rather than merely a social observer,” and this is what sets them apart. At their most vocal, they tend to be the least respectable: think of the talking heads who roam cable news airwaves. Like any profession, a gamut of stereotypes exists—clown and entertainers on “Politically Incorrect” as well as many erudite and stuffy professorial types on “Charlie Rose.”

There are plenty of examples today, such as Christopher Hitchens and Susan Sontag, but Posner’s principal argument is that they are a dying breed. Think of the energetic, almost desperate rush to praise Jacques Barzun’s “From Dawn to Decadence” in the last couple years—this was a guy whose appearance on a mid-century “Time” cover was, once, no big deal. For Posner’s analysis, this is a crucial misstep. Sure, it’s easy to cast back an eye fifty years and recall the efflorescence of public commentary originating from the United States. Books like Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and David Riesman’s “The Lonely Crowd,” even as their arguments falter over time, still tend to dwarf their peers of today. Although Posner worries in his study about “the tendency to compare the best of the past with the average of the present, because the passage of time operates to filter out the worst of the past,” that’s precisely what happens. It’s like saying that the early twentieth century’s George Orwell, Lionel Trilling and John Maynard Keynes are no match for the holy trinity of the latter nineteenth: Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin. It’s not a legitimate comparison.

On the other hand, Public Intellectuals is a smart and probing study in other respects. Posner’s dissection of the genres of public intellectual output is masterful, and his observations of their lasting value and validity are generally instructive. He glimpses developments in political satire, literary criticism, cultural and social criticism, as well as legal, economic and political punditry. Posner even offers suggestions to rectifying the problems of public intellectuals. Who’s to blame? Not unreasonably, Posner points fingers at the undiscriminating but influential powers of the media and the relentless (some would say obtuse) specialization endemic to the modern university career.

Even the book’s centrepiece, a social sciences-style outpouring of statistical data on public intellectuals’ output, is lots of fun. By ranking and aggregating his data, Posner presents his reader with the most popularly cited (and most academically cited, for comparison’s sake) intellectuals of today. There is plenty to quarrel with in terms of his inclusions and exclusions, his methodology (just because they drop your name doesn’t make you “good,” for example), but then again, nothing on this scale has ever been presented for inspection. It may form a valuable basis for more rigorous and interesting discussions in the future.

Yet it’s this when-they-were-giants stuff that doesn’t fly. Public Intellectuals builds a confident case that the great dumbing-down of today has spoiled our chances at a greater intellectual climate, like that of France. This is poor reasoning at best—an easy, anti-intellectual capitulation at worst. Because most public intellectuals (none of the best ones, Posner qualifies) have no university position, they need to subsist on the income from their publishing, speaking and related efforts. In this regard, it’s the revolutionary changes that have swept through media in the last decade that have rendered public intellectuals less visible, and more limited to soundbites. This unprecedented centralization and synergy of media has not been smart except in the way it has rationalized the economic delivery of advertising and related commerce. More than this, the economic hangover of the past year has been the death knell of intelligent media outfits, such as Lingua Franca magazine, as well the smarter online magazines, like Suck and Feed.

What good are these eggheads, anyway? It’s fair enough to ask. Richard Posner takes this question for granted: he comes to critique, not to praise. But even a cursory look at Canada’s own public intellectuals set poses its own answers. Figures like Mark Kingwell and Naomi Klein, one an academic and the other an activist/journalist, are leading lights in today’s most pressing intellectual discussion: globalization. Although neglected by Posner, in their lifetime they may make the omission look foolish. Whatever one makes of Univeristy of Toronto Philosophy professor’s Kingwell and his clever importing (and shrewder marketing) of philosophical touchstones to matter of modern debate, or Klein’s likewise glitzy, Adbusters-esque championing of corporate resistance, the two are making waves far beyond Canada. They may be heirs apparent, in their own way, to Canada’s own modest contribution to public intellectual history. Our country has a curious history of producing among its brightest intellectuals public personalities as well: luminaries like Marshall McLuhan, Margaret Atwood and Northrop Frye.

True, this is not a time of brainy ferment. Tomorrow’s public intellectuals are only moonlighting in the marketplace of ideas today: in bookstores, in schools, in record stores. In the meantime, who’s to say how many public intellectuals may be forthcoming? As Posner admits, these are unpredictable individuals, generally irrepressible in their activities, and they arise rather unexpectedly from time to time.

It isn’t that the public intellectuals were once big. In their value to us, they still are. It’s the marketplace of ideas that got small.

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