Public Intellectuals and Advocacy.

I was fascinated to come across this article on The Baffler, notwithstanding its own obvious ideological blind spot–which, to be fair, it does not pretend to hide.  The accusations that it levels on the Center for American Progress applies to any number of self-claimed “public intellectuals” who engage in advocacy of any kind.

The fundamental problem with any form of “public intellectualism” is that “the truth” is never self-evident.  The intellectuals may be making one claim or another, but how or why that should be true is often unclear to the audience to whom they are preaching.  In the end, the only thing that matters for the credibility of the “intellectuals” is that the audience has some reason to trust them, and often, it is far easier to say “trust us, we agree with what you believe.”  The heyday of the public intellectuals, like when the Brookings Institution or Council on Foreign Relations were originally founded, when they strove to make themselves credible to all sides, came about precisely because the intellectuals themselves saw the need to make their arguments acceptable to both sides.  They strove for strict neutrality and adherence to unimpeachable facts and logic whose fidelity all their audiences were agreed on.  In so doing, their arguments could, at minimum, serve as the common starting point for those who might not agree on much else.

In contrast, modern public intellectuals engage in overt advocacy:  they offer up arguments and analysis that support the viewpoint of their allies.  They are not looking to build logical bridges connecting those who might not naturally be inclined to agree and help them come to an agreement.  The underlying conceit behind this is that their side is obviously and self-evidently right, or so they believe.  Given this arrogant self-assuredness, they are not looking to persuade those who do not share their viewpoint, who are “obviously” too dumb and/or too biased to see the light.  Only those who are worthy–i.e. those who already agree with them to begin with–are worthy of their words.

The modern version of “public intellectual,” then, serves a totally different function from their early 20th century predecessor–at least in the West (more on this later).  They are not building bridges.  They are actively burning them down.  Rather than spreading enlightenment, they are actively curbing knowledge.  Worse, they are unaware of what they are doing, instead shielding themselves by convincing themselves that their opponents are simply beyond the pale.

The unfortunate truth is that there is some element of truth to this brutal interpretation of the truth, as a consequence of democratization of the information.  As recently as a few decades ago, every viewpoint in public discourse was built around a core of serious intellectuals who shared a set of common notion of how the world operated.  They knew and understood the language and logic through which their interlocutors spoke, even if they might not agree on the underlying ideological baggage.  They could communicate with each other far more readily than their modern counterparts can.  At the same time, however, these intellectuals managed to command sufficient respect from their respective audiences and supporters that, if they could agree among themselves, they could tug along those who listened to them.  An agreement among the elites, in other words, carried weight beyond their immediate socio-political circle:  if the elites could form a consensus, much of the rest of the society followed.  Their modern counterparts do not share this luxury:  they are sufficiently detached from their audiences and supporters that they cannot simply tell them how to see the universe and expect to be respected and trusted.  They need to constantly remind their supporters that they are indeed worthy of continued trust through appropriate codewords and dog whistles, whether they are Biblical passages or multiculturalist lingo.  If the price of coming to an elite consensus is to sacrifice the trust and respect of the varied audiences that the elites already had, then the consensus is not worth it.

Thus has the public intellectual evolved:  rather than concoct an intellectual foundation for elite consensus, they now peddle dog whistles with which the elites of different stripes can command their followers.  In so doing, of course, the “intellectual” aspects are not nearly so important:  if “everyone” knows that 1+1 = 3, it is pointless to consider the alternative.  If all your audience–the only audience of interest to you–already knows that God created the world in seven days and the Earth is warming inexorably and monotonically, what is the point of trying to convince the heathens that the world might have taken a bit longer to be created (or a “day” might be a bit different before Genesis) or that climate change is a bit more complex?   But this is not, like it or not, how science works:  while Galileo’s answer to how universe works might have been closer to the truth, it was still wrong, and besides, he lacked sufficient evidence or logical explanations that contemporary scientists would have found convincing–that had to wait for another century’s worth of progress in scientific observations and theorizing.  Persuasion is, ultimately, a conservative process, in the old sense of the word:  people who already believe one thing don’t have to change their beliefs–it is up to the persuader to supply the reasons why they should change their mind.

In today’s universe, the public intellectual shares stage with all forms of charlatans, cynics, and comedians, and, truth be told, many public intellectuals are themselves partly charlatans, cynics, and comedians.  While what should distinguish the true intellectuals should be that they acknowledge the limits of their own understanding while the die-hard charlatans hold steadfastly to their views no matter what (this was the biggest contribution to science by Bill Nye when he debated the creationist Ken Ham–Nye was able to offer up what evidence, if true, would convince him to abandon evolution, while Ham dogmatically said no evidence, however true, would cause him to drop creationism–this is not something that would help convince masses of common people unlearned in critical thinking and logic.  In so doing, he faces two choices:  he can accept that the audience has gotten much tougher and find alternate means of offering up the same message–even if that means losing some or even much of the existing audience–or abandon the audiences without shared worldview and preach only to the converted.  If latter, of course, the intellectual will have abandoned being an intellectual period, and became a fundamentalist preacher or worse.




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