Publisher's Note — May 23, 2012, 9:25 am

The Decline and Fall (in the U.S.) of the Public Intellectual

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the Providence Journal on May 23, 2012.

Last week I spoke at my alma mater’s Class Day ceremony, which at Columbia College serves as the central event for seniors, even though Columbia University, of which it’s a part, conducts the formal commencement and awarding of degrees on the next day. I won’t reprise my speech since I’m reluctant to promote a contribution to a genre of public speaking that many people equate with sedatives. (It is available on Harpers.org.) As my fellow Columbia graduate Tom Vinciguerra wrote in Newsday, “The days of memorable, even historic, end-of-academic-year speeches are long gone,” replaced mainly by “throwaway sentiments equally trite and hortatory—e.g., ‘seize the day,’ ‘don’t forget to give back,’ ‘dare to be different.’ ”

I did, however, have an advantage over other commencement speakers, since looming over my speech was President Obama’s address the previous day, in roughly the same location as mine, to the graduating class of Barnard College, also a part of Columbia University. Conflict of interest prevents me from commenting on the specifics of Obama’s talk—or the controversy surrounding his choice of venues—but the president’s appearance did focus my thinking, since I was forced to take a fresh look at academic institutions and the role of what used to be known as “public intellectuals.”

It’s easy to be nostalgic for a time when allegedly great men and women trod the public stage. Indeed, I cited in my speech the historian Andrew Bacevich’s ridicule, in this month’s Harper’s Magazine, of the very notion of there being “golden ages.” But I do recall a time, not so long ago, when formal orations seemed more eloquent, when public figures and intellectuals, some of them connected to academic institutions, dared to say more controversial things and take strong positions against the orthodox thinking of the day.

My exemplar at Columbia was Edward Said, the late Palestinian-American English professor and author, who expressed opinions on many current issues, not just the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that so marked his life. But there were plenty of others in the ’60s and ’70s, including C. Wright Mills, William F. Buckley, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, Irving Howe, Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, Dwight MacDonald, Lionel Trilling, Irving Kristol, Sidney Hook, Norman Podhoretz, Christopher Lasch, Michael Harrington, A. Bartlett Giamatti, Father Theodore Hesburgh, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Eugene McCarthy.

Some of these people were freelance intellectuals, some were tenured professors or administrators, some were of independent means. But all shared a commitment to civic debate, which in conformist, consensus-driven America automatically poses dangers to what might otherwise be an orderly and comfortable career. Alexis de Tocqueville noted this get-along-to-go-along spirit, and Sinclair Lewis fleshed it out brilliantly in such novels as “Main Street.” Everyone on my list, whether left wing, right wing, or in between, got in trouble for taking positions that in an argumentative country such as France would be considered necessary and proper.

When I look around, I don’t see anyone of Edward Said’s gravitas, knowledge, or conviction, but then Said was something of a radical in his scholarly way. He dared to step outside his academic specialty of literary criticism to declare his views on history, contemporary politics, and sociology, at some risk to his academic reputation as well as to his safety. (Said defended the Palestinians, yes, but he also defended Salman Rushdie against the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa and criticized Yasser Arafat’s dictatorial methods.) Edward Said’s three books dealing with Orientalism, though academically rigorous and dense, were popular successes as well as politically influential.

C. Wright Mills, a sociologist, also wielded considerable influence with his analysis of Castro and the Cuban revolution, Listen, Yankee, and Christopher Lasch, a historian, cast off the confines of his academic discipline with his bestseller The Culture of Narcissism. Today, Mills’s book is out of print; last year, when I spoke to a media-studies class at New York University, not one out of the hundred or so students had even heard of Lasch.

Why is there now a dearth of well-known public intellectuals taking public positions? I suspect it’s partly because of the rise of politically oriented think tanks, whose “fellows’’ and “scholars’’ generally have ideological agendas that conflict with genuine scholarship and independent thinking. Many of these people are superficial pseudoscholars awaiting their next government job or TV talk-show appearance.

As think tanks have gotten richer, universities have had a decline in federal funding, which makes them more desperate to raise private money. Richer donors usually reflect the interests of their class, which doesn’t exactly encourage outspokenness by faculty. A trenchant, contrarian remark by a professor can cause big problems for a university’s development office. Writers outside of academia are in a similar bind: The recent Internet-and-conglomerate-driven decline of publishing has reduced book advances and promotions, especially for mid-list authors. If you want to get your book on prime-time TV or radio, you had better be ready to dumb down your message and round off your edges.

Two other commencement speeches delivered at Columbia this month gave me some hope that this attitude might be changing, at least regarding capitalism and the strangulation of the marketplace of ideas by the national obsession with financial markets. In his talk to Ph.D. recipients at Columbia, the U.S. historian Eric Foner bemoaned the dominance of market ideology: “In the last generation, the values of the market have come to permeate every aspect of our society. The notion that the public good may be measured in other than economic terms has pretty much been abandoned.’’

To which Lee Bollinger, Columbia University’s president, added: “In future decades, will we look back and wonder how we could possibly have let public policies be determined in this way?’’ We need more public declarations such as these to enlarge the debate for the benefit of all of us.

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  • Everyday Intellectual

    I agree that there has indeed been an intellectual decline in the US. Not too long ago I was at a party and the conversation drifted into economics. People were surprised at my opinions and stances and someone recommended that I go into politics. While I was flattered at the notion, there is something concerning about the fact that having a well informed and detailed opinion about social, political, or economic issues makes one an aspiring politician.

    We are not talking about surgery or physics. We are talking about every day issues that touch everyone no matter what community. Perhaps the reason why the world is the way it is is that people generally do not actively try to learn and improve things until there is some sort of calamity or existential threat..

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