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.

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note July 12, 2019, 10:47 am

American Greatness

Publisher's Note June 10, 2019, 12:05 pm

My French Side

Publisher's Note May 8, 2019, 5:36 pm

Suicidal Strategy

“The Times has used every opportunity to present Sanders as an obstacle to Trump’s eventual overthrow.”

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2019

The Last Frontier

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Play with No End

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Call of the Drums

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Brutal from the Beginning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Alps

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Last Frontier·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The San Luis Valley in southern Colorado still looks much as it did one hundred, or even two hundred, years ago. Blanca Peak, at 14,345 feet the fourth-highest summit in the Rockies, overlooks a vast openness. Blanca, named for the snow that covers its summit most of the year, is visible from almost everywhere in the valley and is considered sacred by the Navajo. The range that Blanca presides over, the Sangre de Cristo, forms the valley’s eastern side. Nestled up against the range just north of Blanca is Great Sand Dunes National Park. The park is an amazement: winds from the west and southwest lift grains of sand from the grasses and sagebrush of the valley and deposit the finest ones, creating gigantic dunes. You can climb up these dunes and run back down, as I did as a child on a family road trip and I repeated with my own children fifteen years ago. The valley tapers to a close down in New Mexico, a little north of Taos. It is not hard to picture the indigenous people who carved inscriptions into rocks near the rivers, or the Hispanic people who established Colorado’s oldest town, San Luis, and a still-working system of communal irrigation in the southeastern corner, or a pioneer wagon train. (Feral horses still roam, as do pronghorn antelope and the occasional mountain lion.)

Article
A Play with No End·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When I caught up with the Gilets Jaunes on March 2, near the Jardin du Ranelagh, they were moving in such a mass through the streets that all traffic had come to a halt. The residents of Passy, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Paris, stood agape and apart and afraid. Many of the shops and businesses along the route of the march, which that day crossed seven and a half miles of the city, were shuttered for the occasion, the proprietors fearful of the volatile crowd, who mostly hailed from outside Paris and were considered a rabble of invaders.

Article
The Call of the Drums·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Great Kurultáj, an event held annually outside the town of Bugac, Hungary, is billed as both the “Tribal Assembly of the Hun-­Turkic Nations” and “Europe’s Largest Equestrian Event.” When I arrived last August, I was fittingly greeted by a variety of riders on horseback: some dressed as Huns, others as Parthian cavalrymen, Scythian archers, Magyar warriors, csikós cowboys, and betyár bandits. In total there were representatives from twenty-­seven “tribes,” all members of the “Hun-­Turkic” fraternity. The festival’s entrance was marked by a sixty-­foot-­tall portrait of Attila himself, wielding an immense broadsword and standing in front of what was either a bonfire or a sky illuminated by the baleful glow of war. He sported a goatee in the style of Steven Seagal and, shorn of his war braids and helmet, might have been someone you could find in a Budapest cellar bar. A slight smirk suggested that great mirth and great violence together mingled in his soul.

Article
Brutal from the Beginning·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Celebrity sightings are a familiar feature of the modern N.B.A., but this year’s playoffs included an appearance unusual even by the standards of America’s most star-­friendly sports league. A few minutes into the first game of the Western Conference semifinals, between the Golden State Warriors and the Houston ­Rockets—the season’s hottest ticket, featuring the reigning M.V.P. on one side and the reigning league champions on the other—­President Paul Kagame of Rwanda arrived with an entourage of about a dozen people, creating what the sports website The Undefeated called “a scene reminiscent of the fashionably late arrivals of Prince, Jay-­Z, Beyoncé and Rihanna.”

Article
The Alps·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Toyota HiAce with piebald paneling, singing suspension, and a reg from the last millennium rolled into the parking lot of the Swinford Gaels football club late on a Friday evening. The HiAce belonged to Rory Hughes, the eldest of the three brothers known as the Alps, and the Alps traveled everywhere together in it. The three stepped out and with a decisive slam of the van’s side door moved off across the moonscape of the parking lot in the order of their conceptions, Rory on point, the middle brother, Eustace, close behind, and the youngest, ­Bimbo, in dawdling tow.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

“What’s the point?” said Senator Tim Scott, who is paid at least $174,000 per year as an elected official, when asked whether he had read the Mueller report.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today