Let Me Put That in Context

Perhaps one of the side benefits of the blogs will be the re-emergence of the public intellectual. Such people, usually specialists in one field but writing much more generally, once provided a great deal of the context for public debate. You might say that they provided the parameters for the public sphere (if you can stand the alliteration). Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, John Dewey, B.F. Skinner—just to create a random quartet—all had influence on the debates going on in diners and living rooms. In many ways, their influence was greater outside of their areas of expertise, though it was those that gave them the gravitas needed in those days in order to be taken seriously elsewhere.

Today’s pale imitations of the old public intellectual are not people who have proven themselves in particular pursuits. Chris Matthews, on his Hardball TV show in late July, kept telling Ann Coulter that she writes well. So do David Horowitz, George Will, and the dozens of others who have taken upon themselves what really have become public pseudo-intellectual roles. Unlike the real public intellectuals of bygone years, their achievements rest only on facility of comment. Few of them show accomplishment elsewhere.

The nation’s real intellectuals, on the other hand, usually do not have the communications skills that are the base of the pundits’ successes. For the last twenty years or more, unable to compete in the public sphere with those media savvy commentators, most of the best of American academics have retreated from debate, happy to speak to each other in small groups on college campuses, but leaving the rest of America to itself—and to discussion defined by people whose only claim to accomplishment is flair with the tools of communications.

It takes practice to work effectively within the public sphere; to become a real public intellectual requires years of work. First, one establishes oneself in a field of expertise. As times goes on, one begins to be able to speak out on other issues, starting with letters to the editor and guest columns in local papers—and talks on campus or in town. Once, these once were the proving grounds allowing people to gain experience and dexterity before moving on to greater venues.

With the consolidation of media ownership (not to mention the growing clubishness of the professionals in the media), it became harder and harder for tyro public intellectuals to hone their skills. Only a few of them, when thrown into the media cauldrons of the eighties and nineties, were able to compete with the dapper and assured pseudos like George Will. Seeing what happened to their colleagues, few others bothered to try.

The advent of the blogs, however, has changed things. Now, without fanfare and with minimal risk, anyone (yes, even college professors and other intellectuals) can establish a blog and start learning how to participate in this new public sphere. Though amateurs in the media, the intellectuals can build upon their real expertise and begin to re-assert themselves in the face of those pundits who, really, have little more to offer than facility with a pen.

One of the most important functions of the public intellectual was to place contemporary debates within a broader cultural and historical context. They weren’t looking to convince, but to provide—so they didn’t select from history the way too many of the pseudos do, today. One reason they didn’t was that they had reputations for probity, and did not want to lose them.

That’s the advantage of coming into the public sphere with a reputation already established in intellectual pursuits: one has something to protect, so is a bit more careful with what one says than, say, Ann Coulter or David Horowitz. The reputations of these pseudos come through media only, and not through contributions to any fields of study.

Over the next few years, such pundits should start to find themselves pushed aside, as the Michael Berubes, Todd Gitlins, Juan Coles, and more start to have greater influence within the public sphere, providing a real intellectual background to the debates. The blogs are the perfect arena for the new public intellectuals, for they for a contextual web themselves, something the real intellectuals are quite comfortable working with.

The blogs: providing once again the context for our discussions that public intellectuals gave us in the days before the rise of the professional media punditocracy.