Public Intellectuals

For as long as I can remember I have wanted to write an article on Susan Sontag and the state of the American intellectual. The title would be “The Last Intellectual,” and it would examine Sontag as that archetypal intellectual so disdained by American culture. Let me explain. Unlike Europe, the United States has no intellectual class. In fact, since from at least the time of Andrew Jackson, the American public has viewed the intellectual with mistrust, fear, and disgust. I know this because I have experienced it first hand on more than one occasion. I don’t consider myself an intellectual, but I do aspire to be one. The closest we come to an intellectual class is university faculty, and if we listen to the far right, then university professors are, for the most part, “pin heads,” to quote one obnoxious blowhard. A few years ago, while I was working as a bar tender to put myself through graduate school, I overheard more than one working class customer remark that it was university professors and their liberal ideas that were ruining the youth of this country. This is ignorant and beyond troubling.

But what is an intellectual? In his prison notebooks, Antonio Gramsci writes that “All men are intellectuals, one could therefore say: but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals.” This is an important place to start a critical inquiry into the definition and role of the intellectual. Gramsci is clear here. He is stating that all men (and women) have the capacity to be intellectuals, but not all men (and women) will fulfill a public role as an intellectual. My car mechanic is a type of intellectual because he can fix my car when I bring it into his shop. I do not have the intellectual capacity to fix my car. However, that same mechanic does not fulfill the public role of an intellectual, but as a university professor I do. Gramsci argues that intellectuals encompass a wider group of people than one would think. For example, five years ago I would have scoffed at the idea of a game design major (a very popular major at SNHU) fulfilling an intellectual place in our society. Today, I would say that those majors are indeed types of intellectuals. However, they are not public intellectuals.

The public intellectual, and not necessarily the traditional intellectual, is what we are desperately missing in our society. The United States does still have some public intellectuals hanging around: Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Garry Wills, Thomas Friedman, and Camille Paglia, to name a few. Most distressing is the fact that I cannot, for the life of me, name one single American conservative intellectual. William F. Buckley certainly was an intellectual, and although I rarely agreed with him, I did respect his opinions. But now that he’s dead, who does the right have? Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly are marketed as intellectuals, but they most certainly are not. In fact, they lower the quality of public discourse to meanness and shouting. I defy anyone to show me one single instance where these two have applied critical thinking. Intellectuals are mostly on the left because the left lends itself to the ideals of an intellectually idealized world; a world where opportunities and wealth are fairly distributed and democracy is not just a euphemism for capitalism. This is why socialist policies are so popular among the left. We must remember that it was a capitalist system that got us into the current economic crisis. I think that the Italian public intellectual Umberto Eco is right when he says that only socialist solutions can get the world out of the economic crisis. I agree with him 100%. The future is socialism, but a kind of capitalist friendly socialism that has yet to be conceptualized.

When was the last time you saw an intellectual or a writer or painter on a talk show? We have become obsessed with celebrity gossip and care more about what some waste of flesh named “Snookie” thinks than Martha Nussbaum. Thankfully, the Daily Show and the Colbert Report are bringing public intellectuals back for a younger audience. A few years ago Colbert had Stephan Greenblatt on his show. Now that Johnny Carson is gone, we would never see a person like this on any of the late night shows. (Carson would regularly have people like Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and Orson Welles on to, well, just talk!) People now just don’t care about intellectual discourse.

Last year Paul Berman published an incredibly insightful book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, where he argues that the current intellectual crisis in the United States in is large part the fault of intellectuals themselves. This is true. We spend too much time training graduate students to be very specific “ivory tower” intellectuals and not enough time training them to be more public intellectuals. The future of the intellectual resides in public discourse, and not in the world of the university. With the rise of social media there is room for public intellectuals on both the right and the left. So, while the United States has traditionally and historically shown disdain for the figure of the intellectual, I see the promise of that figure assuming a more important role in the future of this country because of the rise of social media.

It was said that Susan Sontag read one entire book a day. Last week I read five books in five days and came out exhausted and ill. I’m not entirely sure that this story about Sontag is true. How could she find time to write and attend speaking engagements? Nevertheless, Sontag may be the last intellectual on the American scene. Although Vidal and Chomsky are still alive, their respective politics seems to have taken over their capacity for true critical debate. It is true critical debate, and not shouting and name calling, that this country needs now more than ever. When we have a serious contender for the 2012 presidential elections telling her supporters to not back down, but “reload,” there is something disturbingly and violently wrong with our mentality.  What we need is another Susan Sontag, another James Baldwin, another William F. Buckley.

Only an intellectual can save us.


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