Category Archive 'Intellectuals'

19 May 2018

Tom Wolfe on the Contemporary Intellectual

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“The intellectual had become not so much an occupational type as a status type. He was like the medieval cleric, most of whose energies were devoted to separating himself from the mob—which in modern times, in Revel’s phrase, goes under the name of the middle class. … Moral indignation was the main thing; that, and a certain pattern of consumption. In fact, by the 1960s it was no longer necessary to produce literature, scholarship, or art—or even to be involved in such matters, except as a consumer—in order to qualify as an intellectual. It was only necessary to live la vie intellectuelle. A little brown bread in a bread box, a lapsed pledge card to CORE, a stereo and a record rack full of Coltrane and all the Beatles albums from Revolver on, white walls, a huge Dracaena marginata plant, which is there because all the furniture is so clean-lined and spare that without this piece of frondose tropical Victoriana the room looks empty, a stack of unread New York Review of Books rising up in a surly mound of subscription guilt, the conviction that America is materialistic, repressive, bloated, and deadened by its Silent Majority, which resides in the heartland, three grocery boxes full of pop bottles wedged in behind the refrigerator and destined (one of these days) for the Recycling Center, a small, uncomfortable European car—that pretty well got the job done…”

HT: The Barrister.

13 Apr 2017

Thought Leaders vs. Public Intellectuals

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The Chronicle of Higher Education has this excerpt from Daniel Drezner’s new book, The Ideas Industry, behind a paywall. But that rascal Fred Lapides has the whole thing on his EGS amalgamating site.

It is the best of times for Thought Leaders. It is the worst of times for Public Intellectuals. It is the most confusing of times for those of us in the academy.

Let me unpack these terms. Public Intellectuals are experts, often academics, who are well versed and well trained enough to comment on a wide range of issues. As Friedrich Hayek put it, Public Intellectuals are “professional secondhand dealers in ideas.” Think Paul Krugman or Jill Lepore. A Thought Leader is an intellectual evangelist. They develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize to anyone within earshot. Think Robert Kagan or Naomi Klein.

Both Public Intellectuals and Thought Leaders engage in acts of intellectual creation, but their style and purpose are different. To adopt the language of Isaiah Berlin, Public Intellectuals are foxes who know many things, while Thought Leaders are hedgehogs who know one big thing. The former are skeptics, the latter are true believers. A Public Intellectual will tell you everything that is wrong with everyone else’s ideas. A Thought Leader will tell you everything that is right about his or her own idea.

Both intellectual types serve a vital purpose in a democracy. Public Intellectuals are often bashed as elitists, but they help to expose shibboleths masquerading as accepted wisdom. They are critics, and critiquing bad ideas is a necessary function. Their greatest contribution to public discourse is to point out when an emperor has no clothes. Thought Leaders, on the other hand, are often derided as glib TED-talkers lacking in substance, but they can introduce and promote new ideas. During times of uncertainty and change, Thought Leaders can offer intellectually stimulating ways to reimagine the world.

A public sphere dominated by Public Intellectuals has high barriers to entry; the marketplace of ideas becomes ossified and stagnant over time. One dominated by Thought Leaders has high barriers to exit; too many bad ideas linger in the intellectual ether. A healthy public discourse in which good ideas rise to the top requires a balance between the two types of thinkers.


14 Aug 2010

Barack Obama, Intellectual

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Shortly before the 2008 election, Nicholas Kristof rejoiced in the imminent election of fellow deep thinker.

If Obama is elected as now seems likely, he’ll be the first real out-of-the-closet intellectual in the White House in many years.

Laura Miller, in Salon, described Obama as about to become “one of the most literary presidents in recent memory,” and delivered evidence of his erudition.

Obama the reader blossomed as an undergraduate at Occidental College in California and, especially, during the two monkish years he spent finishing up his degree at Columbia University in New York. “I had tons of books,” he told his biographer, David Mendell (“Obama: From Promise to Power”), about this time in his life. “I read everything. I think that was the period when I grew as much as I have ever grown intellectually. But it was a very internal growth.” Even after he left New York to work as a community organizer in Chicago, Mendell reports, Obama lived so much like a retiring writer — spending many hours holed up in a spartan apartment with volumes of “philosophy and literature” — that some of his colleagues assumed he was gathering material for a novel.

A taste for serious fiction is rare in the American male these days, but Obama has it. According to several friends, he even tried his hand at writing short stories during those early years in Chicago, and he recalls priggishly scolding his half sister, Maya, while she was visiting him in New York, because she chose to watch TV instead of reading some novels he’d given her. Among the authors he favored during his years of intensive reading were Herman Melville, Toni Morrison and E.L. Doctorow (cited as his favorite before he switched to Shakespeare). He has also mentioned Philip Roth, whose struggles to shrug off the strictures of Jewish American community leaders must have resonated with the young activist.

He read a lot, we are told, back when he was in college, and his (and Ms. Miller’s) powers of critical discernment are such as to rank Toni Morrison, E.L. Doctorow, and Phillip Roth with Melville. Happily, he evidently grew to prefer Hamlet to Ragtime or The Book of Daniel.

Karl Rove testified that, during his second term, George W. Bush competed with Rove in reading, losing the contest to Rove 95 to 110 titles completed in the course of a year.

And how does the most intellectual president in modern times compare to his predecessor, a man regarded by all right-thinking establishmentarians as a light weight?

In Columbia Journalism Review, New York Times reporter Michael Powell describes getting to know Obama when he followed him around on the campaign trail.

I got talking to him about what he reads and was telling me about these different policy tomes. And I said, “Well, yeah, but come on. I’m out here on the campaign trail with you, you’re up even earlier than I am, and I’ve been carrying around this Philip Roth book with me for two months and I’m yet to even crack it.” He actually laughed at that point, and said, “Yeah, you have very little chance to really read. I basically floss my teeth and watch Sports Center.”

They got along famously. They both love Phillip Roth, and they are both too busy to actually read him.

It must be all the reading he does that enables Obama to know so much about American history.

[H]ere in the United States, Ramadan is a reminder that Islam has always been part of America and that American Muslims have made extraordinary contributions to our country.

I’ve read very widely in that subject myself, and I’ve actually never discovered either of the two facts the president mentioned.

I can recall no Muslim presence in the United States at all before recent years, if you don’t count Shriners wearing fezes. And the only Islamic contribution to America I can think of would be the Barbary pirates supplying “To the shore of Tripoli” to the Marine Corps hymn.

Hat tip to Taegan Goddard.

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