Do public intellectuals exist anymore?

Do public intellectuals exist anymore?

Earlier this year, six years after Norman Mailer’s death, Random House released a collection of the writer’s essays, Mind Of An Outlaw, which represents more than 60 years’ work. Even with a modest selection of writings, the volume runs more than 600 pages and is a daunting, sprawling read. Mailer managed to have a few words for almost every topic and was unafraid—and thickheaded enough—to comment on whatever he saw fit. This led to some rather peculiar essays but also some profound meditations on what it means to be a citizen, an American, and a human.

Mailer’s name is always bandied about when people talk about the great American intellectuals of the 20th century. Growing up, I never read The Executioner’s Song, or any of his other works, but I knew who Norman Mailer was. He epitomized the idea of a “public intellectual,” a person who struggled with the great issues of our time, someone who could interact with the academy as well as with people on the street. While he was clearly kind of a bastard (he once stabbed his wife with a penknife), and some of his opinions were quite offensive (he had a low opinion of feminism, to put it kindly, and coined “white negro”), even for his time, he existed in the public sphere in a way no one really does anymore.

Who occupies that space now? The late Christopher Hitchens? He may have been the last of his kind, and I’m unsure if even he had the same ubiquity as Mailer. Yet I couldn’t think of another recent example. More importantly, everyone I did think of missed the mark for one reason or another. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert seem like possibilities; they converse on a myriad subjects and interview politicians, writers, musicians, scientists. But I think they’d shrink from the term itself. Stewart especially has argued against people trying to peg him as more than a comedian, and Colbert’s ironic shtick purposefully obfuscates the entire idea of public figures. One or both of them could probably take up the mantle if they wanted, but they refuse.

Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman also struck me as a possibility. He’s well versed in a lot of subjects, is an academic (though writes in simple prose that most people can understand), and is interested in engaging with the world. But his politics have labeled him a pundit. I’ve never read Krugman on movies or science, but I expect he’d have interesting things to say. Yet he’s well aware his columns on the Republican Party or the president get more views, and that must impact his choice of topics. Krugman is a political essayist, and is saddled with the baggage that comes with such a distinction.

One of the primary reasons public intellectuals no longer exist (and the reason Krugman isn’t one) is this specialization. Writers, especially those on the Internet, have their little fiefdoms, and that’s about it. Typically when writers stray outside of their supposed comfort zone, it doesn’t go well (independent of whether they actually write an effective argument on the topic). Gawker ran into this problem earlier this year, when Adrian Chen wrote that George Saunders needed to “
write a goddamned novel already.” Chen was rightfully savaged for having a ridiculous argument, but his gumption is admirable. Gawker is, first and foremost, a gossip site, where snark is key, yet it posts the occasional well-reported piece. It’s not a place for literary criticism, and I don’t think Chen managed to convince anyone it should be. But I’m glad he tried. So why does Gawker have to be specialized in this way? The only real reason is because its audience expects a certain kind of writing there, and would react badly to such a change-up.

Backlash happens all the time, especially when authors and artists can so easily express their opinions through social media. When Jonathan Meiburg, the lead singer for Shearwater, recently wrote a Facebook status in support of the Affordable Care Act, he was told to “stick to music.” Does Meiburg’s profession make him somehow ineligible to publicly comment? It’s become so easy to qualify different voices on the Internet that when they stray from their assigned role, they become suspect. And yet, everyone is now free to comment on whatever they want—one of the many strange ironies our new social world has created.

This ability to comment on everything is the other major reason we’re in an era where public intellectuals can’t exist. This is an age where opinion has been democratized completely. Anyone can have a blog. In a sense, anyone on the Internet has an opportunity to become a public intellectual.

It may be tempting to turn this into some kind of elitist statement: There’s too much noise on the Internet for the thoughtful voices to come through; the great minds will never find an audience. Aside from being insulting, that’s simply not true. Someone will surely take me to task for this essay, and will do so cogently, making points I completely missed. That doesn’t undercut me as a writer; it expands the conversation, bringing a plurality of viewpoints instead of just one.

So that’s the trade-off, and it’s not a bad one, really. We might not get any more Mailers, but now everyone can talk about anything. True, many people will never actually learn about the topics they debate, and instead regurgitate talking points or launching personal attacks. But if Mind Of An Outlaw is any indication, Mailer didn’t always do his homework, and there’s still a prestigious writing prize named after him. Not all insight needs to come from an expert, something to remember the next time someone on Gawker writes about books, or a favorite artist says something political. It’s also something I’ll try to keep in mind the next time I’m getting pummeled in the comments section.

Filed Under: Books

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