The Eggheads Scramble

How is intellectual life shaping up in the Obama era? Scott McLemee collects evidence from the news vendor.

May 12, 2010

Two journals from opposite ends of the political spectrum have just run discussions of the role of American intellectuals in the age of Obama. It is the sort of coincidence that seems meaningful – or would, at least, if small-circulation magazines played the role they once did in shaping discussions about culture and politics. These days the Zeitgeist prefers to express itself on basic cable.

Tevi Troy’s essay “Bush, Obama, and the Intellectuals” appears in the third issue of National Affairs. When it first showed up on newsstands last year, the graphic design and wonky substance of National Affairs made it look as if it had been cloned from the genetic remains of The Public Interest, the flagship journal of neoconservatism, published between 1965 and 2005. Which it turns out is more or less the case. The editors “strive to walk in the footsteps of our intellectual and institutional predecessor,” they write, calling their predecessor “a journal that for decades enriched our public life with its unparalleled clarity and wisdom.”

Meanwhile the social-democratic journal Dissent began running its symposium “Intellectuals and Their America” in its winter number; part two is in the spring issue. The contributors have included Jackson Lears, Martha Nussbaum, Katha Pollitt Michael Tomaksy, Sam Tanenhaus, and Leon Wieseltier, among others. The common denominator is that these figures do not belong to Dissent’s editorial board. Nor are they, to my recollection, frequent contributors.

Here, too, the mood is elegaic. Dissent’s editors invoke “Our Country and Our Culture,” the symposium that ran across several issues of Partisan Review in 1952 – when that magazine was, they note, “near the apex of its influence.” One detects a wistfulness.

In 2002, Tevi Troy, who is now a visiting fellow at the right-wing Hudson Institute, came out with Intellectuals and the American Presidency: Philosophers, Jesters, and Technicians, published by Rowman and Littlefield. His new article is a serviceable précis of the book, offering a quick assessment of how several presidents have sought to court the intelligentsia.

No easy task, for they are a fickle lot: a milieu "with its own, often low-minded, politics and culture," writes Troy, "and its own complex connections to the popular culture and the rough-and-tumble of American politics.”

Obama came into office enjoying much goodwill -- especially from the sort of citizen who can follow the implications of an allusion to Reinhold Niebuhr. But this is not a blank check. Obama needs to avoid “underestimat[ing] the damage he would suffer if the cultural and academic elites who have backed him so far suddenly turned their knives against him. Precisely because Obama’s presidency rests, in part, on his status as a cultural phenomenon, he would pay a heavy price for losing their support.”

But for practical guidance, the president would need to turn from the article to the appendix to Intellectuals and the American Presidency, where Troy presents a set of maxims on how the White House can handle this constituency.

“Don’t make meetings with intellectuals public,” he warns, “and don’t reveal what was said in any official way.... Do use the president’s meal times liberally as a way to garner support from intellectuals. Even if you don’t back their policies, few people will refuse a free meal at the White House.... Do not, as president, publicly rely on think-tank guidance.... Do let it be known when the president is reading a popular work by a well-known scholar, as long as it is not a Swedish planning text, à la Michael Dukakis.”

Troy served in a number of positions during the presidency of George W. Bush. His article in National Affairs includes the most wonderfully counterintuitive sentence anyone has written in some time: “As an institutional matter, Bush’s outreach to intellectuals could well serve as a model for future presidents... .”

Anybody craving documentation for this arresting claim should recall Troy's maxims: “Do expect that any intellectual in the White House will produce a book describing the experience.” The implications seem clear. I look forward to Troy’s memoirs.

The Dissent symposium does not explicitly address the change of occupants in the White House. But its timing suggests that as a subtext; and so does the editors' reference to “Our Country and Our Culture.”

The joke about Partisan Review in the 1940s was that its offices contained special typewriters with the word “alienation” on one key. So when PR held its legendary symposium in 1952, the editors’ willingness to use the first-person possessive pronoun was a meaningful gesture. It suggested the end of alienation; it signaled that intellectuals were ready to accept a place in the scene before them.

And so things stand again now, perhaps -- after eight years when the unofficial national slogan amounted to “Ignorance is Strength.”

The first part of "Intellectuals and Their America" is now available online, with more responses to follow. While I was initially intrigued by the idea (several of the contributors are writers whose work it is always worth making the time to read) the cumulative effect of reading it has been disappointment and discouragement. For the most salient thing about “Intellectuals and Their America” is how lackluster the whole enterprise seems -- how vigor-free the taking of positions.

Not to deny that certain simulations of polemic are attempted. But they prove tired and rote.

In the second part of the symposium (not yet online) Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago, revisits a familiar complaint: professors are too inclined to leftist groupthink. “I refer to Harold Rosenberg,” she writes, ”who in 1948 characterized the contemporary academy as ‘the herd of independent minds.’ ”

Except that he didn’t. Rosenberg's barbed phrase was not aimed at academy. He was complaining about his colleagues, those New York Intellectuals of song and legend, who in those days seldom gave university life a second thought. Yet their tendency to assume positions in politics and culture appeared awfully well-synchronized, even so.

It is not a defect of avant garde-inclined thinkers only, as perhaps Elshtain should know. She was part of that herd of liberal intellectuals who offered arguments in favor of the Iraq war in 2003 -- often proving quite strenuous in declaring themselves independent-minded on that score.

In his contribution to the symposium, Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, wants to put in a good word for public intellectuality: “Let’s not pretend that quarantining the life of the mind to the academy hasn’t at times made the rest of the culture sick.”

Ignoring the special qualities of this metaphor (it is both inapposite and incoherent) what seems most striking here is the implication that his point will prove controversial, somehow. Again, the contributor’s own example disproves his point. Dyson’s impressive academic career has been built almost entirely around trade-press books and mass-media appearances.

An army of university publicists works to make faculty part of the public conversation. The real issue is the quality of their interventions. Let's not pretend that generating soundbites on the topic of the day qualifies as a contribution to intellectual life, as such.

Once, the publication of this kind of symposium in a journal might clarify what was at stake in arguments among intellectuals. It could leave participants, and readers, with a sense of the state of the nation and its culture.

And indeed, one of the most important things about “Our Country and Culture” was that three contributors to it -- Irving Howe, Norman Mailer, and C. Wright Mills --clearly defined themselves as unhappy with the drift of the discussion. They were sufficiently opposed to its implicit invitation to join the American consensus that, two years later, they joined forces to help start a magazine called Dissent. And then, after a few more years, they dissented so much that they parted ways. (It is a tradition.)

If “Intellectuals and Their America” suggests that all life has gone out of the symposium as ritual, that has little to do with the era itself. The stakes now seem high enough. But the shape of public space itself has changed. Intellectual life is not a herd of independent minds. Rather, it involves any number of herds, some of them more furious than others. And the shepherding role of any given publication is now severely limited. I feel as much nostalgia for old formats as anyone, but this much seems clear: imitating a model from the Truman years seems a poor incentive to intellectual debate in the Obama era.


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