One of my favorite Woody Allen lines comes from Annie Hall, when, while walking with his second wife through a throng of the who’s who of New York academia, he quips: “I heard that commentary and dissent had merged and formed dysentery.”
At the risk of reading too far into ironic repartee, I have to wonder what exactly he meant by “dissent.” I am tempted to believe that the butt of the joke (excuse me) was the commentary, and not the dissent; it was what he calls later in that same scene “fake insights.” I cannot believe that Allen—coming from that community of “left-wing, Jewish, communist, homosexual pornographers” that are New Yorkers—would take any issue with the Václav Havels of the world. Yet after all, Havel, more than almost anyone else, best exemplified what we could call, without a negative judgment, dysentery. It is actually this dysentery that produces some of the most remarkable moments in human history. I guess the trick is just keeping it away from where we eat.
Over the last several months we have witnessed the deaths of some of the world’s most influential dysenterists: Havel, Christopher Hitchens, and Andrew Breitbart (though Breitbart is hardly a shoo-in to this category). While these people certainly do not offer a singular worldview, they are all at least united in their commitment to espousing to the masses their unorthodox yet usually reasonable and intellectually honest ideas. They are all, really, public intellectuals.
Of course, it is difficult to draw the line between a public intellectual and an academic (and between those two and a person who is a real threat to society, for that matter). It’s easy enough to say that the ivory tower academics, useful though they may be in their own respect, are decidedly lacking in the “public” element of the definition: It seems that to qualify these days as a public intellectual you must make at least one appearance on either The Daily Show or Real Time with Bill Maher. While an academic typically remains dedicated to her own area of expertise, a public intellectual expands this area by synthesizing divergent fields of knowledge and thus represents the “moral conscience of their age,” as Sartre famously put it.
But where do we put people like Slavoj Žižek? Cornel West? Both are certainly public enough, but there is a delicate balance between being public and being legitimate—we cannot ignore the ever-present specter of opportunism that beckons constantly to people in their positions. The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier fairly convincingly disposes of West’s “marriage of populism and esotericism,” and reduces his ultimate message to calling for “a better world.” While his intentions engender sympathy, he simply does not have the intellectual respect necessary to earn that hallowed title.
Žižek may have a more compelling case but, especially in light of his reaction to the Occupy Wall Street movement, he seems also to be missing something. In an op-ed in The New York Times last October after Žižek’s semi-famous speech to Occupiers in Zuccotti Park, the U of C’s own Bernard Harcourt accused him of clinging to “worn-out ideologies rooted in the Cold War.” Harcourt seems to be onto something: Žižek can hardly be considered the moral conscience of his age when he attempts to co-opt a leaderless movement and calls for “a strong body able to reach quick decisions and to implement them with all necessary harshness.”
“But what do we need public intellectuals for anyway?” you may ask. “We have plenty of private intellectuals, and this idea of a universalizing, moral conscience does seem a bit dangerous after all.” For one, public intellectuals can set the agenda and crusade. This role is obviously important under totalitarian rule; I need only point to Václav Havel in Communist Czechoslovakia. Yet it is still important under democratic regimes. Public intellectuals, much more so than elected representatives, are in a better position to identify issues that really matter to the public. Elected politicians are ultimately held accountable by that same public, but much more often by the collective capital they need to run for office (especially in a post–Citizens United America—just ask Sheldon Adelson). The public intellectual enjoys her influence almost exclusively by the will of the public, and so it is to them that she is especially responsible. Furthermore, a public intellectual does not make issues by carpet bombing the airwaves, but rather identifies them by having a finger on the public pulse. Public intellectuals are public intellectuals because they are trusted. Politicians? See Congress’s approval ratings. Television hosts? See Glenn Beck.
It’s too easy to fault Obama for a lack of leadership (trust me, I’ve done it), but it is important to keep in mind the difficulty for any elected official to lead effectively in the absence of a universally applicable rallying point—immediately after 9/11, even Bush was a revered leader. The various influences exerted on him at all times on almost all issues are inconceivably complicated; on the other hand, a public intellectual has the luxury of devoting herself to an issue from as pure and uncomplicated a starting point as possible. Especially as campaign finance reform is receding rapidly as an issue and the disconnect between the elected and electorate widens, leadership from public intellectuals is absolutely vital to the health of our national discourse and for the progressive agenda.
That sort of disinterested leadership is what this country truly needs. Unfortunately, it seems like anyone with the credentials to be a public intellectual in America probably doesn’t want to be part of a club that would have her as a member. As for Noam Chomsky? Well, la-di-da.
Colin Bradley is a second-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.