Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The New Public Intellectuals: A Response to Nicholas Kristof

Nick Kristof's Sunday New York Times piece ("Professors, We Need You!") decrying the decline of the public intellectual has been the op-ed that launched a thousand think-pieces. Corey Robin's excellent blog post highlighting the many public intellectuals who toil in relative digital obscurity and Carol Emberton's thoughtful letter to Kristof criticizing his myopic exclusion of the abundance of professors and graduate students engaging the public through blogs and in the classroom, represent two of the best of these responses. Despite the proliferation of comments on Kristof's piece, I think two fundamental problems with Kristof's op-ed are being ignored: first, a nostalgia for a bygone era of a public intellectual that I'm not certain ever existed and second, a misplaced implied belief in a public monoculture for intellectuals to reach.

In his complaining about "turgid prose" and academics' sealing themselves away from the public in ivory prisons, Kristof is vague about what he is comparing this era of public-intellectual disengagement to. Throughout his piece there is an implication that we need to return to the good ole days when intellectuals were pivotal figures in public debates about policy, society, and culture. But when were these halcyon days? For my dissertation I'm writing about university based China specialists, a group who yearned to reach a broad public and shape policy. What I've found is that even in the supposed 'golden age of the expert' in the 1930s and 1940s, even the most prominent China scholars were marginal voices in public debates. Even John K. Fairbank, a man with Harvard pedigree and relationships in government (he worked for the Office of Strategic Services and Office of War Information during World War II) and journalism (he was Theodore H. White's advisor), had little influence when compared to non-academic China pundits like Pearl Buck and Henry Luce. For academic China scholars and, I suspect many scholars, finding a public receptive to their ideas proved elusive even in the best of times.

Beyond overstating the past relationship between university intellectuals and the public, Kristof short-changes the public contribution intellectuals make today by positing a kind of unified public which intellectuals could reach if only they were more willing. Does this unified public exist? There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about the death of an American monoculture. The internet has made it easier to connect with similarly interested people across great expanses and the proliferation of cultural forms from small indie music labels, to cable TV channels (AMC, HBO, Sundance, etc.) and Netflix, and torrenting limited release films has created too much pop culture for any mortal to follow. Just as the monoculture has died in music, TV, and film, it has also compromised the ability for intellectuals to reach a broad, unified public. Just as my generation has no great American rock band or M*A*S*H finale, it won't have an Arthur Schlesinger Jr. or a "Culture of Narcissism". The public intellectual, as Kristof understands the term, is a relic.

This does not mean that professors and graduate students are not doing work that makes a difference to people outside academia. There are more public intellectuals than ever before, just not in the narrow sense of Kristof's definition. The new public intellectuals don't reach a public, we reach publics. We contribute articles to print and digital publications like Slate and The Atlantic. We write blog posts which often reach thousands of people across the world. We give public lectures on our research and teach students who then disseminate their views outside the university. We offer unprecedented transparency into our research and writing processes through social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

The new public intellectuals are difficult to find, not because they do not exist, but because they are so enmeshed with their publics that it is challenging to determine where the intellectual ends and her readership begins. Technology has made it possible for scholars to interact with their readers with greater ease than ever before. We are also more skeptical about power than ever before and the bifurcation between 'intellectual' and non-intellectual. The new public intellectual recognizes that everyone has ideas and that, while academics may have expert knowledge of a sort, they do not have an exceptional status as producers of ideas.

The new public intellectuals are difficult to find because they don't stand above the crowd, they are the crowd.