American Intellectuals and The Age
By Joshua Trevino
Created 2007-02-13 13:24
Tony Judt is in the public eye mostly for his wrongheaded opinions on Israel, and it’s a pity, because his signal professional achievement is his diligent and valuable exposition of European, and specifically French, intellectual life and culture for an American audience. I am quite sure that he and I are on opposite sides of the domestic political scene; but we are not so far apart on larger issues, including anticommunism, and our admiration for Raymond Aron. (Judt did not introduce me to Aron, but he gets credit for explaining Aron to me.) I write this because I am reading a small book by Judt now: The Burden of Responsibility, as the title suggests, addresses the question of engagement and moral responsibility as grasped by three public intellectuals of mid-20th century France. Leon Blum, Albert Camus, and Raymond Aron all grappled with their roles as thinkers and observers in different ways: Blum actually led his nation twice; Camus was ambivalent and sometimes absent; and Aron detached himself, the better to observe. I have not finished the book, so I will not comment more upon it here. One must wonder, though, whether a similar tome will be written about American public intellectuals of this decade in years to come — and one must wonder what its verdict will be.
The first thing that must be said of American public intellectuals of the present day is they are mostly pretenders to the title. There are many ideologues, but few thinkers. Our academic class yields some of the most shrill, shallow, and vicious participants in the public square. The flagship journals of American ideology are uniquely devoid of powerful intellects of any stripe. On the right, the two publications of note are the National Review and The Weekly Standard. The former holds its primacy by dint of history rather than any accomplishment now; and the latter is a creature of the moment that will recede to a purely niche publication as its wars are slowly lost. On the left, The New Republic, The Nation, and The American Prospect function mostly as partisan publications, and therefore participate with alacrity in partisan dogfights. (The eschewing of TNR in particular is a showcase of the costs of insufficient party loyalty.) This is not useless work; nor it is not distinguishing or demanding work. We thus see that the putative fountainheads of ideas and values on left and right run dry. They are publications of tactics and means rather than objectives and ends. Advocates of the new media declare that blogs have taken over the intellectual-leadership role that the old journals have abdicated. This is nonsense: if the flap over Marcotte and McEwan demonstrated anything, it is that the chief proponents of the “netroots” are far more interested in defending any fool with a laptop who shares their politics, than in an assessment of ideas and values. There is rational self-interest in this — therein lie jobs, power, and the self-actualization inherent in swaying the masses — but we should not dignify it with more. However you look at it, online or off, in the space where the American public intellectual would be, there is mostly vacuum.
This is not always a flaw. America is blessed with a history that is comparatively free of the type of thinker who shapes history and kills millions. It it apt that the chief product of American philosophical thought is labeled “pragmatism.” Contrast this with Europe and its baleful history of theorists from Hegel to Marx to Sartre and beyond, who either inspired slaughter, or made it acceptable in polite company. The resultant politics of the Continent speak for themselves, from the annihilative wars to the enervating embrace of the mothering state. But it does not follow from this that a class of thinkers must be a bad thing. If America has comparatively few, then it is important that they be comparatively good. At no time is this more obvious than when bad thinkers seize the helm of our state and public life.
It is a curiosity of history that our country entered an intensely ideological age only after the end of the great ideological struggle of the Cold War. That struggle was mostly fought on the grounds of America qua America, little affected by the vicissitudes of domestic politics. (This faltered somewhat in the 1970s, but remains broadly true for the era.) The first half of the 1990s brought something different to the fore: just as De Gaulle proclaimed his adherence to “a certain idea of France,” so emerged politics attendant to certain ideas of America, in ways not seen since the Civil War. The slow failure of progressivism intersected with the organizational coalescence of conservatism: and the two currents, and their innumerable crosscurrents, flowed with more or less equal strength. The disturbing phenomenon of our era is these certain ideas of America, and the narrow visions that sustain them. Much ink is spilled over “red” and “blue” Americas, and the division is oversimplified as a crutch for the lackluster pundit. It has a core of truth nonetheless, even if its meaningful expression is not one of mere aesthetic or material preferences: it is these certain ideas that inform the division.
These certain ideas are almost all strikingly bad, and the thinkers that advance them are as bad. Every major current of thought appears to negate its own self-description, and every proponent of every school seems largely oblivious to this central truth. A self-described conservative will espouse small government and a fantastical social engineering project in Iraq. A self-described liberal will espouse Constitutional liberties and the progressive vision of governance that annihilates the Constitution. A self-described conservative will espouse small-town values and encompassing corporatism. A self-described liberal will weep over genocide in Darfur abetted by American inaction, and work to guarantee genocide in Iraq through American retreat. A self-described conservative will cut taxes and implement the largest entitlement program in a generation. Contradiction is part of the human condition, true, but surely it need not be the defining feature of the political condition. This is a state of affairs that leads to bloody, silly, tragic things in our national life: a feckless wonderland of tacticians, divorced from the ordinary demands of reality like accountability, restraint, and reason. (Among its more absurd consequences, note that of the front-runners for the Republicans’ 2008 presidential nomination — McCain, Romney, Giuliani — none are sincere conservatives, and all demand to be described as such.) Though reality is deniable, it is not escapable. In the end, its consequences come due.
Judt writes of the era of the irresponsibility of the public intellectuals in France. He thinks it is in the past, and I disagree. But we do agree, I think, on what constitutes that irresponsibility. I cannot help but think it an apt characterization of American public intellectualism now. Those of us who dare to think in public, whether observational or prescriptive, great or small, have done our country no service. We deepen our attachment to our certain ideas of America through our rejection and ridicule of competing ideas and those who hold them, without subjecting our own ideas to meaningful critique. Worse, we pretend to intellectual leadership as we practice mere cheerleading. The very notion of the public thinker devolves into the sum of his politics, which is itself an expression of inherent apartness. It is a pathetic state. When the book is written about American public intellectuals of this decade in years to come, its verdict will be that they were unserious and irresponsible — and that they were not intellectuals at all.