what is america’s foremost public intellectual?

Earlier this week, following a too familiar media scuffle over Mitt Romney, the American family, and race, Ta-Nehisi Coates published an article that described MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry as America’s “foremost public intellectual.” Coates’ Harris-Perry is a brave and unusual public voice, in large part because of her identity: an educated black woman in an overwhelmingly white, male public discourse. Coates’ hyperbole–an intellectual’s “foremost”-ness ranks that which defies measurement–provoked a predictable firestorm. According to these comments, Harris-Perry cannot be a “foremost” public intellectual because she is not Noam Chomsky, the profession’s prototype, or because she is not often cited in the halls of power, or because she does not shape the common structure of our public sphere.

These objections contain subtle half-truths, and little more. What a public intellectual is–professionally, socially, politically, and otherwise–rests entirely on two dilemmas, awkwardly combined: what a “public” is, and whose ideas the public accepts. These questions are as fresh in our contemporary discourse as they are age-old–in fact, they underpin the very contours of our political conversation.

Over the past few years, I have engaged a slow, plodding biographical study of Tony Judt, the late historian whose profound prose Coates and I recently share in common. For a short two decades between 1992, when Judt published a controversial study of postwar French intellectuals, and 2010, when he died, very slowly, of ALS, Judt was a “public intellectual,” by many definitions. His biography, a very interesting one, offers three preliminary insights into what a public intellectual is, and how we should think about the pillars of such a person’s identity.

Ideology: An intellectual’s ideas are not independent–they exist in an ideology, the society of ideas with which they publicly and privately cohere and differ. An intellectual can proclaim themselves “non-ideological,” as a politician proclaims themselves “non-partisan,” but the social act of discussing ideas requires that they agree with some similar idea, whether in structure, logic, or outcome. Even the discussions of Socrates, Western history’s most storied gadfly, created ideologies–modes of thought with which his students disagreed, and against which they defined the substance of their own ideas. Judt was also ideological, despite Coates’ insistence to the contrary: in refuting the totalitarian-lite preferences of postwar French intellectuals, in Past Imperfect, he associated with a particular (Isaiah Berlin-inspired) definition of “freedom”; in dismissing the Zionism of the hawkish American left, he adopted a particular concept of political Jewishness. Judt’s intellectual milieu made much of Vaclav Havel’s trope, “speaking truth to power.” But his ideas, like those of all public intellectuals, were just another power, crafting another truth, however more righteous.

Access: When Coates described Harris-Perry’s qualifications, he was quick to cite her credentials: degrees from top universities, a prominent job. Of course, these are metrics of influence, but they also indicate access, a feature not necessarily driven by the quality of an intellectual’s ideas. As social justice advocates often observe, access is more reliably an indication of privilege, less of inherent intellectual value. Harris-Perry may be morally correct on some topics, and wrong on others, but it usually doesn’t matter: her influence rests on her credentials, the currency of our current meritocracy. Like Harris-Perry, who brushed against a public racial taboo, Judt’s post-Zionism ruffled the delicate pro-Israel opinions of a liberal intelligentsia. He faced significant objections, and some alleged efforts to restrict his public commentary, but remained tied to NYU, his home institution, and the New York Review of Books, which first published his critical commentary on Israel in 2003. Judt could afford to be a public intellectual because his public offered few sustained consequences for his dissidence.

Audience: When Coates asserted that Harris-Perry was the foremost public intellectual in America, he took two statements for granted: that “America” is a unitary public, and that its publicness carries social and moral meaning. Surveying the American media landscape, the most reliable proxy for our national public sphere, both statements appear patently, unavoidably false. “America” is surely a salient concept and identity for many, including those who live within the borders of the United States, but its salience, symbols, and virtues diverge along that stretch of highway between Chicago’s South Side and the plains of Oklahoma. Logically, its publics must also split. There are those who view a stretch of 57th Street as their common ground, and others who view morning-time Fox News talk-shows as a vessel for their cultural norms. Judt also faced these divided publics. Left-wing French intellectuals incited literary riots over his damning historical portrait of their predecessors; the New York Times Book Review, in contrast, featured a generous front-page essay on Past Imperfect, but few would describe its American reception as “publicly prominent.”

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