Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

On the Unfortunate Decline of the Idea and the Public Intellectual

with 2 comments

Concomitant with the rise of new forms of mass media are new tools for expressing one’s opinion—on everything, but especially political matters.  Twitter, Facebook, other social media sites and the Internet in general now make it easy to eviscerate traditional media’s role in opinion dissemination and political commentary: to wit, the guardians of quality, allowing for the distinction, as it were, between good art and bad artifice.  To be sure, mass media affords the common American a hitherto unprecedented voice in American politics, not to mention an opportunity to stay informed at a high level, but it also thrusts her into the position of political commentator, whose opinions we value often at a level previously reserved for the public intellectual, the social commentator, or the essayist (a long lost art after George Orwell).  Doubtless, mass media has opened the space for the culture of political “pundits,” operatives, commentators, polling experts, psephologists, and strategists.  Indeed, these individuals inhabit our airwaves, engaging in their pseudo-intellectual vocation, caviling and carping over trifling matters—the tie someone sported and the “message” it either consciously or subconsciously sent, the meaning of an official’s particular gesticulations as she delivered a speech, or the recent “beltway” canards and calumnies—with the constant benefit of infallible hindsight.  While the American polity chugs along with historic problems, one finds these ubiquitous individuals continually missing the forest for the trees.

I surmise that one reason public intellectuals of the past—here I have in mind, to name just a few, Albert Einstein, Madame Curie, John Maynard Keynes, Norman Mailer, Reinhold Niebuhr, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Gore Vidal—maintained their prominence in political and social commentary was their ability to entertain big ideas and offer trenchant insight into American society, for which the American public at the time had an appetite, and nearly always in a way that was accessible to the average citizen.  Their ideas were by no means pleasing and often critical; nevertheless, Americans read them, entertained them, and ruminated them.

“Ideas just aren’t what they used to be.  Once upon a time, they could ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world,” posits Neal Gabler in a fascinating piece in last month’s New York Times Sunday Review.  “If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it is not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just do not care as much about ideas as they did.  In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world—a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that cannot instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding.  Bold ideas are almost passé.”

Occasionally, late-night talk shows would invite intellectuals like Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. on their programs to discuss current events.  Alas, those are bygone days in American history! “There is the eclipse of the public intellectual in the general media by the pundit who substitutes outrageousness for thoughtfulness, and the concomitant decline of the essay in general-interest magazines.  And there is the rise of an increasingly visual culture, especially among the young—a form in which ideas are more difficult to express.”

Garber contends that we live in an environment beyond Post-Enlightenment, where thinking no longer employs the techniques of rational thought—namely, that of the post-idea world.  The post-idea world is one where most people do not think at all, regardless of the mode of inquiry.  Indeed, it seems ironic but in the age of information, where man has the ability to know nearly anything, with heretofore the greatest ease, humans are thinking about ideas less and less.  (Perhaps, the greatest irony is how thought-provoking Garber’s article itself is.)

“In the past, we collected information not simply to know things.  That was only the beginning.  We also collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful—into ideas that made sense of the information.  We sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas.”  Here, Garber is spot-on, though perhaps he does not explicate fully the implications for the public intellectual.  Great ideas explain the world to us, and public intellectuals entertain great ideas, packaging them neatly for American readers, and making them accessible for most everybody.  They were imperative to answering the writhing questions of our human existence.

Hence, information competes with ideas, pushing ideas to the background will information overtakes the foreground.  Americans would rather discuss information than big ideas, which are cumbersome, theoretical, or impractical—not to mention less rewarding, both economically and socially.  Although there exist websites dedicated to discussing big ideas, the websites that are most popular—Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and Flikr—house information, and hardly the type of information that engenders ideas.  To make matters worse, Garber notes, among American youth these mediums supplant print, wherein ideas generally reside.  “While social networking may enlarge one’s circle and even introduce one to strangers, this is not the same thing as enlarging one’s intellectual universe.  Indeed, the gab of social networking tends to shrink one’s universe to oneself and one’s friends, while thoughts organized in words, whether online or on the page, enlarge one’s focus.”

And so while there may be successors to the aforementioned public intellectuals, they are not likely to receive traction in a culture that values information and facts more than ideas.  Moreover, Americans with good ideas are likely to take their ideas to the marketplace—or at the very least feel pressure to do so.  But there is a difference between entrepreneurialism and inventions (i.e., material) and intellectually stimulating thoughts (i.e., ideational).  Lastly, one may also view the cultural traction (or lack thereof) of contemporary big ideas, with specific reference to a book that sounded a powerful tocsin against anti-intellectualism in America—Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.  Today, one may suspect that Bloom’s magnum opus, which topped the New York Times best-seller list in its day, would barely make a ripple.


2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Ryan, excellent analysis, and it relates back to the post on Solitude and Leadership. One obtains information — almost by definition — in a social setting. Perhaps today we need solitude to generate ideas, since they seem not present in social settings. And perhaps the world has not yet figured out how to propagate ideas in an internet-dominated age.


    September 14, 2011 at 8:44 am

  2. […] great interest to many readers is the chapter on Judt’s transformation into a public intellectual, shortly after his arrival in New York. He and Snyder tackle some of the most vexing questions […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: