A correspondent tells me that the Wall Street Journal has reviewed the book from our Notre Dame public intellectuals conference of three years ago and that, while the book is trashed, my piece is called "entertaining and enlightening" by the reviewer Daniel Johnson. This greatly pleases me--enlightenment is all one can hope for, and if one is entertaining as well one may be read even by those who do not get paid to do so. That makes my--personal--day, and I gratefully thank him.
Unfortunately, he also writes:
Daniel Johnson: Have Public Intellectuals Ever Gotten Anything Right?: They didn’t see 9/11 coming.They also missed the 2008 crash, the Arab Spring, Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump...: "Another kind of intellectual neglected here is the religious...
...The only religious thinker who receives sustained treatment is Reinhold Niebuhr, in two papers: Jeremi Suri... and Andrew J. Bacevich...
What is Alasdair MacIntyre--especially for a conference held at Notre Dame--chopped liver?
And then there is also the living up to--or is it living down to?-- the stereotype of the male British traditionally elite-educated as frequently suffering from serious unresolved psychological toilet training issues:
Frank Johnson, the late editor of the London Spectator, once asked: “What exactly is a public intellectual?” His answer was mischievous: “Is it the same principle as a public convenience? Excuse me, officer, I’ve been caught short conceptually. Could you direct me to the nearest public intellectual?”...
So I guess I should not respond. And so I will just quietly tiptoe away...
Michael C. Desch, ed.: Public Intellectuals in the Global Arena: Professors or Pundits? (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press: 0268100241) https://amzn.to/2ifc7qn:
Contributors include: Michael C. Desch, Jeremi Suri, Andrew J. Bacevich, Willy Lam, Enrique Krauze, Ahmad S. Moussalli, Patrick Baert, J. Bradford DeLong, Paul Horwitz, Kenneth R. Miller, Gilles Andréani, Mark Lilla, Michael Zuckert, Patrick J. Deneen, and Vittorio Hösle What is a public intellectual? Where are they to be found? What accounts for the lament today that public intellectuals are either few in number or, worse, irrelevant? While there is a small literature on the role of public intellectuals, it is organized around various thinkers rather than focusing on different countries or the unique opportunities and challenges inherent in varied disciplines or professions. In Public Intellectuals in the Global Arena, Michael C. Desch has gathered a group of contributors to offer a timely and far-reaching reassessment of the role of public intellectuals in a variety of Western and non-Western settings. The contributors delineate the centrality of historical consciousness, philosophical self-understanding, and ethical imperatives for any intelligentsia who presume to speak the truth to power. The first section provides in-depth studies of the role of public intellectuals in a variety of countries or regions, including the United States, Latin America, China, and the Islamic world. The essays in the second section take up the question of why public intellectuals vary so widely across different disciplines. These chapters chronicle changes in the disciplines of philosophy and economics, changes that "have combined to dethrone the former and elevate the latter as the preeminent homes of public intellectuals in the academy." Also included are chapters that consider the evolving roles of the natural scientist, the former diplomat, and the blogger as public intellectuals. The final section provides concluding perspectives about the duties of public intellectuals in the twenty-first century.
Greg Russell: "This is a first-rate contribution to the growing body of research on the phenomenon of public intellectuals...
...It clearly ranks high in a cohort of edited volumes that include Public Intellectuals: An Endangered Species? and The Public Intellectual and the Culture of Hope. Beyond appealing to public intellectuals, these essays are a rich interdisciplinary mix that will be of interest to scholars across a wide variety of fields in the social sciences and humanities.
Daniel Johnson: Top five substantive links:
- (2007): Just a bookworm?: "[Gordon] Brown's thinking is neither cosmopolitan nor sophisticated, and he is a loner with few strong links to leading intellectual contemporaries..."
- (2013): Islam Is Not a Peaceful Religion struggling teams]_
- (2013): ‘Islam is the most direct threat to Western civilization in the world today’
- (2014): [Formula 1 Breaking News: Now correspondent critiques * (2016): _America, Europe and Standpoint: "A division of humanity into Muslims and the rest is not the doing of Donald Trump, but a choice made by the Islamic authorities..."
Daniel Johnson: Have Public Intellectuals Ever Gotten Anything Right?: "They didn’t see 9/11 coming.They also missed the 2008 crash, the Arab Spring, Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump...
...In the 20 years or so since the term “public intellectual” became current, the members of this self-appointed club seem to have learned nothing from their failure to predict the collapse of communism or make sense of its aftermath. They didn’t see 9/11 coming, nor the 2008 financial crash, nor the Arab Spring. In the past two years they missed the emergence of Islamic State, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and, most recently, Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump.
Not all public intellectuals have been wrong about all these events, of course, but their consensus has been so misguided so often that the public they claim to enlighten might recall the biblical image of the blind leading the blind.
Frank Johnson, the late editor of the London Spectator, once asked: “What exactly is a public intellectual?” His answer was mischievous: “Is it the same principle as a public convenience? Excuse me, officer, I’ve been caught short conceptually. Could you direct me to the nearest public intellectual?”
The volume of essays “Public Intellectuals in the Global Arena: Professors or Pundits?” makes only tentative stabs at an answer. Michael C. Desch, the editor, quotes a number of definitions of which the best seems to me to predate the concept. Some 70 years ago, Lionel Trilling—one of the greatest examples of the species—lauded “the impulse to insist that the activity of politics be united with the imagination under the aspect of the mind.”
Alas, such an impulse is not much in evidence here. Rather, what we have is a collection of conference papers animated less by any concern for the commonweal than by the self-importance of the modern academy. The subtitle of the book indicates the narrowly institutionalized limits of the authors’ conception of the intellectual life. For them, a public intellectual is either a professor or a pundit, and very often a professorial pundit.
Yet most of the intellectuals in the history of Western civilization who would have met Trilling’s definition have been neither professors nor pundits. Many have been poets: From Dante to Goethe, from Homer to T.S. Eliot, poets have exercised a profound influence on political thought. That, after all, is why Plato sought to ban them in his “Republic.” Yet poets, and indeed men and women of letters in general, are conspicuous by their absence from this book.
Another kind of intellectual neglected here is the religious. Priests and rabbis have educated many of the best in the West. The only religious thinker who receives sustained treatment is Reinhold Niebuhr, in two papers: Jeremi Suri’s “Historical Consciousness, Realism, and Public Intellectuals in American Society” and Andrew J. Bacevich’s “American Public Intellectuals and the Early Cold War.” Neither author is in the least interested in Niebuhr’s theology. For Mr. Suri, he is merely the “Christian realist” who inspired George Kennan and Henry Kissinger. Likewise, what mainly concerns Mr. Bacevich is Niebuhr’s impact on Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.—that, and an opportunity to opine that Osama bin Laden’s revival of the caliphate “was never going to gain mass appeal.” These papers were written in 2013, just a year before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi actually proclaimed a new caliphate in Mosul. Mr. Bacevich describes himself as “a leading public intellectual”; if indeed he is, God help America.
A third category in my far from exhaustive list of glaring omissions in this volume is women. A secularist bias might explain the lack of such cerebral saints as Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila or Edith Stein, but why ignore atheists like George Eliot, Rosa Luxemburg or Ayn Rand? Why, in Patrick Baert’s paper on “The Philosopher as Public Intellectual,” is the focus on Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre rather than Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir—especially as the women’s ideas have weathered better than the men’s?
None of this is to say that this volume is without merit: Indeed, many of the chapters are excellent. Mark Lilla revisits his seminal study of totalitarian thinkers, “The Reckless Mind” (2001), and is as usual worth reading on what has gone awry with liberal democracy. (He may be correct that the polarized politics of “Left” and “Right,” inaugurated by the French Revolution, has outlived their usefulness.) There is entertainment and enlightenment to be had, too, from Gilles Andréani on “Diplomats as Intellectuals” in the French context; from Kenneth R. Miller and J. Bradford DeLong on the public role of scientists and economists respectively; and from chapters on public intellectualism in China (by Willy Lam), Latin America (by Enrique Krauze) and the Islamic world (by Ahmad S. Moussalli).
Yet the dictatorship of relativism that particularly afflicts the academy prevents most of the professors in this volume from asking what it is that gives gravitas to a public intellectual. It is not the possession of a prestigious university position but rather a breadth and depth of learning, the presence of invisible masters whose apprentice one has been. In 1947, Susan Sontag visited Thomas Mann at his villa in Los Angeles. She was 14; he was over 70. What she recalled was “books, books, books.” “To be in the same room with Thomas Mann was thrilling,” she wrote. “But I was also hearing the siren call of the first private library I had ever seen.” Do the economists who, as Bradford DeLong points out, now monopolize our op-ed pages still possess private libraries as the likes of John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek did? To serve the public, intellectuals must have a private hinterland.
On a personal note: In the introduction to this book my father, Paul Johnson, is quoted warning in 1988, “One of the principal lessons of our tragic century, which has seen so many millions of innocent lives sacrificed in schemes to improve the lot of humanity, is—beware intellectuals.” Now 88, he has met most of the postwar presidents, and his books have been cited by some of them, but he has never held or sought office. It was thus all the more gratifying when George W. Bush gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006. For the American republic thus to recognize a public intellectual (and a foreigner, too) is simply magnificent. And it reminds us that self-denial should be a condition of exercising influence. Only intellectuals who have no love of power should be allowed anywhere near it.
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