Special Report

The Plight of the Public Intellectual

Just what does it mean to be a leading intellectual? One of our honorees weighs in on the burdens and pleasures of making a living by ideas.

Has anyone ever described themselves as an "intellectual," or given it as the answer to the frequently asked question, "And what do you do?" The very term "public intellectual" sometimes affects me rather like the expression "organic food." After all, there can’t be any inorganic nourishment, and it’s difficult to conceive of an intellectual, at least since Immanuel Kant, whose specialization was privacy. However, we probably do need a term that expresses a difference between true intellectuals and the rival callings of "opinion maker" or "pundit," especially as the last two are intimately bound up with the world of television. (I recently rewatched the historic 40-year-old ABC News confrontation between Gore Vidal and the late William F. Buckley at the Chicago Democratic Convention. The astonishing thing was that the network gave these two intellects a full 22 minutes to discuss matters after the news. How far we have fallen from that standard of commentary.)

I did once hear the political scientist Alan Wolfe introduce himself as "a New York intellectual," staking a claim to a tradition that extends all the way back to the founding of Partisan Review. Taking this characterization to be America’s most lasting contribution to the resonance of the term "public intellectual," one could note that it largely described people who worked outside the academy and indeed outside of large-scale publishing, tending to be self-starting independents or editors of "minority of one"-type magazines. Sociologist Daniel Bell finally got a position in academe, but only after being awarded the necessary Ph.D. for the number of important books he had written without hope of tenure. The late Susan Sontag, whom I knew and admired, likewise made her way through life without a steady job, a reliable source of income, or, for quite a number of years, shelter. Gore Vidal never went to a university — even as an undergraduate (being, if only in this respect, like George Orwell, Partisan Review‘s London correspondent). The number of counterexamples that one might adduce from within the academy — from Noam Chomsky to Nathan Glazer, and including the Chicago School sometimes associated with Leo Strauss — doesn’t very much alter the force of my point. To be a public intellectual is in some sense something that you are, and not so much something that you do. Many scholars are intelligent and highly regarded professors, but they are somehow not public intellectuals.

Of all the people I have mentioned, I cannot think of any — except Wolfe — who would have said on his or her own behalf, "I am an intellectual." In some sense, then, it is a title that has to be earned by the opinion of others. I remember watching an obscure and now-forgotten play when I was about 15 years old, in which it was said of one character, "[He] is an intellectual. He solves his problems with his mind." I recall thinking, quite self-consciously, that I would like this to be said about myself one day. The very high probability now exists that the blogosphere and the punditocracy are allowing people simply to say it of themselves. The need for instant analysis, or at any rate the demand for it, is every week increasing the profile and scope of individuals who feel no sense of embarrassment at having, as we used to say, "no unpublished thoughts."

What, then, are the uses of the term "public intellectual"? It assists us in defining someone who makes his or her living through the battle of ideas. It very often helps us to learn something about a foreign culture or a foreign state; the Russian intellectual dissidents of the 1970s and 80s provide a gold standard in this regard. Notably, the term has rather lost its original association with the culture of France, and especially of the cafes of the Parisian Left Bank. When readers ranked the intellectuals on Prospect/FP’s 2005 list, only one French name made the top 40, and this year’s list has only five French, all told. (The omission of Bernard-Henri Lévy and Pascal Bruckner astonishes me.) As far as I have been able to determine, the very word "intellectual" was popularized as a term of abuse during the Dreyfus affair, the late 19th-century political scandal that divided France over the supposed loyalties of its young Jewish artillery officer. The coinage then suggested that the pro-Dreyfus faction was insufficiently rooted in nation and loyalty, preferring as they did the urbane abstractions of "the intellect" to the verities of church and soil. I personally hope that the word never quite loses this association with the subversive.

A notable change in the past few years, though, has been the disjunction of the term from its old association with the left, and with the secular. Readers of FP and Prospect ranked Eric Hobsbawm 18th out of 100 in 2005 — he was then 88 years old — but this year, with the exception of Slavoj Zizek, I don’t think there is a single person on the list who still self-identifies as a Marxist. (By the way, of others who belong to Hobsbawm’s club of those born in 1917, both the British historian Robert Conquest and the Irish scholar and diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien would have been worth considering. Of those born later, so would writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, especially on a list where the pope is the only other German apart from Habermas, and so would the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto.) A further blow to secularism must be felt in the inclusion not just of Tariq Ramadan, but of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian-born cleric who issues micro-fatwas and other guides to the Muslim perplexed glued to Al Jazeera. It’s heartening to see the absence this time around of the grand ayatollah of Shiite Iraq, Ali al-Sistani, who made the 2005 list in baffling fashion.

Actually, the clerics I have just mentioned might qualify more than most on this list as men of thought who are also men of action. Their secular equivalents were described by Anthony Powell in his memoirs as "the d’Annunzio type, the writer who is also a man of action (Malraux, Koestler, Mishima, Mailer)." In his study of American public intellectuals, Judge Richard Posner lamented the decline of this activist element as another result of the domination of universities and the rise of specialization, which was why the subtitle of his book was "A Study in Decline." Some might have thought that the same point was proved in a different way by Posner’s own choice of top intellectual, none other than Henry Kissinger.

But I should not just criticize others. Because I am able to appear on television, give a speech at short notice, and write at high speed, I very often find myself invited, and also tempted, to offer instant responses and to weigh in on diverse matters. Doing so is sometimes enjoyable and sometimes, too, a sort of revenge for the number of times one has had to mouth curses at the screen or throw the newspaper up into the air with sheer exasperation. Nonetheless, I do my very best to say "no" to at least a few of these invitations, lest I become too much of an all-purpose hack. (I am well aware that this last sentence of mine exposes me to e-mail traffic that I can, thank you, already anticipate.)

To the problem of the self-appointed guide and sage, one must also append the thorny question of self-appointed public opinion. Unrepresentative groups of people — like those who take part in electronic referendums on their AOL screens to determine such questions as whether Eliot Spitzer should be prosecuted — have become used to thinking "that’s me" when they read "this is what you decided." The fact that there is a distinction between "You" (as in You the People) and "You" (as in You who overvisits YouTube) is very often blurred in the interests of populism or, to phrase it another way, in the interests of flattering the consumer. The idea of an intellectual standard is unlikely to thrive in such an environment, which, furthermore, is already sufficiently poll-driven.

What one might call the "selectorate," even in these august pages, is a self-selectorate that can be activated by the Web site of a person with a fan base. (Posner’s criteria for inclusion on his list were a combination of the number of media mentions, Web hits, and scholarly citations.) I was recently made aware of a poll on Charlie Rose’s Web site ranking the popularity of his recent interviews. I was delighted, in a way, to find his interview with me at the top (1,059 votes), surpassing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (505 votes) and former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush (344 and 494 votes, respectively). I was thunderstruck to find myself ahead of Angelina Jolie (252 votes, in tandem with Mariane Pearl), Jay-Z (331 votes), and Warren Buffett (392 votes). But, as you will readily see from a hasty scrutiny of the figures, a world in which a measurable electorate decides these rankings does not actually exist outside the Charlie Rose Web site. Such a world, if it did exist, would be incapable of putting me on almost the same footing as Vaclav Havel, at numbers five and four, respectively, an absurd event, but one that did actually occur three years ago under the aegis of FP and Prospect‘s reader poll. The last time that I had such a vertiginous sensation was when the Washington Post Style section did its New Year’s roundup of "In" and "Out," declaring that I was "out" in some journalistic category, whereas Tucker Carlson was the one "in." Fair enough, I recall muttering to myself, except that I could never remember having been certified as "in" in the first place.

Indeed, one might do worse than to say that an intellectual is someone who does not, or at least does not knowingly and obviously, attempt to soar on the thermals of public opinion. There ought to be a word for those men and women who do their own thinking; who are willing to stand the accusation of "elitism" (or at least to prefer it to the idea of populism); who care for language above all and guess its subtle relationship to truth; and who will be willing and able to nail a lie. If such a person should also have a sense of irony and a feeling for history, then, as the French say, "tant mieux." An intellectual need not be one who, in a well-known but essentially meaningless phrase, "speaks truth to power." (Chomsky has dryly reminded us that power often knows the truth well enough.) However, the attitude toward authority should probably be skeptical, as should the attitude toward utopia, let alone to heaven or hell. Other aims should include the ability to survey the present through the optic of a historian, the past with the perspective of the living, and the culture and language of others with the equipment of an internationalist. In other words, the higher one comes in any "approval" rating of this calling, the more uneasily one must doubt one’s claim to the title in the first place.

Christopher Hitchens is contributing editor at Vanity Fair and author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007).