Intellectuals and Their America

Intellectuals and Their America

I doubt there is a “should” here anywhere. How one responds to the first query will turn, in part, on whom one places within the category “American intellectuals.” For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that those who make a living using pen and voice to make arguments in and for the “public square” and do so from a variety of starting points–political theory, ethics, sociology, economics, on and on–are properly identified as intellectuals. This group extends beyond the world of the professoriate; it includes independent intellectuals as well. But there is no monistic stance that “ought” to be taken by this diverse group. Pushing such a requirement would defeat the purpose of an independent intelligentsia. So, no “should.” This by no means concludes the argument.

Consider the range of possible stances taken by American intellectuals. I can identify at least three: the first sees mass culture in its various incarnations as an instrument of the powerful who are out to manipulate public opinion and “mass” tastes everywhere. Mass culture is an instrument in the hands of venal private interests. A second position is to embrace popular culture as inherently democratic or populist–the Internet especially, which is said to open the universe of public opinion to everyone without distinction. (Rarely taken up is the question whether a crude leveling of opinion follows perforce and blunts our capacity to make necessary judgments about a whole range of phenomena.) The third position is a sic et non, yes and no that assesses the productions of mass culture with reference to stated ideals: freedom, equality, justice, decency, protecting privacy, promoting social change, and so on. My hunch is that the preponderance of American intellectuals who speak of mass culture fit within this broader and more nuanced category. But it is primarily the unnuanced positions—either total negation or enthusiastic embrace—that garner the lion’s share of attention. Unfortunate, but there you have it. The third stance should be preferred. If intellectuals have any purpose at all, it is to help us to think of relevant distinctions for the purpose of analyzing and criticizing political life.

As to the benefit or liabilities of the academy, there is a famous story about the inimitable Flannery O’Connor. Miss O’Connor, as she preferred to be known, had just completed a lecture at a college she was visiting. She asked for questions and one student raised her hand and intoned breathlessly: “Miss O’Connor, don’t you think that college stifles young creative writers?” O’Connor’s response: “To the contrary, I don’t think it stifles enough of them.” My view is similar: perhaps the academy does too little to “stifle” certain engagements of intellectuals with American society. I refer to Harold Rosenberg, who in 1948 characterized the contemporary academy as “the herd of independent minds....

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