PUBLIC VERSUS POWER INTELLECTUALS, Part 1
and David Peterson
The conventional use of the term "public intellectual" has been a source of growing confusion and bombast of late. At a forum on "The Future of Public Intellectuals" held some months ago in New York City, Russell Jacoby of The Last Intellectuals fame lamented the disappearance of earlier generations of intellectuals from the public eye, to be replaced by "professors locked in the university," more concerned with "finding recommendations than with writing public interventions." At about the same time, the Nippon Foundation of Japan announced the creation of an Asian Public Intellectuals program, the ostensible goal of which is to promote intellectual work that might advance the public good by helping "Asians to look at Asians through their own eyes."
The bombast we can ignore; the confusion we cannot. Thus we can agree that the term "public intellectual" has become problematic, but not because intellectuals have disappeared as a result of being "locked in the university." Rather, those WE would call public intellectuals are simply not being given the chance to appear on the public stage. We believe that the source of the confusion lies in the failure to distinguish between intellectuals who have ACCESS to the public and those who SERVE the public. There is a strong inverse correlation between the two, which rests on the biased choices of the commercialized and concentrated mainstream media. This in turn reflects the preferences of the corporate community and political establishment.
An intellectual who has generous media access is often funded by the American Enterprise or Manhattan Institutes, Heritage Foundation, or the Hoover Institution, as in cases of Dinesh D'Souza, the Thernstroms, Christina Hoff Sommers, Shelby Steele and Heather Mac Donald. More generally, those who enjoy access can be relied on to say what the establishment wants said on the topics of the day--"civility," "political correctness," race, free trade, and "humanitarian intervention" and the civilizing mission of the United States and West. This characterizes the work of intellectuals such as Alan Wolfe, Charles Murray, Paul Krugman, Robert Kaplan, David Rieff and Michael Ignatieff, who have been relatively ubiquitous figures over the past decade, enjoying bylines, radio and television appearances, and favorable book reviews. Given their service to the powerful we categorize these preferred intellectuals as "power" rather than "public" intellectuals. It is a distinction that captures a crucial feature of the U.S. system of selective promotion or marginalization of intellectuals and their ideas throughout the public sphere. As Noam Chomsky once noted, "It is a system of no small degree of elegance, and effectiveness."
We believe the term "public intellectuals" should be reserved for those strong thinkers who lack access to the public precisely because they are independent and would speak effectively to that public's concerns. Their access is blocked, and their work and ideas are rendered invisible, by vested interests who control the flow of information to the public and are able to exclude from the print media and airwaves those who challenge their interests and preferred policies. That is, effective freedom of expression-- freedom of expression combined with outreach to large numbers--is limited to the "power intellectuals."
Public intellectuals are recognizable not only by their marginalization, they are also frequently subjected to harsh denigration and attack by the establishment's power intellectuals. As Voltaire noted back in the 18th century, with odes to the monarch "you will be well received. Enlighten men, and you will be crushed." Thus, when Rachel Carson published her Silent Spring in an extremely propitious environment for criticism of the chemical industry back in 1962--the ecological consequences of DDT were becoming hard to hide, and the thalidomide disaster had recently struck--and succeeded in reaching not only the New Yorker but a CBS News program that featured her message, she was furiously assailed by the industry and its academic appendages for "emotionalism" and alleged inaccuracy. Noam Chomsky affords the finest illustration of the public intellectual subjected to incessant and long-term derogation in an attempt to discredit and justify a refusal to allow him to participate in public debates. Power intellectuals can make the most egregious errors of fact and interpretation, their forecasts may be wildly off the mark, and they may be first class war criminals claiming status as intellectuals, but this does not impair their ability to reach the public, as establishment good taste prevents mention of their failings. But in Chomsky's case, criticisms based on literal fabrications and misrepresentations about his work are repeated as a matter of course--and usually without any chance of rebuttal--when it is felt necessary to explain why such an "extremist" is denied access.
It is possible to move between the categories of public and power intellectual by a shift in viewpoint and funding source. David Horowitz, master of the "political correctness" and "left fascists" scares, moved from invisibility as a leftist to relative prominence as a Reagan-Gingrich Republican by such a shift, as did Paul Johnson moving from editorship of the left, U.K-based New Statesman to American Enterprise Institute intellectual. Alan Wolfe and John Judis also became prominent writers and reviewers in the New York Times following their shifts in perspective from liberal-left to New Democrat and in affiliation from City College of New York to Boston University (Wolfe) and In These Times to the New Republic (Judis). Wolfe has even attained the status of being referred to as a "distinguished public intellectual" by the noted power intellectual James Q. Wilson, reviewing Wolfe's Moral Freedom in the Wall Street Journal (April 5, 2001).
We also believe that the role of power intellectuals fits nicely into the propaganda model, where the threat of independent experts as sources conflicting with official and corporate perspectives is shown to be alleviated by pushing forward dependent and friendly experts--i.e., power intellectuals--who preempt space that otherwise might be taken by genuinely independent analysts, i.e., public intellectuals. Nurturing and giving credentials to these power intellectuals, who will serve as front-line fighters against the public interest, is a main function of corporate thinktanks. And one of the beauties of the system is the willingness of the corporate media to accept the experts from the corporate thinktanks as genuinely independent and presumably serving the public interest. This has been dramatically illustrated during the past several decades in the provision of experts on "terrorism" by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Heritage Foundation, Rand Corporation, and other hugely biased, government linked institutions. The result has been a flow of experts into the media that provide an almost uniform echo of the official view on terrorism, with two thirds of the leading experts having been in government service and virtually all focusing on leftwing and insurgent terrorism (see Herman and O'Sullivan, The "Terrorism" Industry. chaps 7-8).
The rise to prominence of the New World Order power intellectuals in the last several decades fits the same pattern, and they have played an important role in putting contemporary imperialism in a friendly light while focusing on the crimes of its opponents and victims. Thus we have the optimists like Francis Fukuyama, featuring the triumph and spread of "liberal democracy" under the leadership of the United States. We have the pessimists like Robert Kaplan, focusing on a "coming anarchy" that is traced to a number of sources, but not corporate globalization, IMF-World Bank policy, or the effects of a colonial heritage and wars traceable in large measure to that heritage. And we have what we call the "New Humanitarian" power intellectuals--Michael Ignatieff, David Rieff, Timothy Garton Ash, Aryeh Neier, and Geoffrey Robertson, among many others. We will devote Part 2 of this series to a study of this camp and its preferred analyses and omissions.