Wednesday, January 8, 2014

What Does It Mean To Be A Public Intellectual? And Saint Elsewhere

The recent media fiasco everyone is talking about Twitter was one that hit the trifecta of race, cable news, and the question of who is "America's foremost public intellectual." Basically Melissa Harris-Perry got in big trouble, that is people got mad at her on Twitter, after she made fun of Mitt Romney's grand kids while guest hosting a show on MSNBC. She ended up apologizing which makes sense, racial humor about a politician's grandchildren is "over the line" when it comes to American political culture.

But that wasn't the end of it, the whole apologizing incident caused another row after The Atlantic's Ta-nehisi Coates wrote about her and called her "America's foremost public intellectual." And Politico's Dylan Byer's went to Twitter (the best place to debate the subject of who America's foremost public intellectual is of course) to say "Ta-Nehisi Coates's claim that "Melissa Harris-Perry is America's foremost public intellectual" sort of undermines his intellectual cred, no?" This provoked another Twitter war, and it does seem unfair to me to criticize Coates's intellectual credibility because he disagrees with you.

But then again the whole fight struck me as being pretty silly, mainly because nobody defined their terms. Coates seems to think that all "intellectuals" must be academics or something, and that their CV's not their impact propels them to greatness. He argued Harris-Perry wins because:
Ph.D. from Duke; stints at Princeton and Tulane; the youngest woman to deliver the Du Bois lecture at Harvard; author of two books; trustee at the Century Foundation. I made this claim because of her work: I believe Harris-Perry to be among the sharpest interlocutors of this historic era—the era of the first black president—and none of those interlocutors communicate to a larger public, and in a more original way, than Harris-Perry. 
I suppose I should take the time now to say I had never heard of her until Coates wrote about how screw up on cable news.

Maybe that just means that I'm an idiot, or an uneducated philistine, but I think there's something more here, namely how detached from American society and actual politics academia has really become. I bet few regular people have ever heard of her, no matter how good her CV is. But that's just because few people follow academics!

A better way to look at it would be to look for "people who write stuff that has a big impact." Under that definition it's not really clear what impact Harris-Perry has actually had. The bogus study sited by Harvard economists Carmen Reinhardt and Kenneth Rogoff (published in their book!) which has been totally debunked was used an intellectual justification for lots of the austerity policies we've seen all over the developed world. By my definition that's a whole lot more important than anything anyone at the Tulane history department has done, because the effects of impoverishing whole nations matters more in the course of millions of people's lives and world history than being a trustee at the Century Foundation.

But maybe I'm just an idiot, since Coates doesn't really explain what she did and why it's important I'm sort of in the dark. Personally though I think if you are going to charge out with a huge sweeping statement that basically says some Tulane academic is more important than, oh I don't know John Nash, whose ideas about Game Theory underpinned the creation of the entire modern financial system that crashed in 2008-2009 creating the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression as well of much of the modern study of economics (as well as being used in "computing, evolutionary biology, artificial intelligence, accounting, politics and military theory") well then I need more than she wrote two books.

But then again maybe that's just a round about way of saying the work of academics matter little in and of themselves, what matters is what happens once their ideas come out of the stuffy confines of their seminars and tomes and into the world of big business and politics.


Here's some links from my work at The Good Men Project:

Former Secretary of Defense’s New Memoir Shows Depressing Lack of Context.

Attention Liberals, Here’s How It’s Done.

Our Shrinking Prison Population.

North Carolina’s Unemployment Experiment.

1 comment:

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