Monday, May 09, 2011

Public Intellectuals: Across the Channel, Across the Pond

It turns out Britain and the United States--those two countries long divided by a common language--nonetheless share a common pastime: lamenting the lack of influence of public intellectuals while romanticizing the role of ideas in France. As John Naughton puts it in his Observer essay, "Why don't we love our intellectuals?" (available at the Guardian),
Britain is a country in which the word "intellectual" is often preceded by the sneering adjective "so-called", where smart people are put down because they are "too clever by half" and where a cerebral politician (David Willetts) was for years saddled with the soubriquet "Two Brains". It's a society in which creative engineers are labelled "boffins" and kids with a talent for mathematics or computer programming are "nerds". As far as the Brits are concerned, intellectuals begin at Calais and gravitate to Paris, where the fact that they are lionised in its cafes and salons is seen as proof that the French, despite their cheese- and wine-making skills, are fundamentally unsound. Given this nasty linguistic undercurrent, a Martian anthropologist would be forgiven for thinking that Britain was a nation of knuckle-dragging troglodytes rather than a cockpit of vibrant cultural life and home to some of the world's best universities, most creative artists, liveliest publications and greatest theatres and museums.
As you might guess, Naughton is actually out challenge this picture, enjoining his compatriots to "cast off the inferiority complex towards the cerebral continent and move on to more interesting questions." The question Naughton pursues gets a little less interesting, trying to quantify the influence of public intellectuals (first requiring a definition of a public intellectual)--but it's still worth reading the whole thing.

It would be interesting to try out a similar thesis on this side of the pond (including Canada, a propos of my earlier post on Ignatieff). It's pretty easy to decry the lack of intellectual rigor in American public discourse in a country where someone like Sarah Palin can have any kind of public platform. But that might also be shooting fish in a barrel. Maybe there's also another side to the story. In some deep sense, the United States has always been primarily an idea--indeed, no matter what you might think of the results, the founding of the Republic was a remarkable exercise in theoretical reflection and intellectual imagining. And to some extent, while much of the bluster might just be a cover for selfishness and greed, there is a sense in which debates in this country are still about ideas. I find nothing to commend in Glenn Beck, but it is nonetheless interesting that he could put a book like Hayek's Road to Serfdom on the bestseller list (Fukuyama's review of another Hayek volume in yesterday's NYT is also germane here).

Perhaps what we need is a distinction: often what we might mean when we lament the absence of public intellectuals actually boils down to the lack of influence exerted by academics. But that might betray a problematic equation that is well lost.