Judging the Wise Guys

Judging the Wise Guys


It’s that time of the decade again; time to ask the time-honored question, “Whither the Public Intellectual?” We did it in the 1980s when Russell Jacoby first published his still-well-regarded jeremiad, The Last Intellectuals. We did it again in the 1990s with the discovery of Harvard’s “dream team” of black intellectuals (currently in the news again). The circus is back in town because America’s most prolific celebrity jurist and legal theorist, Richard Posner, has just published a highly publicized study of the topic, with the imprimatur of Harvard University Press.

The book is a decidedly curious artifact. It purports to be a rigorous analytical study replete with graphic depictions of regression analyses and lengthy tables of mathematical equations. Posner deploys a market-based model to fashion an indictment of contemporary public intellectuals for their neglect of genuine academic research in pursuit of fame. Moreover, he argues, they have deliberately confused the general public with claims of omnicompetence–all in the service of an egoistic fantasy of “speaking truth to power.”

A felicitous writer with a marvelously caustic wit, Posner can be a pleasure to read. The iconoclastic brilliance that has earned him unparalleled intellectual influence in the legal profession–along with an entertaining New Yorker profile–is occasionally on display in these pages. Too bad he chose to place it in the service of so fundamentally flawed an enterprise. Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline is to public intellectual life in America what The Bell Curve was to genetics and intelligence: an incompetent political tract dressed up in pseudoscientific clothing.

The book’s centerpiece is a list of those Posner deems to be the top 546 public intellectuals in America, ranked by mentions in the media, the web and scholarly publications, followed by another list of the 100 public intellectuals most frequently mentioned in the media. Both are pure nonsense.

Admitting that the construction of any such list is necessarily a subjective enterprise, Posner has nonetheless proven himself to be a profoundly deficient craftsman. Even with so bloated an assemblage, he manages to exclude, among others, Paul Berman, Alan Ryan, Ian Buruma, Simon Schama, David Kennedy, Tzvetan Todorov and Robert Hughes. These “public intellectuals” belong not merely on a list of 546 but on any competent grouping one-tenth its size. The quality of his methodology, moreover, is laughable. According to Posner, the nation’s most prominent public intellectuals when judged by media mentions are Henry Kissinger, Pat Moynihan, George Will, Larry Summers, William Bennett, Robert Reich and Sidney Blumenthal. Aside from perhaps Kissinger, and even more generously–though no less deplorably–Bennett, not one of these people’s media recognition is a function of his role as “public intellectual.” Moynihan was, until last year, a prominent politician. Will is a media pundit and a Republican Party flunky. Summers, Reich and Blumenthal were all, during the period under study, either Cabinet members, close advisers to a President involved in fractious and heavily covered political battles or both.

The further one travels down Posner’s list, the nuttier it looks. He divides his list into Jews and non-Jews, adding that Jews have a harder time getting quoted in the media than do minorities. But as intellectuals rarely offer up their religious affiliation when pontificating on say, impeachment or civil society, his data on this distinction can be no better than those used by my late bubbe and zayde when they played this game (and leveled similar complaints). Moreover, he does not bother tabulating scholarly citations of the works of nonacademics like Nicholas Lemann or Doris Kearns Goodwin or even George Kennan or Walter Lippmann, although each has written key works in their respective fields. He does not include John Rawls at all, whom he acknowledges to be the most influential political philosopher alive, for reasons he attempts to explain but then contradicts. And what can any list say about anything when Ann Coulter and David Horowitz are said to outrank Isaiah Berlin and Garry Wills? To the reader it says you are wasting your time with this stupid book.

Since Posner is obviously not a stupid man, we have to wonder what is really going on. How curious, for the conspiratorially minded, that the work suffers–in extremis–from exactly the foibles Posner attributes to public intellectuals: namely, the pretense of scholarly expertise in a field in which the author fails to demonstrate even rudimentary competence. Writing an entire book and getting Harvard to publish it is an awfully elaborate means of proving this point. (Then again, Alan Sokal’s wonderful hoax of the smart/stupid editors at Social Text also seemed unthinkable until he pulled it off.) There’s also the fact that Posner includes himself in the indictment. Hmmmm.

A more likely explanation, unfortunately, is the political one. Posner says he was inspired to write the book after reading what he deemed to be the inferior contributions of the professoriate to the debate over the Supreme Court’s decision to end the Florida recount and hand the 2000 election to George W. Bush. This explains the singular attention he pays to two prominent public intellectuals: the historian Sean Wilentz, who organized a number of efforts to prevent that antidemocratic outcome from achieving the legitimacy the media have since accorded it (following his equally spirited opposition to Clinton’s impeachment); and legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, who eviscerated Posner’s apologia for the Court in The New York Review of Books. Both come in for criticism more befitting a beheading than a scholarly disagreement.

While Posner evinces little sympathy for Straussian virtuecrats like Robert Bork and Gertrude Himmelfarb, he is most unabashed in his criticism of those intellectuals who continue the venerable tradition of speaking up for social democratic values in the face of an almost totally corporatized public sphere and money-driven political discourse. Fortunately, given the slipshod nature of his “scholarship,” the only scholarly reputation upon which this book inflicts any lasting damage is that of its author.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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