The following debate is adapted from a forum–put together by Basic Books and held in New York City some weeks ago. Participating were: John Donatich, who moderated and is publisher of Basic Books; Russell Jacoby, who teaches at UCLA and is the author of The End of Utopia and The Last Intellectuals; Jean Bethke Elshtain, who has served as a board member of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University, is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, teaches at the University of Chicago and is the author of Women and War, Democracy on Trial and a forthcoming intellectual biography of Jane Addams; Stephen Carter, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University and author of, among other works, The Culture of Disbelief, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, Integrity, Civility and, most recently, God’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics; Herbert Gans, the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and author of numerous works, including Popular Culture and High Culture, The War Against the Poor and The Levittowners; Steven Johnson, acclaimed as one of the most influential people in cyberworld by Newsweek and New York magazines, co-founder of Feedmag.com, the award-winning online magazine, and author of the books Interface Culture and the forthcoming Emergence; and Christopher Hitchens, a columnist for The Nation and Vanity Fair, whose books include the bestselling No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family and The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. For Basic, he will be writing the forthcoming On the Contrary: Letters to a Young Radical.
As we try to puzzle out the future of the public intellectual, it’s hard not to poke a little fun at ourselves, because the issue is that serious. The very words “future of the public intellectual” seem to have a kind of nostalgia built into them, in that we only worry over the future of something that seems endangered, something we have been privileged to live with and are terrified to bury.
In preparing for this event, I might as well admit that I’ve been worried about making the slip, “the future of the public ineffectual.” But I think that malapropism would be central to what we’ll be talking about. It seems to me that there is a central conflict regarding American intellectual work. How does it reconcile itself with the venerable tradition of American anti-intellectualism? What does a country built on headstrong individualism and the myth of self-reliance do with its people convinced that they know best? At Basic Books’ fiftieth anniversary, it’s a good time to look at a publishing company born in midcentury New York City, a time and place that thrived on the idea of the public intellectual. In our first decades, we published Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Michael Walzer, Christopher Lasch, Herb Gans, Paul Starr, Robert Jay Lifton–and these names came fresh on the heels of Lévi-Strauss, Freud, Erik Erikson and Clifford Geertz.
What did these writers have in common except the self-defined right to worry the world and to believe that there is a symbiotic relationship between the private world of the thinker and the public world he or she wishes to address? That the age of great public intellectuals in America has passed has in fact become a cliché. There are many well-reviewed reasons for this. Scholars and thinkers have retreated to the academy. Self-doubt has become the very compass point of contemporary inquiry. Scholarship seems to start with an autobiographical or confessional orientation. The notion that every question has a noble answer or that there are reliable structures of ideology to believe in wholeheartedly has become, at best, quaint.
Some believe that the once-relied-upon audience of learned readers has disappeared, giving way to a generation desensitized to complex argumentation by television and the Internet. The movie Dumb and Dumber grosses dozens of millions of dollars at the box office, while what’s left of bohemian culture celebrates free-market economics. Selling out has more to do with ticket grosses than the antimaterialist who stands apart from society.