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.