Monday, 30 January 2012

The last word on public intellectuals

As you may have read, I wrote a piece on that vanishing creature, the Public Intellectual, positing that existing media structures make it less and less possible to be a public intellectual, let alone have something we could call a public culture. It got republished by a couple of interesting websites, including the LSE Public Impact blog, and then I wrote a short follow-up on the corrosive effect of media politics on intellectual standards.

Just for information rather than comment really, here's what Tony Judt, a wonderful political thinker, had to say on the subject in his posthumous book about intellectuals, Thinking the Twentieth Century (as quoted in Saturday's Guardian Review, which seems not to be online). He doesn't pull his punches, and names David Brooks of the NYT (currently flogging a weak psycho-political book) as a key example:
Here we had the public intellectual who now occupies not only prominent television space, but also op-ed pages of the most influential newspapers in the English-speaking world: and he knows nothing… Men like Brooks know, literally, nothing… it's all done with smoke and mirrors - there is no expertise. The apparent capacity consists of the capacity to talk glibly each week about any public event in a way that readers have gotten used to thinking of as sort of enlightened commentary. 
How very different from my teaching routine. Ahem.

Judt also fingers Thomas Friedman as a peddler of:
…the notion that your expertise is a function of your contacts… It doesn't really matter, actually, who it is. It's the notion of access to something special. In Friedman's case, access to information is very carefully recalibrated as the acceptable middle ground on any given policy issue'. 
And of the genuine intellectuals out there:
…Michael Ignatieff, or David Remnick, or Leon Wieseltier, or Michael Walzer. Instead of asking questions, they all behaved as though the only function of the intellectual was to provide justification for the actions of non-intellectuals. 

All ageing white men, I see - perhaps a function of the cultural context of the NYT and its readership, or of Judt's élite Anglophone culture. But he has a point. Lots of these people have lost confidence in a) intellect and b) the public: they therefore cannot imagine a position which clashes with that of the hegemony. Of course, the hegemony is what rewards them, which is why Judt's right to finger 'access' as the problem. Convivial lunches with very important and powerful people makes the thinker/journalist/academic feel important, a member of the inner circle. Selling that access as your USP becomes your purpose. Politicians know this: they feed journalists with tit-bits, and shut off access if you cross them. Add to this an editor wanting the 'inside story' and you have a hostage situation. The author becomes a rock-star ('as the Prime Minister said to me last week…'), but access is both granted and withheld: some newspapers, some correspondents get it, recalcitrant ones don't. When was the last time you saw a Prime Minister appear on a hard news show? No chance, not while there's a comfortable breakfast TV sofa waiting, and questions about your favourite biscuit and what you read your kids.

Eventually you reach the stage Judt associates with Friedman and Brooks. They become a function of their location on the political-cultural nexus. They are fronts for - or justifiers of - those with real power. They don't question (and the NYT is currently in the midst of a debate about whether impartiality means that politicians' claims be fact-checked): they explain the motives of the powerful to the weak. The media is no longer a way to hold power to account - it's a conduit for unchallenged power.

No comments: