PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL SMACKDOWN….For some time Dan Drezner has been arguing that all the tears shed over the demise of the public intellectual in America are misplaced. Today’s public intellectuals, he says, are every bit as good as the giants of the past, and blogs have served to give them an ever wider audience. Today he puts his money where his mouth is:
Among periodicals, The New Yorker has Malcolm Gladwell, James Surowiecki and Louis Menand on their payroll; Andrew Sullivan, James Fallows, and Virginia Postrel write for The Atlantic; Harper’s contributing editors include Barbara Ehrenreich, Thomas Frank, and Tom Wolfe; Vanity Fair has James Wolcott and Christopher Hitchens; Newsweek employs Fareed Zakaria, Daniel Gross and George F. Will. Despite the thinning of their ranks, unaffiliated public intellectuals like Paul Berman, Michael Beschloss, Debra Dickerson, Robert D. Kaplan, John Lukacs, Joshua Micah Marshall, Rick Perlstein and Robert Wright still remain. The explosion of think tanks in the past thirty years has contributed to a rise in partisanship — but it has also provided sinecures for the intellectual likes of Robert Kagan, Joel Kotkin, Michael Lind, Brink Lindsey, Jedediah Purdy, and David Rieff. Within the academy, there is no shortage of public intellectuals: Eric Alterman, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Michael Bérubé, Joshua Cohen, Jared Diamond, Jean Behke Elshtain, Amitai Etzioni, Niall Ferguson, Richard Florida, Francis Fukuyama, John Lewis Gaddis, Henry Louis Gates, Jacob Hacker, Samuel Huntington, Tony Judt, Paul Kennedy, Paul Krugman, Steven Leavitt, Lawrence Lessig, John Mearsheimer, Martha Nussbaum, Steven Pinker, Richard Posner, Samantha Power, Robert Putnam, Dani Rodrik, Jeffrey Sachs, Amartya Sen, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Joseph Stiglitz, Laurence Summers, Cass Sunstein, Michael Walzer, Sean Wilentz, E.O. Wilson, and Alan Wolfe. Their recent books [big slug o’ books omitted –ed] are designed to be accessible to the informed lay public. It will be easy for the reader to quibble with one of the names or one of the books listed above. However, most cultural commentators would agree that most of the names and books belong on that list.
Sounds about right to me. Still, I think I might argue that even if the overall PI scene is still vibrant, 40 years ago there were a small number of what you might call mega-intellectuals — people like Buckley and Chomsky and Galbraith and Friedman — who had a bigger influence on public discourse than any single public intellectual does today. Nobody on Dan’s list really seems to compete on quite the same plane as some of those 50s and 60s superstars. This might just be the hindsight bias that he talks about earlier in his piece, but if you had to nominate someone to be as influential today as Buckley and Galbraith were in their time, who would you choose? No one really comes to mind.