Taking a chomp out of the mess that is US politics, one issue at a time...

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Public Intellectual? Who, Me?

Ralph Waldo Emerson described the public intellectual as an active force in society. They should be knowledgeable in history, but only because of its relevance in today’s world. “Emerson’s intellectual, while enriched by the past, should not be bound by books. His most important activity is action. Inaction is cowardice.” (MIT Communications Forum) Regarding the “public” aspect of the public intellectual’s career, Emerson elucidates, “He communicates his ideas to the world, not just his fellow intellectuals.” In affect, an intellectual can be relatively ineffective on a widespread scale regardless of the level of their expertise or knowledge. They can only reach the elevated status of a public intellectual once they have the skills to present that material to the public, or as much of the public as possible.

Alan Lightman of MIT, a physicist and self-proclaimed public intellectual, takes this definition one step further and classifies public intellectuals in today’s world according to a three-level hierarchy. At the broadest level are the academic intellectuals. These individuals are extremely knowledgeable in one area of expertise and stick to it. And they communicate this expertise exclusively, without excess commentary on areas out of their comfort realm. One example of this academic intellectual would be Brian Greene, author of the popular book The Elegant Universe. In effect Brian Greene took string theory, easily one of the most difficult and obscure scientific postulations, and formatted it into a novelesque piece of writing that has garnered mainstream media attention and respect from members of all sects of our society. He is a public intellectual because he is able to communicate the complexities of his chosen discipline to the average Joe.

The second level of Alan Lightman’s definition of a public intellectual adds another dimension to the first-level academic intellectual; these individuals don’t just write about their disciplines, but attempt to relate that discipline’s relevance to the “social, cultural, and political world around it” (Alan Lightman). An example of this would be James Watson and his detailed account of discovering the structure of DNA in his novel, The Double Helix. And note that I say novel, not scientific paper. The piece of work is complete with a forward by Sir Lawrence Bragg, 29 chapters, and an epilogue. In addition, the novel moves beyond the technical aspects of the double helix discovery to the moral issues and boundaries involved in scientific research and the cultural implications of such boundaries.
“The Double Helix is also an exceptional piece of writing. It is lively, engaging, and even scandalous in parts, shattering the myth that great science is done in an atmosphere of dispassion and objectivity” (Kenneth Miller of Brown University).

On the third and most exclusive hierarchical level of public intellectualism sits the public intellectuals written about in our history books, those individuals who have been “elevated to a symbol” in our society.
“A level III intellectual is asked to write and speak about a large range of public issues, not necessarily directly connected to their original field of expertise at all” (Alan Lightman).
Lightman goes on to give Albert Einstein as a famous historical example. I would consider a more current member of this elite group of intellectuals to be Al Gore. With a B.A. from Harvard in government, a long career as a U.S. representative, member of the U.S. Senate, and Vice President to Bill Clinton, one could argue that his field of expertise is most definitely politics. However, in the past eight years Al Gore has moved beyond his direct area of expertise to become a very public advocate for environmentalism. His documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, effectively communicates “the climate crisis” to the world. Winning multiple awards, this documentary elevated Al Gore to the status of a public symbol. Recently he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for all of his efforts in bringing the dangers of climate ignorance to the public. He has been subsequently asked to lecture throughout the country on the moral, cultural, and scientific aspects of our “climate crisis”, three areas that are relatively removed from his previous life as a politician.

Alan Lightman’s hierarchy of public intellectuals seems to make sense at a cursory glance, but one wonders, how do you even enter the pyramid of public intellectualism? I’d like to consider myself a self-proclaimed expert on politics, specifically the current presidential election, and by creating this blog for everyone to read and learn from, I’m positioning myself as a public intellectual, right?


As Einstein would say, by doing some research and writing social commentary about it, I am not practicing public intellectualism. I am not reaching out to a widespread audience or acting any further than my desk. A public intellectual is expected to take action, public action no less. Writing a blog simply doesn't cut it.

On the other hand, Stephen Mack of the University of Southern California, takes a different viewpoint on the stigma of a public intellectual. He quotes Jean Bethke Elshtain: "So the public intellectual needs, it seems to me, to puncture the myth-makers of any era, including his own, whether it's those who promise that utopia is just around the corner if we see the total victory of free markets worldwide, or communism worldwide or positive genetic enhancement worldwide, or mouse-maneuvering democracy worldwide, or any other run-amok enthusiasm. Public intellectuals, much of the time at least, should be party poopers."

"Elshtain's point is that the public intellectual function is criticism...It is only because learning the process of criticism and practicing them with some regularity are requisites for intellectual employment." (Stephen Mack)

Basically, the public intellectual makes a career of opening out eyes to the faults inherent in our society. This definition does not contradict Lightman's but rather expands on it. To intelligently criticize some aspect of society, one must have a certain level of expertise. In addition, to be effective they must widen that area of expertise to include the relevance their criticism has on the social, cultural, and political aspects of our everyday lives. And finally, to be a public intellectual, one must communicate their viewpoints and/or critiques to a receptive audience, outside of their professional colleagues.

I'd say that technically, this doesn't make me a public intellectual. For one, my experience in the political realm extends only as far as being a grassroots campaigner and active voter. And probably most importantly, while probably not professional colleagues of mine, my audience falls far short of some magic number that I can imagine must define and legitimize a public intellectual.

However, Mack goes on to say that social criticism and therefore public intellectualism is "the obligation of every citizen in a democracy. Trained to it or not, all participants in self-government are duty-bound to prod, poke, and pester the powerful institutions that would shape their lives." It is my job and right as a citizen of this country to criticize contemporary politics and the election process. By analyzing and finding fault, I am simply paving the road for a better tomorrow in the saga that is American Politics.

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