(Swans - September 24, 2012)
Now that Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has selected Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his vice presidential running mate, much of the media has talked of Ryan as a "game changer." With that in mind, what is "the game" all about? If "the game" exclusively encompasses data concerning which party wins the election, then we have already lost as a country; party politics should never, ever supersede the needs of the people but sadly, with a media that seems almost exclusively focused upon the presidential candidates' personalities and the recycled Manichean battle between the right and the left (as if the political left now was as vocal and committed as it was in the sixties), we will perhaps not get the meaty debate on ideas that purists wish for (forgive me fellow vegetarians and vegans). Yet for all of the talk about Ryan being the "intellectual leader" of the Republican party (Romney as well as numerous headlines in the media have used this terminology), the "American intellectual" or "public intellectual" -- terms "intellectual leader" draw its history and meaning from -- no longer accurately or definitively describes any figure in American life.
"Intellectual," "American intellectual," "public intellectual," "intellectual leader," etc.
On the one hand, people such as philosopher and social activist Cornel West and Noam Chomsky have been referred to as "public intellectuals" by the media (even the alternative media rags such as Alternet have employed the term as well (1) (2)) but noted historians, ever attuned to their inner sense of hipness or cultural relevancy, have invoked "intellectual" to describe American Marxists in the 1930s who clustered in the study halls of Columbia or City College of New York and carried on "intellectual" dialogues in notable publications such as Commentary and Dissent -- publications that, at least during those times, were probably too high brow for the public. (3)
In all of these cases we invariably have the term "intellectual" attached to academic figures that have chosen to take leftist positions on the issues of culture and politics. Unfortunately, there is not much to the term "intellectual" or "public intellectual" beyond this domain, which is unfortunate because I think we should hold intellectuals to observe the canons of argument persuasively as opposed to using their positions as professional academics to support a cause. I can without reservation say that the Cornel Wests or the Noam Chomskys of the world would probably not have the media platforms that they enjoy in political life if it were not for their stature as tenured academics as opposed to being figures who could articulate genuinely creative ideas on improving our democracy. We now see in forums such as MSNBC hosts such as Michael Dyson and Melissa Harris-Perry: accomplished academics who nonetheless fail to innovate in the public political realm. They are merely on these news shows to "credential" pre-existing, unanalyzed left-wing views. I call this the "liberal fallacy": the idea that a set of beliefs is more believable if an academic publicly supports or advocates it without necessarily relying upon unbiased observation or argument for justification. Every liberal (and conservative) should look to the likes of scientist James Watson (yes, that Watson who is credited for discovering the shape of the DNA molecule) to see that academics can promote backwards ideas. (4) Even Enlightenment figures such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant, philosophers who have become part of the canon of that shadowy field called "intellectual history," did not hesitate to express unsavory views of blacks and women during their times, despite the fact that intellectual historians are wont to view their celebrated essays outside of the realm of their cultural biases. (5) No academic is free of prejudice or laziness.
Additionally, an intellectual questions his or her own views and/or seeks creative ways of justifying them outside of the realm of opinion polls or voter text message surveys. Voter surveys are often the primary tool for public intellectuals who have plush gigs with the MSNBCs or CNNs of the world, but it would seem that academics would be inclined to rely upon the canons of careful argumentation to advance their positions: voter surveys are obviously prone to sampling error but also the way that a question is phrased to a respondent can be bias laden.
On the other hand, a figure like Paul Ryan does not seem to have had any teaching gigs in academia (he does not have any graduate training) but we do know that he has studied with the Atlas Society: an Ayn Rand cheerleading group. (6) This fact, along with his purported budget tightening, makes him, in conservative libertarian circles, an "intellectual." But this is perhaps the telling aspect about the use of the term "intellectual" by conservative libertarians: you do not necessarily have to have education beyond the undergraduate level to be an "intellectual," but if you to subscribe to Randian principles of "free markets," "small government," and "individual autonomy" -- dated Enlightenment concepts -- then you are an "intellectual." In other words, if you subscribe to the party line of "the free market floats all boats (or the most boats)," then you are therefore an "intellectual." So here we have two opposite uses of the base term "intellectual" (we can substitute "intellectual" with "intellectual leader" or "public intellectual," frankly): an academic who supports leftist causes (seriously, what academic does NOT support leftist causes? Even "conservative" academics have been known to take leftist stands on issues such as free speech and academic freedom during they heyday of the academic culture wars.) and a non-academic who supports free markets, small government, and individual autonomy. This apparent contradiction in the use of the term "intellectual" in all of its forms and permutations should forbid us from ever using it again. It is a meaningless term except for those who tend to confuse political principles with absolutes of a high cognitive order: that political principles are things that "come from the head (from the "intellect")" as opposed to being piecemeal, gut feeling beliefs that evolve over time or are modified or discarded over time because they can become fallible in light of experiences in which they cannot be applied. Thus, any media figure, academic, or politician who uses the term "intellectual," "American intellectual," "public intellectual," "intellectual leader," etc., should not be taken seriously.
Not going to say much here but if I correctly remember the health care discussions back in 2010, the Democrat-controlled Congress authored the healthcare legislation; Obama just simply signed off on it once both houses reconciled each other's versions. So he was not the author of the legislation: Congress took the lead on that. So the health care law really is "CongressCare" but I guess that sounds less sexy than "Obamacare."
Is not all media "social"?
The banality and repetitiveness of the Internet has fully come into view with the corporate media -- CNN, MSNBC, Fake News, etc. -- and "alternative media" gushing to provide readers with links to their organization's "social media" pages or links for readers to post the articles on their "social media" pages. News is therefore replicated endlessly because the reader's "friends" will see the link and then perhaps re-post the link on their pages. This is perhaps one of the unintended consequences of the all too "social media": the repetition of information is almost as bountiful as its availability. My Facebook page, once friends found out about the death of singer Michael Jackson, was buried in news links from friends indicating the fact of his death. It was as if Michael Jackson had died a thousand deaths. Although I don't have a thousand Facebook friends, but four hundred and forty-four is still too many and therefore four hundred and forty-four posts on Michael Jackson's death is surreal.
An additional problem I have, as a college teacher in the humanities, is that I worry that students may begin to use Facebook pages for citations. It is already difficult enough to wean them off of sites like Wikipedia or about.com where they (as well as most Internet users) instinctively go for information that is often edited, biased, or just plain incorrect.
"Growing jobs" or "growing the economy"
Just add a little Miracle Grow to the markets and the economy will blossom with bouquet upon bouquet of jobs! Unfortunately, the Miracle Grow -- contents include tired old austerity prescriptions as well as tax cuts for the richest of the rich -- just don't seem to do the job (ask Europe). So whatever happened to the Enlightenment metaphor of economies and markets as perfectly well-oiled Newtonian clocks or mechanisms, such that we now have the metaphor of the economy or markets as plant that must be nurtured with kickbacks to wealthy people or corporations who do not even invest their money in America in the first place? Whenever an anchorperson asks a politician about his or her plan for "growing the economy" or "growing jobs" or whenever a politician rolls out his or her plan to "grow the economy," just shoot your television.
You'll be glad you did it.
Please consider making ato Swans.
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About the Author
Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University and teaches medieval and modern global history at Howard Community College in Maryland. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/. (back)
4. Watson has said a number of controversial statements, but I'm not sure if any of them tops this winner: "[I am] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours -- whereas all the testing says not really." (back)
5. https://www.msu.edu/~hacheema/kant2.htm (Last accessed August 20, 2012) Note Kant's ranking of the races of man.
For Hume's racism and historiographical issues surrounding it, please review "Hume's Racism Revisted" by Aaron Garrett in Hume Studies
http://www.humesociety.org/hs/issues/v26n1/garrett/garrett-v26n1.pdf (Last accessed August 20, 2012). (back)