When Eggheads Gather

Are public intellectuals especially important anymore?


The British magazine Prospect recently mixed high- and low-brow culture by conducting an online poll to determine who readers thought were the world's top 100 public intellectuals. Transcontinental web users were asked to stop for a high-minded moment and score literati as they would their favorite cocktails.

Things threatened to break down when some of the candidates' personal websites linked readers to the poll so they could vote for their favorites, skewing the results. That was appropriate, since online polling (like online poll-fixing) is as far from what such intellectual contests strive to radiate as the Michelin Guide is from a hot dog eating contest. The poll results, based on over 20,000 respondents, gave Noam Chomsky the laurel leaves, followed by Umberto Eco, Richard Dawkins, and Vaclav Havel, with Christopher Hitchens rounding out the top five.

One can poke many holes in the list. For example, whatever the importance of Chomsky, Eco, and Havel, all are many years beyond their prime as public intellectuals. Can you really argue that Chomsky is currently more influential than, say, Thomas Friedman, who languishes in the number 16 spot? Whatever happened to Oprah Winfrey, who has arguably done more for getting Americans to read than the first five laureates combined? Was her utter dismissal a sign of elitism? And what does it tell us about the Nobel literature prize committee that Harold Pinter didn't even rate the top 100?

The more interesting question, however, is what such lists say about public intellectuals in general. Technological development, probably more than anything else, has ensured that the intellectual's role remains in constant flux. The Internet, cable television, and the metastasis of new media outlets, particularly weblogs, has helped break down the exclusive gatekeeper status that once seemed a birthright of successful public intellectuals.

Yet we must be careful. There is a simplistic inclination to assume that the effectiveness of any intellectual confederacy derives from its cohesiveness, compactness, and presence at the nexus point of media networks. That's because the prototype of the modern gatekeeper community often seems to be the one that prospered on Paris' Left Bank between the 1930s and 1950s. In an excellent history of the period, Herbert Lottman observed that the French intellectuals were not only influential beyond the actual merit of their works, particularly their "engaged" works; they were also, despite differing ideological commitments, often mutually loyal, having known one another at school or in university and having written in the same publications.

However, there was another intellectual community that was just as compact as the Parisian one, was centered in a media capital of the world, and included a far more diverse assemblage of cultural celebrities. Yet their moment is virtually forgotten today. It was made up of the European exiles congregating in Los Angeles in the 1940s to escape the war in Europe—or simply to gain prominence in the movies. The roll call reads like an encyclopedia of cerebral eminence: Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Aldous Huxley, Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Shoenberg, Lion Feuchtwanger, Franz Werfel (and Alma Mahler), Ernst Simmel, Alfred Doblin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, Max Ophuls, Bruno Walter, John Houseman, and plenty more. That's not mentioning Americans such as William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Nathaniel West. To use a Hollywood cliché, it was a glittering revue, but by the end of the decade most of them had been swept away by the Santa Ana winds, leaving in their wake some spectacular achievements but little in the way of an identifiable L.A. intellectual community.

The reason Paris was everything Los Angeles could not be probably had little to do with the mesmerizing southern Californian sun. Intellectual centers of gravity require that a specific place combine with a particular set of circumstances to create an alignment of ideas and actions. Paris caught just right the ideological wars pervading Europe in the 1930s, while the city was spared the profound upheavals of Berlin, Madrid, or Moscow. L.A., in contrast, merely became a vat for people on the run or needing quick cash— on the edge of the world in terms of feeding off the political and other realities shaping thinking at the time.

The two contrary examples dilute the notion that simply bunching public intellectuals together will magically establish a gatekeeper community. This, in turn, weakens the allegation that intellectuals, by invariably imposing their elitist right to judge, invite a legitimate populist counter-reaction for intellectual emancipation. The latter indictment provoked an irate response from Christopher Hitchens in a forum organized by The Nation magazine in February 2001. He said: "I've increasingly become convinced that in order to be any kind of a public-intellectual commentator or combatant, one has to be unafraid of the charges of elitism. One has to have, actually, more and more contempt for public opinion and for the way in which it's constructed and aggregated, and polled and played back and manufactured and manipulated."

Hitchens overstated his case: In urging a radical break with the consensus he necessarily seemed to oppose public intellectual and public opinion. His readers had to wonder: What's the value of being a public intellectual if you have contempt for the opinion of your audience? The intellectual only really triumphs if he navigates successfully in the public sphere, which presumably means addressing laymen in a more subtle, reciprocal way than Hitchens envisaged, while also trying to impress the value of one's opinions. The fact that Hitchens made it to number five on the Prospect list, but also embraced, indeed helped lead, the post-9/11 consensus in the United States, suggests he learned that lesson.

As both 9/11 and the grueling aftermath of the Iraq invasion have shown, public intellectuals can yet provide powerful poles for ideas during moments of uncertainty. After years of pitching their tents in a no-man's land between realists and liberal internationalists, neoconservatives filled a yawning intellectual vacuum after the attacks against the U.S. in Sept. 2001. Though hardly a multifaceted congregation—most neoconservatives were amateur historians doubling as public policy hacks—they alone provided George W. Bush with a rationale for how to explain and respond to Islamist terrorism. The merit of their advice is debatable, but nobody can deny that the neocons' impact came from a perfect alignment of historical moment, place, and personalities—particularly a president willing to pick up on their message and compel his skeptical subordinates to do the same.

Much the same can be said today as the U.S. stumbles in Iraq. A group of disabused intellectuals started truly coalescing against the war in early 2004, deploying their "I told you sos." The most noticeable demonstration of this phenomenon has been the slew of recent books by the likes of Larry Diamond, David L. Phillips, and George Packer, all of them initially supporters of the war who later became critics. Like the detractors of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, they have not only deconstructed an administration's mistakes but also revived a mainstay of ideological disputation, whether of the left or of the right: the tormented conversion story, where self-doubt and its myriad signposts are carefully documented, so that a narrative becomes less about the event described than about how doubting has transformed the writer into a better person.

Except for one thing: Today, tracking such metamorphoses is no longer so vital for the public. As intellectuals oscillate, they are just one cog in a complex series of media interactions influencing people's general attitudes: that between bloggers, between blogs and mainstream media outlets, between network stations, between network and cable stations, between tabloids and mainstream papers, and so on. The chafing is endless; the rivalries intense. Prospect's effort to focus on the top 100 intellectuals seems a tad anachronistic. Sometimes useful, sometimes irksome, the world's leading public intellectuals are not always that necessary.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.