Mary Beard

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I recently read Charlotte Higgins‘s long form essay at The Guardian on Mary Beard, the Cambridge University classicist, public intellectual, and blogger.  The piece is worth your time.  Beard is a model of a publicly-engaged scholar.

Here is a small taste of the piece:

One reason Beard is so widely beloved is that her interventions in public life – whether one agrees with her or not – offer an alternative mode of discourse, one that people are hungry for: a position that is serious and tough in argument, but friendly and humorous in manner, and one that, at a time when disagreements quickly become shrill or abusive, insists on dialogue. Still, it is these precise qualities that can, equally, land her in deep water. The point of her notorious 9/11 article was that one could simultaneously deplore the terrorists’ murderous violence, and try to understand their position. After the deluge of angry emails arrived, she tried to reply to most of them, even making a couple of friends along the way. When I asked her if she would countenance taking Isis’s ideology seriously, she said: “That’s the wrong question. There is no argument that I won’t take seriously. Thinking through how you look to your enemies is helpful. That doesn’t mean that your ideology is wrong and theirs is right, but maybe you have to recognise that they have one – and that it may be logically coherent. Which may be uncomfortable.” Few would think it worth arguing with Arron Banks, the Ukip donor, when he said the Roman empire had collapsed because of immigration. Beard pulled him up on Twitter, suggesting he might like to read a bit more classical history – and then went out to lunch with him.

Trying to calm the fury and aggression of public speech is, quite possibly, a futile endeavour. Friends worry about the toll such a publicly exposed existence takes on her. The time she devotes to email alone is daunting; she tries to respond to everything. Withstanding appalling online abuse is draining. Still she keeps going. She abhors a comfortable consensus. “She is very suspicious of received wisdoms, conventional views,” said Peter Stothard. “If everyone is saying X is Y, her instinct is to say, are we sure it isn’t P?” For Beard, the very point of being an academic in the public sphere is the ability to be a kind of intellectual awkward squad – unlike elected politicians, who inevitably seek popularity. “The right to be unpopular is important – that’s what academic freedom is about,” she said.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Have Conservative Intellectuals Gone Lowbrow?

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Ohio University historian Kevin Mattson thinks so.  He argues that conservative intellectuals are now in the business of attacking “educated elites.”  He calls this behavior “a grave danger to our democratic discourse.”

Here is a taste of his piece at Democracy:

Today, conservative intellectuals or thought leaders (or whatever you want to call writers and journalists and bloggers of this variety) no longer think. They no longer argue or pursue the playfulness of ideas as the intellectual vocation allows (for a fine argument about what makes an intellectual, see Richard Hofstadter’s book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life). Back in the 1940s, the literary (and liberal) critic Lionel Trilling described conservative thinking as little more than “irritable mental gestures.” He would likely consider the very concept of the “conservative intellectual” today a full-fledged oxymoron. Thinking is out; prejudiced assertions sans proof are in. Of course, as Trump’s presidency shows, this sort of thing can win you political campaigns. Attacking educated “elites” is red meat for conservative politicians.

But for intellectuals to go down that same road is a grave danger to our general public culture, and dare we say—as would the Kimball of old—“civilization.” Our public dialogue is threatened by the likes of Twitter thinking—more short spasms than developed reasoning. Conservative intellectuals have always struggled with their own tendency to instinctively distrust their own kind— i.e. other intellectuals, what the historian Christopher Lasch once labeled the “anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals.” Yet right now, they seem they seem to have moved beyond self-hate and toward willful self-sabotage. Their ideas have lost all intellectual rigor and warrant no respect. In killing off their own thinking, they kill off the possibility of democratic discourse, where thinkers with different principles can debate but engage in a productive conversation about our contemporary political situation. By turning the exchange of ideas into warfare and angry brawls, conservative “thought leaders” are killing off the very principle of democratic debate.

Read the entire piece here.

Scholars of Public Intellectuals Choose the Top Five Public Intellectuals in America

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Daniel Drezner is the author of The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of IdeasIn a recent piece at The Washington Post he picks the five most important public intellectuals at work today.  They are:

  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates
  2. Masha Gessen
  3. Francis Fukuyama
  4. Ron Chernow
  5. David Autor

Another scholar of public intellectuals, Alan Jacobs,  assembled a list of the most influential public intellectuals in this millennium.

  1. Richard John Neuhaus
  2. Cass Sunstein
  3. Samantha Power
  4. Ta-Nehisi Coates
  5. Clayton Christensen

 

Rod Dreher Interviews Alan Jacobs on *How to Think*

ThinkHere is a taste from Dreher’s blog:

I initially thought How To Think would be a basic primer of informal logic. It’s not that at all, but something more interesting. What’s the book about, and why did you write it? 

Last year, when the Presidential election campaign was ramping up here in the U.S., and my British friends were being roiled about by the Brexit debate, I was working on a different book (an academic one), but kept being distracted by all the noise. It seemed to me that everyone was lining up and shouting at everyone else, and no one seemed able to step back from the fray and think a bit about the issues at stake. More and more what attracted my attention was what seemed a complete absence of actual thinking. And then I asked myself: What is thinking, anyway? And what have I learned about it in my decades as a teacher and writer? I sat down to sketch out a few blog posts on the subject, and then realized that I had something a good bit bigger than some blog posts on my hands. So I set my other book aside and got to work.

You write, “The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.” What do you mean? 

Practicing patience because almost all of us live in a social-media environment that demands our instantaneous responses to whatever stimuli assault us in our feeds, and gives us the tools (reposts, likes, faves, retweets) to make those responses. Everything in our informational world militates against thinking it over. And mastering fear because one of the consequences of thinking is that you can find yourself at odds with groups you want to belong to, and social belonging is a human need almost as important as food and shelter. I’ve come to believe that our need — a very legitimate need! — for social belonging is the single greatest impediment to thinking.

Read the entire interview here. Learn more about How to Think here.

 

Leon Wieseltier is the Latest Victim of the “Harvey Effect”

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One of the nation’s leading public intellectuals is the latest.  Here is a taste of Adrienne LaFrance’s piece at The Atlantic:

The spell of sexual harassment accusations against powerful men in Hollywood and media intensified on Tuesday with allegations of “workplace misconduct” against Leon Wieseltier, the legendary former literary editor of The New Republic, a contributing editor to The Atlantic, and a long-time fixture in Washington and New York City social circles.

“For my offenses against some of my colleagues in the past I offer a shaken apology and ask for their forgiveness,” Wieseltier said in a statement, first reported by Politico. “The women with whom I worked are smart and good people. I am ashamed to know that I made any of them feel demeaned and disrespected. I assure them that I will not waste this reckoning.” Wieseltier has not yet responded to my request for an interview.

The episode swiftly halted the publication of Wieseltier’s previously forthcoming culture magazine, which was set to launch at the end of the month, the publication’s financial backer said in a statement. “Upon receiving information related to past inappropriate workplace conduct, Emerson Collective ended its business relationship with Leon Wieseltier, including a journal planned for publication under his editorial direction. The production and distribution of the journal has been suspended,” a spokesperson for the group told The Atlantic.

Read the rest here,  I am sure there are many public figures–intellectuals or otherwise–who are shaking in their boots right now.

How Do We Fix American Democracy?

The Washington Post has collected thirty-eight thinkers to answer this question.  They are: Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein, Gish Jen, Yuval Levin, Katherine Mangu-Ward, Jessica Hische, Ann Patchett, R.R. Reno, Kristen Henderson, Alec MacGillis, Milton Glaser,  Amy Sullivan, Ibram X Kendi, Lanhee Chen, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Steve Penley, Avik Roy, Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, Francis Collins, Rita Dove, Nate Powell, Cathy Young, Dani Rodrik, Arlie Russell Hochschild, John McWhorter, Gail Anderson, Joan Williams, Elaine Kamarck, Farah Pandith, Eric Posner, George Lois, George Takei, Domingo Martinez, Suzy Hansen, Suzanne Nossel, Johnalynn Holland, Julian Krein, Moises Naim, and Carl Gershman.

Some of the suggestions include:

“Cultivate National Gratefulness”

“Revive Human Decency”

“A Grass-Roots Revolt Against Fake News”

“End American Arrogance”

“Require Everyone to Vote”

“Stop Obsessing About White Privilege”

“Redefine the Flag”

“Push for Civil Rights Education”

“Teach Critical Thinking”

“A Constitutional Amendment on Equality”

“Ignore the Cultural Elite”

“One Month Without Social Media”

Read the entire piece here.

A Call for Historians to “Use Their Power”

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As one who has been in trenches of public scholarship for years, I cheered when I read historian Karen Cox‘s piece at CNN: “Historians need to use their power now.”

A taste:

Historians need to take their role as public intellectuals seriously. True, op-eds often require a timely response to events that are unfolding. Yet, some events, like historical anniversaries, can be anticipated. We need to pay attention to contemporary conversations that have historical parallels or require a global context.

Today, humanities scholars are roundly criticized for being irrelevant. Degrees in history and English, among others, are described as “useless.” But this is simply not true as recent events have shown. That being said, scholars who have yet to write for broader audiences should take the initiative (and be encouraged by their institutions) to do so, whether that’s through editorials, a blog, popular magazines, or books that not only offer lessons, but are written to be accessible.

Make your work available via social media as well. Historians on Twitter, also known as “Twitterstorians,” share and engage with the public and are on many journalists’ radar. One of the most important developments in recent years has been hashtags for various syllabi. The #Charlestonsyllabus was one of the first. It emerged on Twitter as a response to the killing of nine parishioners in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. The effort amassed a reading list of scholarship and public writing about our country’s racial history that is now a book. It is also highly regarded for its comprehensiveness.

As historians, we must also engage in community discussions, and many of us do. But more of us can and should, whether that’s via a panel discussion or speaking to local citizens’ groups.

Read the entire piece here.

The Difference Between “The Intellectual” and the “Person of Intellectual Achievement”

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This comes from the writer Tom Wolfe‘s 2000 commencement address at Boston University:

We must be careful to make a distinction between the intellectual and the person of intellectual achievement. The two are very, very different animals. There are people of intellectual achievement who increase the sum of human knowledge, the powers of human insight, and analysis. And then there are the intellectuals. An intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others. Starting in the early twentieth century, for the first time an ordinary storyteller, a novelist, a short story writer, a poet, a playwright, in certain cases a composer, an artist, or even an opera singer could achieve a tremendous eminence by becoming morally indignant about some public issue. It required no intellectual effort whatsoever. Suddenly he was elevated to a plane from which he could look down upon ordinary people. Conversely — this fascinates me — conversely, if you are merely a brilliant scholar, merely someone who has added immeasurably to the sum of human knowledge and the powers of human insight, that does not qualify you for the eminence of being an intellectual.

The Declining Vocation of the Social Critic

BafflerTom Whyman explores the decline of the social critic in the recent issue of The Baffler. He starts his piece by decrying much of what today passes for social criticism.  Warning: Whyman pulls no punches:

AS THE INTERNET AGE OF AUSTERITY continues to accelerate, few of us could be blamed for barely holding on, living paycheck-to-paycheck at our humiliating, precarious gig-jobs. Still, if there’s one group of people who really need to tug hard on their bootstraps—if only to find an anchor as the shitstorm of Progress rages from the heavens—it’s people like me, and a lot of the rest of us who write for this magazine: “cultural critics,” if that label doesn’t sound too grand—book-learned nonconformists who have made it our business to understand, see through, and perhaps even transform society and culture. As Theodor Adorno puts it in his essay “Cultural Criticism and Society,” our unsolicited charge is to help the mind identify and “tear at its bonds.” If this is indeed our vocation, just look at how badly we’re failing to honor it. In the face of historical cataclysms like Brexit and Trump, our positive contribution is pathetically marginal, our insight vanishingly small.

Maybe it’s just that the pool of ideas has become supersaturated, a dank swamp. Our public discourse is dominated by peppy TED talkers, cheerleading for the Three Horsemen of technological barbarity: AI, Automation, and Neuroscience. Dull-as-dishwater professional atheists like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett pose as swashbuckling freethinkers as they pedantically reduce everything that matters about human experience to dead, grey matter. Our most prominent political commentators are greasy petty-fascists and dogmatic party hacks; the left’s loudest voices in the media contribute little more than morale-boosting for causes that we know to be already lost. Our best known “public philosophers” seem determined to conceal whatever wisdom they might conceivably possess behind blithering idiocy, from the empty platitudes of Alain de Botton, to the edgy nonsense of Slavoj Žižek.

Who knows? Perhaps this only seems like a problem because of my epistemological position. Perhaps there are effective cultural critics working today—it’s just hard for me to see what impact their work is making because, you know, ideas work slowly and I’m living through their development, day-to-day. Perhaps if I were living in the 1830s, reading The Edinburgh Review, I’d be lamenting the crassness of Carlyle and wondering why he couldn’t be more like Coleridge. Perhaps come 2117, when all news is filtered through Snapchat, my future-equivalent will be looking back on the early days of the internet as some sort of hallowed golden age. Perhaps all of this is just projected self-loathing: a sign that I need to stop writing, get off my computer, and take to the barricades (although frankly, even our most industrious activists seem unlikely to achieve anything beyond the physical expression of their own defiance). But I’m not so sure about that. Rather, it strikes me that today there are identifiable reasons that cultural criticism might find itself in crisis.

Read the rest here.

Zelizer and Keller Respond to Moshik Temkin

Historians

Earlier today we posted on Moshik Temkin’s New York Times piece “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.”  Over at The Atlantic, historians Julian Zelizer and Morton Keller have also responded to Temkin’s piece.  Here is a taste of Zelizer’s response:

As he suggests toward the end of his piece, historians are particularly well positioned to place current events in longer time frames and to offer more perspective on the origins of a certain situation (another point that May and Neustadt made in their classic work). For my own part, I have spent much of my time on CNN and here in The Atlantic trying to explain how the Donald Trump presidency can only be understood within the context of the strengthened role of partisanship in Washington since the 1970s and the transformation of the news media. In other words, I have tried to show that President Trump is not a cause of our current political environment but a product of changes that have been building for years.Sometimes comparisons with the past, even if imperfect, are very useful. Most of the good historical work in the media does not claim that Trump is President Nixon. Rather, the point is that the institution of the presidency creates certain incentives and opportunities for abusing power and that some people who have held these positions have done just that. That is crucial to remember, just like the ways that the institutional fragmentation of our political system perpetually creates huge amounts of friction between the president and Congress, as well as between the parties, despite the endless nostalgia about how things worked better in the past.

Historians have an important role in unpacking key elements of the ways that institutions operate over time to make sense of big trends and broader forces that move beyond the particular moment within which we live. We can’t become so blinded by our concern for particularity and specificity and nuance that we lose site of the big picture—something my friends in political science always remind me of. Claiming that we can’t look at these kind of continuities and similarities is in many ways moving in the opposite direction of what historians do. Some of the best books in American history, such as J.G.A. Pocock’s classic book on the history of Republican ideology, look over decades and even across national-lines to explain how history unfolds. It is possible for historians to take the long view and provide this kind of useful analysis in 800 words or even a five-minute television discussion. It has to be short, it has be to the point, but it can be as insightful and on point as anything said in the classroom.

Read the entire piece here.

Where Are Our Public Intellectuals?

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Martha Nussbam delivered the 2017 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture.  She is often listed as one of our leading public intellectuals

Elizabeth Mitchell asks this question in the July 2017 issue of Smithsonian.  Her piece includes a very helpful graphic that divides today’s public intellectuals into feminists, leftists, specialists, “rising stars,” science experts, “explainers,” and right-wingers. Her list of public intellectuals include Judith Butler, Katha Pollitt, Al Gore, Frank Rich, Martha Nussbaum, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Malcom Gladwell, Andrew Sullivan, Sean Wilentz, Bill McKibben, Krista Tippett, Paul Krugman, Michael Eric Dyson, Henry Louis Gates, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Melissa Harris_Perry, Ross Douthat, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Bill Nye, George Will, William Bennett, David Brooks, and Robert George.

Here is a taste:

Sure enough, in 2017, we are not uninformed; we are over-informed. Scanning our packed feeds, we seek out the trigger topics and views that bolster our perspective.

That’s why we might take a different view of all the fierce arguing online and elsewhere. It is indeed a kind of tribalism, which is marked by a belligerent insistence on cohesion. According to sociologists, humans typically resort to bullying and moral castigation to keep the social unit whole. Maybe our cable-news wars and Facebook scuffles aren’t the death throes of intelligent discourse after all but, rather, signs that this national tribe is furiously attempting to knit itself together.

The potential market for intelligent discussion is greater than ever. Over a third of the adult U.S. population holds four-year degrees—an all-time high. And because the number of graduates who are women or African-American or Hispanic has increased dramatically, today’s public intellectuals look different from the old days. It’s no accident that some of our fastest-rising intellectual powerhouses are people of color, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay.

If we look back at our history, public intellectuals always emerged when the country was sharply divided: during the Civil War, the Vietnam War, the fights for civil rights and women’s rights. This moment of deep ideological division will likely see the return, right when we need them, of the thinkers and talkers who can bridge the emotional divide. But this time they will likely be holding online forums and stirring up podcasts.

Read the entire piece here.

The Reading Habits of Journalists and Public Intellectuals

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Check out Danny Funt‘s piece at Columbia Journalism Review titled “What does it mean for a journalist today to be a Serious Reader? In the course of the essay he discusses the reading habits of Adam Gopnik, David Brooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rebecca Traister, E.J. Dionne, among others.

Here is a taste:

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the most respected magazine writers of the day, as much for the sharpness of his sword as the depth of his artillery, once wrote, “The intellect is a muscle; it must be exercised.” There’s a lot of equipment inside a gym—without knowing better, you might spend an hour doing a few curls and then bouncing around on a balance ball. A balance of news and broader information is desirable, but the optimal proportions can be elusive. Discussing reading habits tends to make people nervous about coming off, as one newspaper writer put it, “like a pretentious twit.”

I encountered no fanatical workaholics like Aristotle, who read with a brass orb in hand so if he dozed off and released his grip, a bang on the ground would startle him back to work. None was quite as industrious as the late writer David Foster Wallace, who advocated studying a usage dictionary on the toilet. Nor did I interview any stunt readers like Esquire’s A.J. Jacobs, who spent a year ploughing through Encyclopedia Britannica A to Z, 44 million words in all.

A couple years before his death in 2008, the legendary critic John Leonard estimated that he’d read 13,000 books for work. As he once explained, “I spend half my day writing about television, and the other half writing about books, and I read instead of sleep.” One way or another, Serious Readers must overcome a basic problem: There are only so many hours in a day.

In the Trump era especially, just keeping up with the news can be suffocating. At 7 each morning, the New York political analyst Jonathan Chait gets up in his Washington home and reviews the tweets he slept through, followed by policy news and Op-Eds in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. From 8 onward, with a break to cook and eat dinner with his family, he’s plugged into following news on the computer, taking short pauses to write when inspiration strikes.

“I’ve been draining down my long-term capital because the value of reading books is very high even if the payoff is delayed,” Chait says. “I can constantly get ideas from the news, but you need depth elsewhere.”

“You can’t live like this forever.”

Read the entire piece here.

Tips for Public Writing

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Over at Inside Higher Ed, academics Christopher Schaberg and Ian Bogost offer “10 Challenges for Scholars Writing for Wider Audiences.”  Schaberg and Bogost are the editors of Object Lessons, a book and article series “about the hidden lives of ordinary things.” During the 2017-2018 academic year they will be conducting four NEH-funded workshops for scholars who are interested in reaching larger audiences with their writing.

Here are some of their “challenges”:

Scholars need not choose between reaching the public and impressing their peers. They can do both. The deciding factor in whether the public appreciates an article or book is not the subject matter; rather, it is the manner in which the subject is made to connect with readers’ interests and concerns. Likewise, ordinary people are perfectly capable of digesting difficult, technical and specialized material as long as the writer explains that material clearly and concisely. Even most scholarly authors prefer reading stuff that doesn’t require physical suffering. But habit, pride and maybe even shame make this topic a forbidden one. And so we end up with the same hard-to-read books and articles.

Scholars don’t know what a “market” is, even when they write for a specific scholarly audience. The process of evaluating a work for whom it might reach and why is simply foreign to scholars — especially humanists. Almost all book proposals include a section on the book’s supposed audience, but it typically gets filled with celebrations of a project’s “uniqueness.” Uniqueness is not necessarily a virtue. Work needs to reach people who have previously been reached by other, similar work. Academics can benefit from thinking of their work as having a market and considering how comparable titles have fared in the marketplace of ideas and books.

This isn’t for everyone. Not every scholar will or should be destined to reach a broader, more general audience. It is not more or less scholarly or more or less righteous to do so. Each scholar must figure out how their individual talents and disposition can best be put to use. Similarly, recognizing that colleagues and peers might have different talents and dispositions, and concomitant publishing trajectories, can help produce greater scholarly harmony. 


Read the entire article here.

Writing Online as Public Scholarship: A Success Story

ChineseI just came across Ben Railton’s blog “American Studies.”  I found it on The Octo, a collection of blogs assembled by Joseph Adelman for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.

Railton teaches American Studies at Fitchburg State in Massachusetts.

I really like his recent post (May 9, 2017) on how he got started with online writing.  In fact, I found it downright inspiring. The lesson: Persist!

Here is a taste:

As of November 2010, the same month when I began this blog, I began trying to write op ed pieces for newspapers on histories that I believed were missing from contemporary debates over issues like immigration and diversity in America. Over the next four years I drafted and re-drafted a number of such pieces, waiting for moments when the particular issue would rise to the top of the news cycle once again and then sending the pieces out to various newspapers’ op ed pages. I apologize to any editors if I’m forgetting them, but as best I can remember I not only never got any of those op eds published (that I know for sure), but also never received a reply of any kind to any of those submissions (other than the automatic form-reply sent upon initial submission). While I didn’t entirely give up on the possibility (indeed, I kept revising and re-sending the pieces when suitable occasions arose), I have to admit that it started to feel like a minor and largely quixotic pursuit within the overall frame of my career, a way to pretend (I wouldn’t have used that particular word at the time, but I’m trying to reflect as honestly as I can) that I was aiming for public scholarly connections and audience beyond those that this blog or my books or other publications could reach.

In November 2014, thanks to the Scholars Strategy Network, and specifically to its then-Media Director (now Executive Director) Avi Green, that all changed. President Obama was preparing to deliver a prominent, televised speech on his immigration (and Dream Act)-related Executive Order, and I was preparing a new version of my immigration histories op ed (now based in part on the many book talks I had given for The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us about America [2013]). But this time I shared the piece with Avi first, and—after ruthlessly and crucially forcing me to cut it down and make it more engaging—he encouraged me to place it with Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall’s website on all things American politics and society. With the help of Avi’s contacts there, my revised immigration op ed, “No, Your Ancestors Didn’t Come Here Legally,” was published on TPM Café; the piece would go on to receive more than 110,000 views, land at #4 on the list of TPM Café’s most viewed posts from 2014, and become the first of more than two dozen biweekly pieces of mine for TPM (and a model for the pieces I’ve written and continued to write for numerous other websites, including my most recent ongoing work as a blogger for the Huffington Post).

There’s a lot that I could say about that moment and what it meant for me, but I think my main takeaway would have to be that it, and thus Avi and SSN, helped me realize for the first time the unique and vital role that short-form online writing can play in a 21st century public scholarly career…

Read the rest here.

Public Intellectuals: Professors or Pundits?

PIOver at Commonweal, Eric Miller, the Christopher Lasch biographer and Geneva College history professor, reviews Michael C. Desch’s edited collection Public Intellectuals in the Global Arena: Professors or Pundits (Notre Dame, 2016).

The book includes essays by Jeremi Suri, Andrew Bacevich, Mark Lilla, and Patrick Deneen. A few essays that caught my attention:

Suri, “Historical Consciousness, Realism, and Public Intellectuals in American Society.”

Paul Horwitz, “Of Mirrors and Media: The Blogger as Public Intellectual”

Deneen, “The Public Intellectual as Teacher and Students as Public: Declining and Falling Apart.”

Desch, “The Ethical Imperative for Some Scholars to Be Public Intellectuals and for the Rest to Let Them Do So.”

Read Miller’s review here.

Those of us who read Eric Miller can always expect him to end his pieces with a prophetic note–a way forward.

And here it is:

We citizens need a new core curriculum: that much this volume makes clear (even when it’s not trying to). And we need the active presence of that ancient Augustinian city, portending a new one. We need a civil society founded upon the bedrock of institutions that store up treasure capital cannot see. And we need teachers—intellectuals, if you will—who can help us to see and seize that treasure. Now.

Intellectuals Catering to the Wealthy

DreznerThis morning I read Eric Alterman‘s review of Daniel Drezner‘s The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats Are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas.

Alterman’s review might be summarized in two sentences: “Drezner is a reliable and intelligent guide to the current state of play. But while focusing on the trees, he doesn’t always pay proper attention to the forest, which in this case is the power of money to corrupt and control literally everything which it comes into contact–most particularly the intellectual culture.”

Here is a further taste:

Today, our most famous purveyors of ideas sell themselves to the wealthy much like the courtiers of the Middle Ages. Drezner notes that these ideas are therefore shaped by the “aversion” that plutocrats share toward addressing the problems we face. Inequality? Global warming? Populist nihilism? An explosion of global refugees? From a Silicon Valley perspective, Drezner notes, such things are not a failure of our system but rather “a piece of faulty code that need[s] to be hacked.” Examining data from a survey of Silicon Valley corporate founders, Drezner notes their shared belief that “there’s no inherent conflict between major groups in society (workers vs. corporations, citizens vs. government, or America vs. other nations).”

“Intellectuals who wish to cater to this crowd will find it difficult to contradict the narrative of meritocratic achievement,” Drezner explains. His discussion of the function of the TED phenomenon is especially cogent: “TED talks are designed for thought leaders to appeal to plutocrats. At less than twenty minutes, they are mercifully short—a perfect format for potential patrons. The working rich are busy people operating on a compressed schedule. Time is their scarcest resource, and they have limited attention spans…. The format itself also rewards more utopian thinking. There are no discussants for TED talks, no critical feedback.” It’s important to remember that we are not talking about the Koch brothers’ spending or the corruption of traditional think tanks by corporate money or the purchase by foreign governments of this or that policy shop. This is what’s happening on the progressive side.

Read the entire review at The Nation.

A Public Intellectual at *Ebony* Magazine

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Lerone Bennett Jr.

One does not normally think of Ebony magazine as a place to look for black intellectual life. Yet Christopher Tinson‘s article on Ebony editor and writer Lerone Bennett Jr. has convinced me that the pages of this popular magazine did serve as a site for intellectual activism.

Ebony founder and publisher John H. Johnson gave Bennett the space to research and write articles and books that brought attention to the black struggle in American life.  As a result, Bennett became a public intellectual who was able to reach an audience that far exceeded the audiences of more academic black writers.

Here is a taste of Tinson’s piece at “Black Perspectives“:

However, Bennett’s career took off upon the publication of Before the Mayflower in 1962, which began as a series of Ebony essays in 1961. The book was an immediate sensation. Mainstream press outlets such as the Chicago Tribune favorably reviewed the book. The Tribune also carried book reviews written by Bennett while he served as associate editor at Ebony. Historian and activist John Henrik Clarke’s review essay for the black left periodical Freedomways in 1965 locates Bennett in relation to the Civil Rights upsurge carried out by “A new generation of restless black Americans.” For Clarke, Bennett was part of a new generation who, like himself, could be called participant historians. In other words these were historians who not only documented history, but were themselves poised and principled activists in their own regard. Clarke offered readers a glimpse into Bennett’s background before diving into a review of key sections of Before the Mayflower and several of his seminal Ebony articles. Accompanying the piece was two of Bennett’s poems, showcasing a multitalented intellect.

The great irony of Bennett’s career, perhaps, is found in his relationship with Ebony, a magazine known for its dependency on advertising that peddled skin lighteners, platform shoes, cigarettes, scotch, the latest styles, and wigs. Bennett was bent on using the popular magazine of the black high life as a reputable platform to document and forecast black struggle, and he succeeded. Still, this did not mean he went unquestioned about what some perceived to be a contradiction.before Mayflower

Without question, Ebony was a critical platform for Bennett. In the front matter of every book he published for JPC, he earnestly thanked Johnson for allowing him the massive platform, time, and resources to research and write. He could reach larger audiences than professors at exclusive colleges or universities, but he could also keep relationships with those institutions that had no effect on his work. Ebony thus emerges as a premier, if unlikely, site of black cultural knowledge production. In this sense Ebony was a different kind of public institution. Bennett certainly benefitted from this unique arrangement and never took it for granted. Not only could he be in the thick of key debates as sage and journalist and historian, but also Ebony’s book publishing gave him a direct line to the national book networks. Among their many publishing pursuits, Bennett and Johnson had plans for an Ebony Encyclopedia.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Scott Culpepper’s “Call to Courageous Christian Scholarship” in the Age of Trump

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Scott Culpepper teaches history at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. In a guest post at The Anxious Bench he exhorts Christian scholars to courageously pursue their vocations in the age of Trump.  It is a wonderful piece.  Here is just a taste:

Christian scholars are indeed a subversive influence.  Critics are right in labeling us a subversive influence if what they mean is that we subvert the subordination of facts to falsehoods calculated to sway popular opinion, the substitution of shallow shibboleths for deeper reflection, and the sacrifice of principle on the profane altar of political expediency.  And there will be a greater need for us to keep on subverting these things with all the energy we can muster in the age of Trump.

The times call for renewed conviction, creativity and courage on the part of Christian scholars.  The masses may not know they need us, but they need us.  The endorsement of popular influence as a virtue in the framing of our American republic was predicated on the hope that education and character formation would equip people to exercise their rights intelligently.  No one is better prepared than Christian scholars and the institutions they serve to provide this kind of education infused with serious attention to character formation.

In a time when forces abound that pressure Christian scholars to adopt a posture of compliance to fit in, we need more than ever to stand up and stand out unapologetically.  All clouds pass in time.  When they do, a new generation will build on either the ruins or the foundations of the past.  That generation sits in our classrooms today.  We have the opportunity to model something very different from what they are seeing on the national stage in both church and state.  May Christian scholars in the age of Trump have the courage to give the masses what benefits them rather than what has been mandated in their name.

Read the entire piece here.

The Intellectual Habits of Barack Obama

book-obamaMichiko Kaktutani of The New York Times has published an amazing article about Barack Obama’s habits of reading and writing during his days in the White House.  Obama is, at heart, a humanist–a man of ideas and a student of the human condition.  I am struck by Obama’s commitment to this kind of thinking, reading and writing amidst the daily rigors of running the United States.  He is a President who refused to be intellectual stagnant. He was constantly replenishing his mind with new ways of thinking about the world. He regularly used books to cultivate empathy in his life–to “get in somebody else’s shoes.”

I love what Obama says about history:

The writings of Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, Mr. Obama found, were “particularly helpful” when “what you wanted was a sense of solidarity,” adding “during very difficult moments, this job can be very isolating.” “So sometimes you have to sort of hop across history to find folks who have been similarly feeling isolated, and that’s been useful.” There is a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address in the Lincoln Bedroom, and sometimes, in the evening, Mr. Obama says, he would wander over from his home office to read it.

Read the entire piece here.  It is worth your time.  If Obama could sustain this kind of intellectual life in the White House then we have no excuse when it comes to sustaining it in our own busy lives.