Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline By Richard A.
Posner. Harvard University Press, 408 pages, $29.95
Richard A. Posner's Public Intellectuals
reminds me of my grandmother's
attic: here an elephant table brought home from Africa; there a cuckoo clock; all
around, a miscellany of items collected under one roof. Alas, Posner, a judge on
the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, intends his newest book to be
more than a hodgepodge. He seeks to demonstrate that "the public intellectual can
be studied in a systematic and fruitful fashion." With that goal in mind, he has
equipped the book with several academic accoutrements. He has a thesis, in two
parts: (1) that public intellectuals say foolish things because they are subject
to so few quality controls, although (2) it doesn't matter, because no one pays
much attention to them anyway.
Following an economic model, he argues that the proliferation of media
outlets has enlarged the market for public intellectuals, who produce "credence
goods"--that is, goods whose "quality cannot be determined" before you buy them.
How do readers know whether to "buy" the opinions public intellectuals are
selling? They listen to the intellectual's rhetoric. They observe evidence of the
intellectual's commitment. They examine his or her credentials--usually academic
ones, since, as Posner accurately asserts, most public intellectuals these days
are also professors.
There's the rub, in Posner's view. Today's professors specialize when they do
their academic work. When they write about social and political issues for the
general public, they move beyond their area of expertise. Members of their
audience, themselves often specialists, lack the knowledge to evaluate what is
said. Freed from knowledgeable scrutiny, intellectuals can pretty much say what
they want and get away with it. (Posner does not take reporters and editors
seriously as gatekeepers.) At the same time, if intellectuals embarrass
themselves beyond hope of redemption, they can simply retire from the public
field and work full time at their teaching jobs.
And embarrass themselves they do, Posner argues. He spends more than half of
the book demonstrating the errors made by particular public intellectuals.
Drawing partly on his own earlier writings, he takes to task first one
intellectual, then another. As part of his supposed systematic analysis, he puts
his most prolonged critiques in a section that he calls "Genre Studies." Here, he
singles out literary critic Wayne Booth and philosopher Martha Nussbaum, notes
that they "are not in the mainstream of contemporary literary studies," and
nevertheless uses them as exemplars. Their error, in his eyes: turning
literature to political use. Elaborating on this theme in a chapter on political
satire, Posner turns to George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World
to show the folly of interpreting "the novels of yesterday as political tracts."
In a chapter on philosophers, he returns to Nussbaum and also portrays Richard
Rorty as a loose cannon firing off proposals, signifying nothing. In another
chapter, "The Public Intellectual and the Law," he continues what he calls his
"nastly [sic] little spat" with Ronald Dworkin over the Clinton impeachment. This
chapter, which prolongs an argument already turned stale, is the dreariest of the
I was more interested in Posner's dissection of "the Jeremiah School," which,
he writes, includes Gertrude Himmelfarb, Robert Bork, Robert Putnam, and other
"declinists"--intellectuals who see American culture going downhill all the way.
The trouble with these Jeremiahs, Posner suggests, is their tendency to connect
everything with everything else. If something they don't like happens in one
corner of the culture--sloppy dress or promiscuous sex, for instance--they assume
that it spells doom for the entire culture.
Posner himself exudes a bouncy cheer about the state of the country--indeed,
the world. An enthusiastic free-marketer, he speaks of "the success of
(partially) deregulated capitalism in producing unimagined prosperity in much of
the world." Writing before September 11, he refers to our "living in an era in
which we feel safe." Could he have imagined the state of mind in which readers
will take up his book? His own lack of foresight demonstrates another point he
makes about intellectuals at some length: When they try to foresee the future,
they are likely to get it wrong. Paul Ehrlich predicted that Americans would go
hungry. Robert Bellah predicted a polarization of wealth. Jeane Kirkpatrick said
the communist countries would never turn into democracies. Wrong, wrong, wrong,
says Posner. Not for the first time, I felt that we are living in different
worlds, he and I.
Outside the lab, of course, any predictions are dicey. It's wise
to pay less attention to what intellectuals say about the future than to what
they say about the present and past. For instance, Wendell Berry, one of my
favorite intellectuals, envisions a bleak future if we go on as we've been going
on; but his essays and books mostly look at things as they are and have been, not
things as they will be. Reading him over several decades, I have become familiar
with his mind--not only his "opinions" or "predictions" but his turns of thought,
his ways of grappling with the subjects that he has made his own--among them, the
emptiness at the heart of commercial life. Thinking about the place of Berry's
work in my life, I find Posner's economic model, with its focus on discrete works
and discrete assertions, sadly reductive.
Berry long ago abandoned university life, which he found constricting, and
he now spends his time writing, speaking, and tending the earth. He lives quite
modestly on a small hillside farm--enhancing his credibility as an intellectual,
Posner might say, by living the values he espouses. Yet Berry, an influential
figure in the environmental movement, is not even on Posner's radar screen. He
fails to make the master list Posner presents as his only attempt at systematic
research--a miscellaneous, idiosyncratic collection of European, British, and
American thinkers, alive and dead, academic and independent. Posner built this
list out of one compiled by another author in 1970, adding names, apparently, as
they occurred to him. It is impossible to find any basis for Posner's inclusion
of certain names on the list and not others. Why, for instance, does he include
Toni Morrison but not Alice Walker? Todd Gitlin but not Tony Judt?
He subjects the names in this bogus sample to database searches in an attempt
to draw conclusions--for instance, that "media mentions come at the expense of
scholarly citations." The result is pseudo-social science that undermines
whatever slim credibility the rest of his book musters. About midway through this
chaper, I began entertaining the notion that Public Intellectuals might be a
Taken straight on, the book does not hold up. If there has indeed been a
"decline" in the quality of public intellectual life, Posner gives too much
weight to specialization in academe as its cause. At minimum, he ought to take
into account the power of television--scarcely, as we know it, a great medium for
thinking things through. He also ought to consider the corporatization and
commercialization of the publishing world.
But the "Decline" in the subtitle is in fact hypothetical--pure tease. Posner
makes no attempt to trace a decline; this book is not a history. Nor, by taking
apart the arguments of a handful of intellectuals, does he make the case that
public intellectuals speak irresponsibly. At most, he proves that these
particular intellectuals make arguments that he can punch holes in.
Is the academic work of intellectuals any more rigorous than their efforts as
public critics and advocates, as Posner maintains? Because he himself has one
foot in the academic world (he also holds an appointment at the University of
Chicago), we might be inclined to take his word for it. I have my doubts. I
believe he overestimates the quality controls in the academic world. His own
jerry-built book, published by Harvard University Press, is no better than
comparable books issued by trade publishers, not only in large things but in
small: Historian Garry Wills's name is once rendered as "Gary" and the poet Allen
Ginsberg's name is misspelled "Ginsburg." Early in the book, Posner does admit
that other symbolic goods, if examined closely, might also display signs of
failed quality control. He does not let that caveat lead him to wonder whether
any field of human endeavor, examined closely, might not prove flawed.
Instead he marches on, concluding the book confidently, as he begins. As
corrective to the sorry state of intellectual affairs, he offers several
remedies for holding public intellectuals to account. For instance, universities
could require professors to post all nonacademic speaking and writing on the Web,
so that the public could have a record of their follies. Universities could also
mandate that their professors disclose income earned from their outside
activities as public intellectuals so the public could identify conflicts of
interest that might taint their views. Income disclosure, he suggests, might also
pressure faculty to tend to their academic knitting, where they are more likely
to make real contributions to society. These are not bad ideas so much as they
are small ones, unlikely to improve the usefulness of intellectuals'
contributions to the public conversation.
Inevitably--since this is the question he's raising--I found myself wondering
if Posner's own book constitutes an irresponsible act. Transparently, he does not
know enough about his topic to take it on, nor does he appear to have a firm grip
on how to approach it. He says that to some extent his book originated in his
experience as mediator in the Microsoft antitrust case--when he observed that
intellectuals' commentary on the case "was little better than kibitzing." His
book is not much more. Yet it is in some ways useful: for instance, as a guide to
other writing on public intellectuals (he provides good footnotes) or as a
stimulant for thought (he leaves so much room for argument). There's something
almost endearing about his confident plunge into deep unknown waters. I would
never say, as he seems to be saying of some public intellectuals, that he ought
to have refrained from speaking.