Public intellectuals and pastry cooks

So Nicolas Kristoff wrote a piece for the NYT entitled Professors, We Need You. The piece set off a lot of reactions from academics, which have ranged from takedowns to critiques. The column is pretty easy to pick apart because it claims to refute anti-intellectualism at the same it reinforces the same lazy tropes always leveled at intellectuals, thereby echoing and reaffirming the status quo of anti-intellectualism: nobody listens to professors, and it’s all the professor’s own fault for clinging to outmoded thinking (secluded monks in an academy) incoherent writing, except for the anointed few like Jill Lepore (because, you know, there’s no competition in writing for the New Yorker and we could all do it if we just tried.) And all those communist lefties in the academy. They are a problem. Economists are ok, though, because the Republicans like them.

As Erik Voeten points out, public intellectuals are actually here, and many of us do work very hard to make our work and our fields accessible to people outside of our field, including voters. Just because Kristof isn’t bothering to read us, it’s not as though we don’t exist.

Moreover, the “blame the academics” approach willfully ignores an important point that Easily Distracted made: it’s not easy for anybody to be heard, let alone heard correctly, in today’s political world :

Kristof might ask–using himself as a test–what exactly is dependent upon this input that he thinks is lacking. If what he means by accessibility is “I want professors who agree with what I already think, and I want them to say so clearly”, that’s very different than saying, “There’s something I don’t understand, something I can’t do, something beyond my knowledge”. The former is just hunting for a few more bits of costume jewelry to burnish the finery of the powerful. The latter would be a welcome invitation, but given that it starts with humility, don’t hold your breath.

Indeed. Why are economists such elevated darlings in the political economy? Because they are really that much more rigorous and objective than a philosopher or historian? Or is it because they promise the powerful access to even more magic beans?

There’s also the fact, as Corey Rubin points out over Crooked Timber, that Kristof’s examples of “good public intellectuals” are two very, very privileged women, Jill Lepore and Ann Slaughter, who come from the most exalted spheres of the academy–Princeton and Harvard. The platform from which they are approaching the media with their material is one helluvalot different than most academics who, by the very numbers, have transformed into a predominantly temporary workforce teaching four to five classes a semester for low pay. These are not the conditions by which people glide into the same level of influence as the Jill Lepores of this world.

Finally, there are exceptional journalists with whom it is a pleasure to talk to. Then there are dolts who, if you ask them to keep two ideas, let alone ideas in tension, in their head at once, their eyes glaze over. Which brings us back to the point from Easily Distracted: if you don’t want complexity, and all you want is a solutions factory from the academy, there are plenty of academics and “independent researchers” who will bludgeon you with their simplistic solutions to schill themselves as celebrities to sell their books. We could probably, in fact, use less, rather than more, of that. Urban decline? Forget the messy and complicated problem of racism, schools, and policing. Lemme tell ya about the magic of bike lanes! That’s the fix you need! And that’s the fix you want because it’s tangible and requires you to change not all if you don’t feel like it. (And remember, I think bike lanes are awesomesauce. By all means. I’ll even the buy the green paint. But Los Angeles strikes me as a city that is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and while I’m sure bike lanes do improve many wonderful things, it’s the not the thin of the wedge there.)

Urban problems, just like most social problems, are unpleasantly complicated and take entirely too much time to explain, let alone address. And not many people seem to really want to hear it. Boil it down. Make it easy. Make it something fixable in three easy steps that don’t require me to pay money, change the way I think, or suggest that me and people like me aren’t wonderful in every way. The problem is fat people and Republicans (or Democrats, depending your Sacred Outlook.)

As Socrates would put it, be a pastry cook.

And that’s the major reason I get impatient with myself and the opportunities of public intellectualism. It’s the basic problem presented in Plato’s Gorgias. Sophists were public intellectuals. Throughout the course of the dialogue, it becomes more and more apparent that Callicles loves the demos, both out of genuine patriotism, but also because he loves fame. He loves the attention of playing to crowd. And playing to the crowd has limits in terms of knowledge creation. It rewards rhetorical trickery of the type that Polus engages in (vivid, emotional, polemic) and in tames intellects, like that of Callicles, because he dare not risk saying something unpopular.

It also has me recalling my Thucycides, which I have been rereading in my spare time. I haven’t read Thucydides since high school, and cracking it open again after reading Josiah Ober’s wonderful discussion in Political Dissent in Democratic Athens has me thinking about the role pretty speech and fame-seeking had in fragmenting the Athenian polis after Pericles.

Nor does it help that ambitious universities want to score the big name who can engage with media on media’s own terms. There are better and worse outlets, and understanding that landscape is yet another communication problem for the contemporary academic to solve, along with the 50+ complicated people who show up twice a week to (I hope) engage with the learning community that academics are meant to foster. The for-profit media is a tough place; the nonprofit media can be a backwater and a choir. You do the math as to what that means for academics with complicated ideas.