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PUBLIC VERSUS POWER INTELLECTUALS, Part 1


S. Herman

and David Peterson

The

conventional use of the term "public intellectual" has been a source of growing

confusion and bombast of late. At a forum on "The Future of Public

Intellectuals" held some months ago in New York City, Russell Jacoby of The Last

Intellectuals fame lamented the disappearance of earlier generations of

intellectuals from the public eye, to be replaced by "professors locked in the

university," more concerned with "finding recommendations than with writing

public interventions." At about the same time, the Nippon Foundation of Japan

announced the creation of an Asian Public Intellectuals program, the ostensible

goal of which is to promote intellectual work that might advance the public good

by helping "Asians to look at Asians through their own eyes."

The

bombast we can ignore; the confusion we cannot. Thus we can agree that the term

"public intellectual" has become problematic, but not because intellectuals have

disappeared as a result of being "locked in the university." Rather, those WE

would call public intellectuals are simply not being given the chance to appear

on the public stage. We believe that the source of the confusion lies in the

failure to distinguish between intellectuals who have ACCESS to the public and

those who SERVE the public. There is a strong inverse correlation between the

two, which rests on the biased choices of the commercialized and concentrated

mainstream media. This in turn reflects the preferences of the corporate

community and political establishment.

An

intellectual who has generous media access is often funded by the American

Enterprise or Manhattan Institutes, Heritage Foundation, or the Hoover

Institution, as in cases of Dinesh D’Souza, the Thernstroms, Christina Hoff

Sommers, Shelby Steele and Heather Mac Donald. More generally, those who enjoy

access can be relied on to say what the establishment wants said on the topics

of the day–"civility," "political correctness," race, free trade, and

"humanitarian intervention" and the civilizing mission of the United States and

West. This characterizes the work of intellectuals such as Alan Wolfe, Charles

Murray, Paul Krugman, Robert Kaplan, David Rieff and Michael Ignatieff, who have

been relatively ubiquitous figures over the past decade, enjoying bylines, radio

and television appearances, and favorable book reviews. Given their service to

the powerful we categorize these preferred intellectuals as "power" rather than

"public" intellectuals. It is a distinction that captures a crucial feature of

the U.S. system of selective promotion or marginalization of intellectuals and

their ideas throughout the public sphere. As Noam Chomsky once noted, "It is a

system of no small degree of elegance, and effectiveness."

We

believe the term "public intellectuals" should be reserved for those strong

thinkers who lack access to the public precisely because they are independent

and would speak effectively to that public’s concerns. Their access is blocked,

and their work and ideas are rendered invisible, by vested interests who control

the flow of information to the public and are able to exclude from the print

media and airwaves those who challenge their interests and preferred policies.

That is, effective freedom of expression– freedom of expression combined with

outreach to large numbers–is limited to the "power intellectuals."

Public intellectuals are recognizable not only by their marginalization, they

are also frequently subjected to harsh denigration and attack by the

establishment’s power intellectuals. As Voltaire noted back in the 18th century,

with odes to the monarch "you will be well received. Enlighten men, and you will

be crushed." Thus, when Rachel Carson published her Silent Spring in an

extremely propitious environment for criticism of the chemical industry back in

1962–the ecological consequences of DDT were becoming hard to hide, and the

thalidomide disaster had recently struck–and succeeded in reaching not only the

New Yorker but a CBS News program that featured her message, she was furiously

assailed by the industry and its academic appendages for "emotionalism" and

alleged inaccuracy. Noam Chomsky affords the finest illustration of the public

intellectual subjected to incessant and long-term derogation in an attempt to

discredit and justify a refusal to allow him to participate in public debates.

Power intellectuals can make the most egregious errors of fact and

interpretation, their forecasts may be wildly off the mark, and they may be

first class war criminals claiming status as intellectuals, but this does not

impair their ability to reach the public, as establishment good taste prevents

mention of their failings. But in Chomsky’s case, criticisms based on literal

fabrications and misrepresentations about his work are repeated as a matter of

course–and usually without any chance of rebuttal–when it is felt necessary to

explain why such an "extremist" is denied access.

It is

possible to move between the categories of public and power intellectual by a

shift in viewpoint and funding source. David Horowitz, master of the "political

correctness" and "left fascists" scares, moved from invisibility as a leftist to

relative prominence as a Reagan-Gingrich Republican by such a shift, as did Paul

Johnson moving from editorship of the left, U.K-based New Statesman to American

Enterprise Institute intellectual. Alan Wolfe and John Judis also became

prominent writers and reviewers in the New York Times following their shifts in

perspective from liberal-left to New Democrat and in affiliation from City

College of New York to Boston University (Wolfe) and In These Times to the New

Republic (Judis). Wolfe has even attained the status of being referred to as a

"distinguished public intellectual" by the noted power intellectual James Q.

Wilson, reviewing Wolfe’s Moral Freedom in the Wall Street Journal (April 5,

2001).

We

also believe that the role of power intellectuals fits nicely into the

propaganda model, where the threat of independent experts as sources conflicting

with official and corporate perspectives is shown to be alleviated by pushing

forward dependent and friendly experts–i.e., power intellectuals–who preempt

space that otherwise might be taken by genuinely independent analysts, i.e.,

public intellectuals. Nurturing and giving credentials to these power

intellectuals, who will serve as front-line fighters against the public

interest, is a main function of corporate thinktanks. And one of the beauties of

the system is the willingness of the corporate media to accept the experts from

the corporate thinktanks as genuinely independent and presumably serving the

public interest. This has been dramatically illustrated during the past several

decades in the provision of experts on "terrorism" by the Center for Strategic

and International Studies, Heritage Foundation, Rand Corporation, and other

hugely biased, government linked institutions. The result has been a flow of

experts into the media that provide an almost uniform echo of the official view

on terrorism, with two thirds of the leading experts having been in government

service and virtually all focusing on leftwing and insurgent terrorism (see

Herman and O’Sullivan, The "Terrorism" Industry. chaps 7-8).

The

rise to prominence of the New World Order power intellectuals in the last

several decades fits the same pattern, and they have played an important role in

putting contemporary imperialism in a friendly light while focusing on the

crimes of its opponents and victims. Thus we have the optimists like Francis

Fukuyama, featuring the triumph and spread of "liberal democracy" under the

leadership of the United States. We have the pessimists like Robert Kaplan,

focusing on a "coming anarchy" that is traced to a number of sources, but not

corporate globalization, IMF-World Bank policy, or the effects of a colonial

heritage and wars traceable in large measure to that heritage. And we have what

we call the "New Humanitarian" power intellectuals–Michael Ignatieff, David

Rieff, Timothy Garton Ash, Aryeh Neier, and Geoffrey Robertson, among many

others. We will devote Part 2 of this series to a study of this camp and its

preferred analyses and omissions.

  

 

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