Thursday, January 9, 2014

The race for the "public intellectual" crown

In a recent piece, entitled The Plain Truth: Leftists aren't funny, I noted an incident on the Melissa Harris-Perry show, wherein Harris-Perry put up a picture of the Romneys and their grandchildren as a point of departure for comments from her roundtable of guests. For those who are unaware, one of the many children in this picture happens to be black, the adopted child of one of the Romney children. Harris-Perry's guests cracked wise about this, Harris-Perry joined them in their forced laughter, and a good time was had by all.

Then came the public comments the day after, mostly about just how nasty and inappropriate the jokes were, and how tasteless the segment was. Harris-Perry and her guests--whose names really aren't important--apologized. Harris-Perry herself broke down in tears during her on-air apology. Many thought--and still think--the tears were phony. But I think they were probably genuine. Because frankly, Harris-Perry should have known better. The whole thing was beneath her, given her background (both personal and professional).

Harris-Perry has a BA from Wake Forest (English) and a PhD from Duke (political science). She's taught at Princeton and the University of Chicago (currently, she's at Tulane). She's written two academic treatises and is a regular columnist for The Nation. And of course she has a show on MSNBC. Significantly, at Tulane she founded the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South and serves as its director, as well.

This is not an intellectual lightweight. And given the nature of her scholarship--which is heavily focused on race--she should have known better than to encourage an on-air mocking of the Romneys' black grandchild. But she did. And she looked bad because of it.

Yet from the ashes of her embarrassment, a new bone of contention has surfaced. For after her apology, after numerous pundits on the Right had gone after Harris-Perry, Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic moved to defend Harris-Perry. And in doing so, he said the following (my boldface):
There is a sense that Romney's grandchild should be off-limits to mockery. That strikes me as fair. It also doesn't strike me that mocking was what Harris-Perry was doing. The problem was making any kind of light of a fraught subject—a black child being reared by a family whose essential beliefs were directly shaped by white supremacy, whose patriarch sought to lead a movement which derives most its energy from white supremacy. That's a weighty subtext. But there is no one more worthy, and more capable, of holding that conversation than America's most foremost public intellectual—Melissa Harris-Perry.

There may well be intellectuals with more insight. And there are surely public figures with a greater audience. But there is no one who communicates the work of thinking to more people with more rigor and effect than Harris-Perry. Her show brings a broad audience into a classroom without using dead academic language and tortured abstractions. And she does this while awarding humanity on a national stage to a group unaccustomed to such luxury—black women.
That bit in bold, the claim that Melissa Harris-Perry is "America's most foremost public intellectual," has led to something of a back and forth between Coates and Dylan Byers of Politico. Byers initially responded on Twitter, prompting this piece from Coates, which was then followed by this rebuttal from Byers. There will probably be more back and forth, but the essential issue here has already been established: whether or not Harris-Perry is the "most foremost public intellectual" in the land.

Frankly, Coates kinda gives of the ghost here and resorts to accusing Byers of racism while simultaneously failing to actually defend his initial claim, beyond this less-than-persuasive bit:
This began because I claimed that Melissa Harris-Perry is "America's foremost public intellectual." I made this claim because of Harris-Perry's background: Ph.D. from Duke; stints at Princeton and Tulane; the youngest woman to deliver the Du Bois lecture at Harvard; author of two books; trustee at the Century Foundation. I made this claim because of her work: I believe Harris-Perry to be among the sharpest interlocutors of this historic era—the era of the first black president—and none of those interlocutors communicate to a larger public, and in a more original way, than Harris-Perry.
I say "less-than-persuasive" because while these are impressive credentials, they are hardly unique. Lots of other people have comparable ones; many have far superior ones. Consider one of the examples Byers gave in reply to request for an example of someone "more foremost" than Harris-Perry: Noam Chomsky (who I can't stand, by the way). He has a BA, an MA, and a PhD, all from the University of Pennsylvania, has received numerous academic awards, has taught at MIT for decades, and has written more books and papers than, well, almost anyone currently alive (I'm kind of guessing here). The comparison is ridiculous. This is to take nothing away from Harris-Perry's accomplishments, but just to note that they are not the most impressive ones out there, not by a long shot.

One might say that Chomsky's influence is on the wane, that Harris-Perry represents the "new breed" rising to replace the old. But then consider the background of one of my favorite writers, Robert Kaplan (who happens to work with Coates at The Atlantic). While he lacks the degrees of both Chomsky and Harris-Perry (he has only a BA from UConn), Kaplan has received numerous awards for his writing, has taught at the Naval Academy, been a senior fellow at various think tanks, and was named one of the "top global thinkers" by Foreign Policy Magazine in 2012. More importantly, Kaplan has been writing deeply influential, original, and significant books--like Balkan Ghosts--for several decades. And he's still at it.

Does Coates really, truly believe Harris-Perry's bona fides measure up and surpass those of everyone else? Is she really more original than Chomsky and Kaplan (and everyone else)? And the idea that Harris-Perry is playing to a huge audience is amusing, to say the least.

But all of this begs the larger question: what exactly is a "public intellectual"?

For that matter, what is an "intellectual"? Is it just another word for a smart person? For a well-educated person? A well-spoken person? Or maybe for an elitist snob? Maybe some combination of all of the above? In a messageboard discussion, friend and poet William Haskins described the term--in comparison to the more objective sister-term "academic"--thusly: "a more abstract and congratulatory term, especially when self-applied." I think that's very correct. For there is no standard that can be used to declare one person an intellectual and another person not an intellectual. And more often than not, the term is used as a means of heaping praise on another (or oneself), as is the case with Coates' use of the term in reference to Harris-Perry.

Adding the "public" qualifier to the term doesn't help matters much. In fact, it only serves to muddy the waters even more. For what makes someone a "public" intellectual, as compared to just an everyday intellectual, or maybe even a "private" intellectual? A TV show? A published book? A prominent stool at the local watering hole? Who can say? Certainly not Coates. Nor Byers, for that matter.

I think that, once upon a time, there were public intellectuals (or just intellectuals), people who others deferred to because of how they spoke, because of their interests and range of knowledge, and because--quite frankly--of a certain level of arrogance they displayed. And today, within a limited community (like the regulars at a bar), there might still be some intellectuals of this sort. But there is no legitimate way to argue--let alone prove--that one or the other is the "foremost" intellectual, as compared to all the rest.

Really, it's a silly argument to have, who the foremost public intellectual is in America. It's enough just to say someone is an intellectual, though even that term is subjective. But arguing who the best is? It's a pointless endeavor. Though I guess it's a damn sight better than arguing who the "hottest" celebrity is...

Cheers, all.