I recently came across a very long, very personal, and rather mean-spirited attack on Cornel West by Michael Eric Dyson, in the New Republic. Then Jerry Fresia, a frequent and valued commenter on this blog, wrote an e-mail to me in which he referred to the attack and linked to a defense of West by Henry A. Giroux. The controversy started me brooding about the fratricidal character of so much of the debate in the public domain about large issues of public policy. I do not consider myself a public intellectual -- I never write for journals of opinion, I am almost never asked to speak at public gatherings, I do not show up to mass demonstrations -- but I have a deep lifelong concern with economic, military, educational and other questions, and some of my writings have played a small part in public debates of the past. As I was driving about here in Chapel Hill running morning errands, I wondered whether there wasn't a better way for all of us -- the famous, like Noam Chomsky and Cornel West, and the much less well-known, like myself -- to think about ourselves and the really rather small number of our colleagues on the left.
Since I spent my entire working life teaching at one university or another, my thoughts naturally turned to how things are on an academic campus. At any university with which I am familiar, there have always been some members of the faculty whose voices are heard whenever a dispute arises, who speak up at faculty meetings, organize teach-ins, join student sit-ins, and stand out on the campus as forceful defenders of principled positions. There are others, less prominent, who support those with the big voices, vote with them when all-faculty meetings are called on pressing controversies, and in general serve as troops in the struggles, without achieving anything like prominence on the campus. And there are still others whose work is informed by the same deeply held moral or political concerns, but who quietly go about their teaching and other duties while they write scholarly books and articles.
Similar distinctions are observed among the various intellectuals on the left [and, I might add, on the right, but I do not care about them, save as problems to be dealt with somehow.] Suppose we were to stop competing for the spotlight [as Dyson pretty clearly is with West] and instead thought of ourselves as a virtual University of the Left, content to let each of us fight for what we believe in the way that each of us finds most comfortable. As I have so often observed, if we are to have any chance of changing the world [as opposed merely to bearing witness to its faults], we are going to need many millions of us, not simply that orthodox fragment of the Saving Remnant with whom we have no disagreements whatsoever. If the truth be told, all the people in the entire United States who would feel comfortable with the label "Marxist" probably would not fill Fenway Park, let along Yankee Stadium.
Any viable movement for radical change will of course need Cornel West, but it will need Michael Eric Dyson as well. Indeed, though I am sure it will cause heartburn in some of my readers for me to say it, any movement with a chance of succeeding will even need Paul Krugman. At this point, we are not the tip of a spear. We are not even the tip of an iceberg. So if Dyson wants to mock West for having some ego as well as some skin in the game, let us just avert our eyes and keep going. The way things look now, both of them will be long in the tooth before real change comes to America.
There was another recent high profile intellectual debate, or spat, or whatever one wants to call it, between Noam Chomsky and Sam Harris (personally I side with Chomsky on the matter, but it's reading nevertheless):
I share your concern, believe me. It's a deplorable situation.
But that's how things are. No amount of appeals to people's better nature will change that.
Without mentioning names, sometimes it's a matter of personal ambitions conflicting. Maybe one could call that cynical careerism.
Sometimes, it's a matter of deeply, genuinely felt convictions about how society must be structured, or about priorities within our own group.
At any event, people with different viewpoints, representing different and often opposed worldviews, are competing with each other for the hearts and minds of the public.
And the competition is bound to get ugly (incidentally, a very prominent neoclassical economist and university professor, explaining why he is notoriously caustic, has openly admitted that to insult people in his blog gains him readership; it's a clear as that).
Didn't Mannheim study that?
Mulling on this, I remembered this passage from Friedrich Hayek's interview with journalist and humorist Leo Rosten:
“Keynes had a supreme conceit of his power of playing with public opinion. You know, he had done the trick about the peace treaty. And ever since, he believed he could play with public opinion as though it were an instrument. And for that reason, he wasn't at all alarmed by the fact that his ideas were misinterpreted. ‘Oh, I can correct this anytime.’ That was his feeling about it.”
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