You think you're so clever!

You think you're so clever!

Gore Vidal

A most disturbing paragraph opens the recent New York Times interview with Gore Vidal.

[ Interviewer: ] At the age of 82, you will be publishing your new collection of essays this week, which seems likely to confirm your reputation as one of America’s last public intellectuals

I did a double-take. What do they mean by 'one of America's last public intellectuals'? That seems like a very off-hand dismissal, as if it were and accepted fact that clever people were becoming extinct.

After a few moments of thought, I realised that this seemingly flippant remark was essentially an accurate observation. There are so few 'public intellectuals' left, it looks like they're not making them anymore. Certainly the U.S. media is filled with pundits, analysts and 'experts,' but there is a dearth of genuine critical thinking and intelligent discourse.

Bock and I discussed this recently in the pub, bemoaning the demise of the last generation of great American minds: Carl Sagan, Norman Mailer, Stephen Jay Gould, etc. And an older one consisting of H. L. Menken., Theodore Dreiser, Mark Twain, and their ilk.

Are all the belletrists gone forever? The evidence appears grim. The current climate has prompted R.A.Posner to write a book called 'Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline,' while Amitai Etzioni has penned 'Public Intellectuals: An Endangered Species?'

But what is a 'public intellectual' anyway? How can we mourn the passing of something so abstract. Emerson's classic essay 'The American Scholar' delivered in 1837 contains some insights as to the nature and responsibilities of the public intellectual.

Emerson's intellectual preserves great ideas of the past, communicates them, and creates new ideas. He is the "world's eye." And he communicates his ideas to the world, not just to fellow intellectuals.()

The problem today is that too many people delight in their own ignorance and are not afraid to show it. The idea that 'knowledge' is worth attaining, or that dissenting viewpoints are worth hearing, is one that has lost credence in the 21st century. I've written before about the hazards of the Dunning-Kroger effect and faith-based facts.

At the end of the last century, Edward Said argued:

the role the intellectual plays in society is very important. This person has "a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public; this person confronts orthodoxy and dogma, representing people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug; and this person does so on the basis of universal principles," such as freedom and justice(††)

Some encouragement may be gleaned from noting that the religious world has found itself shaken in recent years by such firebrands as Dawkins, Hitchens, et al;  while the political sphere still reels from glittering polemics by Chomsky, Said, Fisk, Pilger, Zinn, and Klein.

Perhaps we're not finished yet. I watched a couple of episodes of the game show Q.I. where host Stephen Fry regularly imparts at length the most obscure trivia of a most complex nature–without a single person sniggering boorishly. And this on television!

It's heartening to know there still exists a respect for knowledge, and a simple joy at the wonder of learning new things.


  1. Paraphrased by Alan Lightman [back ↩]
  2. †† From this study guide [back ↩]