the decline of intellectuals

September 4, 2008

When I first heard the term “public intellectual”, I thought of the emotionless Associate Deans of Anthropology interviewed in their home libraries for History Channel documentaries. Someone who is, yes, an intellectual, but wouldn’t be public about it unless otherwise thrown in front of a camera and asked questions about the mating habits of south eastern Asia’s indigenous peoples.
In an essay called “The ‘Decline’ of Public Intellectuals,” author Stephen Mack notes that part of the role of a public intellectual—or, perhaps, just a necessary outcome—is that they affect public decisions and actions. He then mentions the Basic Books publishing company and a golden age of opinions where fifty years ago men like Nathan Glazer, Robert Jay Lifton and Daniel Bell were part of “a time and place that thrived on the idea of public intellectualism.”
Today, essays like Mack’s might discuss the so-called “decline” of public intellectuals, but I’d rather note the decline of public so-called “intellectuals.”
Because thanks to the technological age—including, but not limited to, television, internet and radio (but definitely and mostly the internet)— Harvard Law Professors are being ousted in favor of opinionated people with personalities, celebrities and often those with just a fast internet connection; and the word “public intellectual” is being thrown out like free lollipops at the dentist, creating a grey area between who should have the power to affect public decision and who, unfortunately, does.

Bloggers are the most disturbing modern example of shaking up the previous notion of public intellectuals being an educated person sharing their wisdom to the common people. While pediatric oncologists and insurance industry know-it-alls can start blogs and share their wisdom with the masses, cats from Alabama and sixteen year-olds who think I want to read about every friend they’ve ever had, unfortunately, have that option too. There’s no bullshit detector on the internet and the fact that you’re reading this possibly ill-steered but possibly right-on rant on my blog and letting it affect your opinion of anything in any way proves this point because, really, who the hell am I?

Even scarier than knowing the deep dark secrets of all of Brittany’s friends–or believing anything I say–are the political commentators that expand the grey area of educated opinions even further. Pundits like Ann Coulter, Stephen Colbert and Bill O’Reilly might not have the traditional backgrounds Basic Books would have required of its mid-century authors, but they are sometimes considered public intellectuals because of their constant media attention, the ease of access to their opinions and the influence of those opinions—however ridiculous they may be.

Consider the touted “Colbert Bump” where Stephen Colbert claims that politicians, musicians and authors that appear on his show will become more popular and are more likely to win elections. Even scarier than the egomania behind this claim is that a UC San Diego study proved it to be true. While I find Colbert’s show clever and amusing in every way, he is a comedian and debatable intellectual with apparent widespread influence on the liberal public. But is he a public intellectual?

We can stretch this new-age definition beyond the subject of politics—where the term more modernly applies. To much of the country, knowledge of popular culture is more inherent than knowledge of current affairs or politics and the rise of trivia has, unfortunately, replaced the need for actual knowledge for many Americans.

A study by the Pew Research Center for Public and the Press indicated that while less than one-third of the public followed serious news stories “very closely,” it could be twice or three times more attentive to pop culture and incidental news (“in early 1990, for example, when only 21% were following the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, 74% of Americans had “heard a lot recently” about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, 78% knew of the recall of Perrier water, and 76% correctly named George Bush Sr.’s least favorite vegetable—broccoli”).
After a January 1993 survey conducted by the same company, the following findings were published:

We found that four in ten Americans had seen at least one of the three television movies made about the affair of “Long Island Lolita” Amy Fisher. Fully 18% of the public watched more than one of the movies made about her. Not surprisingly, we found that knowledge about what was happening in Bosnia decreased with the number of Amy Fisher movies watched. Those who viewed none knew more about the Balkan conflict than those who viewed one film, and they, in turn, knew more than those who saw two Fisher movies, etc.

Disturbing, yes, but not entirely unadaptable.

Note the rise of celebrities that use their careers as bully pulpits. Bands like NOFX and Green Day record anti-war albums, Pamela Anderson visits animal shelters on behalf of PETA and Paris Hilton and P.Diddy rallied college kids during 2004’s “Vote or Die” attempt. Although endorsements like these are declining in influence of adult decisions, a disturbing USA Weekend Magazine survey found that teenagers—the future of our country—were more likely to buy a product because of who they saw on the commercials for it and admitted to wanting a tattoo or piercing because they saw it on their favorite star.

Somewhere between old school values and new school personalities (including those who think they know twice as much as they ever, actually, will) lies this aforementioned grey area where the term “public intellectual” is becoming increasingly more debatable.
And thanks to the results of one Times mirror Center Study, my generation is now referred to as “The Age of Indifference;” a young society of people who want the news but remain ill-informed and are, thus, not equipped rationally to discern what is worthwhile and what is not in this ever-growing grey zone of reliable information.

The principle of opinion manipulation in itself challenges the intellectual tradition inherent in those considered to be socially-constructive sources and, in effect, offends the general public by implying their emotions are easily swayed (which has proven to be true).

This depressingly realistic model of general society has led those that hold onto the traditional values of public intellectualism to form an elitist argument, one, that Mack says is “grounded in the myth of an aristocracy of experts.”

I am hesitant to discard that notion entirely as a myth, however, because we have adopted the same mentality into our society’s family structure. Parents, as older and supposedly wiser beings, are viewed as the dominant intellectual strength in a household and the value of a child’s opinion is lessened because of their obvious inexperience with the world. When children are allowed to make their own decisions and run the family, then British nannies and a TV crew have to come in and re-establish a healthy parent-child relationship that should never have been relinquished from the start.

And if cats, sixteen year-olds and schmucks like Perez Hilton are dominating an otherwise uninformed America’s information intake, then an elitist attitude will understandably form among those that rightly aim to keep public intellectuals just that: intellectuals.

Because of the segregation between reliable sources and supposedly unqualified influential public figures, an anti-intellectual movement has spurred, leading pop culture figures views to become more influential than those who might have actual experience in the subject.

But one author, I’ve found, bridges this gap beautifully. Chuck Klosterman is both for those in the know and those that wish to know. He wears a lot of hats—music critic, pop culture connoisseur, heavy metal expert, cultural relativist—and writes for about 50 publications. In his pieces, he weaves metaphors out of entertainment fixtures and makes modern phenomenon historically relevant. He is eloquent about subjects that are nearly impossible to tackle without sounding like a star-struck teenager and has become a public intellectual in a field that didn’t know it could have one.  He likes to exaggerate little things while understressing the huge and by straddling the fence between completely asinine and absolute genius, Chuck Klosterman is the answer to our prayers.


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