what is america’s foremost public intellectual?

Earlier this week, following a too familiar media scuffle over Mitt Romney, the American family, and race, Ta-Nehisi Coates published an article that described MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry as America’s “foremost public intellectual.” Coates’ Harris-Perry is a brave and unusual public voice, in large part because of her identity: an educated black woman in an overwhelmingly white, male public discourse. Coates’ hyperbole–an intellectual’s “foremost”-ness ranks that which defies measurement–provoked a predictable firestorm. According to these comments, Harris-Perry cannot be a “foremost” public intellectual because she is not Noam Chomsky, the profession’s prototype, or because she is not often cited in the halls of power, or because she does not shape the common structure of our public sphere.

These objections contain subtle half-truths, and little more. What a public intellectual is–professionally, socially, politically, and otherwise–rests entirely on two dilemmas, awkwardly combined: what a “public” is, and whose ideas the public accepts. These questions are as fresh in our contemporary discourse as they are age-old–in fact, they underpin the very contours of our political conversation.

Over the past few years, I have engaged a slow, plodding biographical study of Tony Judt, the late historian whose profound prose Coates and I recently share in common. For a short two decades between 1992, when Judt published a controversial study of postwar French intellectuals, and 2010, when he died, very slowly, of ALS, Judt was a “public intellectual,” by many definitions. His biography, a very interesting one, offers three preliminary insights into what a public intellectual is, and how we should think about the pillars of such a person’s identity.

Ideology: An intellectual’s ideas are not independent–they exist in an ideology, the society of ideas with which they publicly and privately cohere and differ. An intellectual can proclaim themselves “non-ideological,” as a politician proclaims themselves “non-partisan,” but the social act of discussing ideas requires that they agree with some similar idea, whether in structure, logic, or outcome. Even the discussions of Socrates, Western history’s most storied gadfly, created ideologies–modes of thought with which his students disagreed, and against which they defined the substance of their own ideas. Judt was also ideological, despite Coates’ insistence to the contrary: in refuting the totalitarian-lite preferences of postwar French intellectuals, in Past Imperfect, he associated with a particular (Isaiah Berlin-inspired) definition of “freedom”; in dismissing the Zionism of the hawkish American left, he adopted a particular concept of political Jewishness. Judt’s intellectual milieu made much of Vaclav Havel’s trope, “speaking truth to power.” But his ideas, like those of all public intellectuals, were just another power, crafting another truth, however more righteous.

Access: When Coates described Harris-Perry’s qualifications, he was quick to cite her credentials: degrees from top universities, a prominent job. Of course, these are metrics of influence, but they also indicate access, a feature not necessarily driven by the quality of an intellectual’s ideas. As social justice advocates often observe, access is more reliably an indication of privilege, less of inherent intellectual value. Harris-Perry may be morally correct on some topics, and wrong on others, but it usually doesn’t matter: her influence rests on her credentials, the currency of our current meritocracy. Like Harris-Perry, who brushed against a public racial taboo, Judt’s post-Zionism ruffled the delicate pro-Israel opinions of a liberal intelligentsia. He faced significant objections, and some alleged efforts to restrict his public commentary, but remained tied to NYU, his home institution, and the New York Review of Books, which first published his critical commentary on Israel in 2003. Judt could afford to be a public intellectual because his public offered few sustained consequences for his dissidence.

Audience: When Coates asserted that Harris-Perry was the foremost public intellectual in America, he took two statements for granted: that “America” is a unitary public, and that its publicness carries social and moral meaning. Surveying the American media landscape, the most reliable proxy for our national public sphere, both statements appear patently, unavoidably false. “America” is surely a salient concept and identity for many, including those who live within the borders of the United States, but its salience, symbols, and virtues diverge along that stretch of highway between Chicago’s South Side and the plains of Oklahoma. Logically, its publics must also split. There are those who view a stretch of 57th Street as their common ground, and others who view morning-time Fox News talk-shows as a vessel for their cultural norms. Judt also faced these divided publics. Left-wing French intellectuals incited literary riots over his damning historical portrait of their predecessors; the New York Times Book Review, in contrast, featured a generous front-page essay on Past Imperfect, but few would describe its American reception as “publicly prominent.”


blame liberalism for the shutdown

Since the beginning of the U.S. government shutdown, progressive commentators have roundly condemned false comparisons with the Republican Party’s extremist fringe. These commentators shoulder far-right Congressional officials with the country’s budgetary stranglehold, debunking popular hand-wringing our “broken political system.” The problem is, they’re both right: the shutdown is the GOP’s fault, but liberalism allowed it to occur.

“Liberalism,” as an idea, exists in many forms: as a popular political identity, as an assortment of political organizations, and, here, as a historical idea. Two pillars shape the U.S. government’s historical approach to liberal politics, and they are largely continuous throughout the country’s 20th century political history. The first is what James Scott referred to as the “high modernist” state: a central planning body responsible for national policy management, from local schools to federal monetary policy. As the U.S. government spent its first 150 years fighting—often literally—for its own authority, the trappings of U.S. high modernism are relatively recent innovations: the Social Security Administration (1935), the Department of Health and Human Services (1953), the Department of Education (1979). This “high modern” liberalism increasingly constitutes the U.S. political consensus. Congressional conservatives talk a big game about the glory of John Galt’s libertarianism, but to take their Ayn Rand fandom seriously overlooks their basic function as the conduits of the “high modern” state: thus, pork-barrel politics.

Liberalism’s second pillar is an abiding faith in incremental politics. The U.S. government’s liberal consensus rests on the slow, unsteady march towards political improvement, as in ongoing public debates around education reform. Liberals—that is, those who engage with U.S. governance, rather than outside of it—tinker with the state, and often supplement it, but they never supplant it. If, as Karl Marx wrote, our systems of governance “set out from real, active men,” the real, active politics of contemporary society are ubiquitous.

Incremental politics emerge because, with the high modernist state in place, revolution becomes unimaginable. The state has become America’s most basic engine of social exchange, in a way that it wasn’t in, say, 1873. Both progressives and conservatives have tapped into this basic truth of American politics: consider, for example, the Republican response to Elizabeth Warren’s “social contract” monologue during the 2012 election cycle. That is, popular disputes over the state’s social influence vary by scale (“limited government”), rather than existence. A century-and-a-half ago, Alexis de Tocqueville observed a similar phenomenon in his historical assessment of post-revolutionary France: even the most revolutionary futures bear striking similarities to the incremental past.

Cultural commentators on both the left and the right during the first half of the 20th century—the high modernist state’s growth years—decried the “cult of experience” in liberal American politics: that, with enough knowledge of how communities thrive, planners might improve their basic livelihoods. Jane Addams’ settlement houses were once the controversial standard-bearers of incremental liberalism; now, Cass Sunstein’s “nudging” receives official sanction in the U.S. government’s top budgetary organizations. For Christopher Lasch, one of liberalism’s most prominent critics throughout the 1960s, the social-planning consensus overpromised, and underdelivered. “For the new radicals,” he wrote, “conflict itself, rather than injustice or inequality, was the evil to be eradicated. Accordingly, they proposed to reform society not through the agencies of organized coercion, the courts of law and the power of the police, but by means of social engineering…” Policies—institutional tweaks—would redeem the basic failures of American governance, and the politics—the institution’s basic structures—would follow.

Liberalism’s incremental politics have, since the early 20th century, crafted a political system with undeniable dividends for American society, at least in the aggregate. Whatever the rising human costs of inequality, incremental improvements to the high modernist state are widespread: a stronger social safety net supports impoverished workers, and U.S. small-business entrepreneurs now receive extensive assistance from public bodies.

As in human biology, exposure precedes fragility. That the liberal consensus underemphasizes the mess of politics is now a common critique, and one which contemporary critics of education reform, in particular, highlight. But the shutdown, brought on by the catastrophic wrangling of a political fringe, returns the same critique to the fore. The liberal state shapes our lives in profound ways, both implicit and explicit; for many Americans, its disappearance is (rightly) unthinkable. And so political officials seek the improvement of this ever-present state, failing to notice that its tenuous incrementalism heralds its own decay.

an abandoned bookstore

My family’s second home is in western Massachusetts, in Huntington, which holds bluegrass concerts on the public lawn during the summer months. My brothers and I spent our childhood at the Huntington country store, trying our hardest to convince our parents to raise the one-dollar cap on root-beer barrel purchases; at the Bridge Store, devouring blue-raspberry slurpies before our Sunday-morning garbage run; grabbing canoe rides to Polka Dot Rock, which boasted a patriotic redesign sometime during the last decade.

I’ve been catching up on my woodwork, and decided to take a break from my oak relief, an anniversary present for my girlfriend, Lucy. There’s a bookstore down the road, which Lucy and I visited several years ago. It’s a forty-minute walk, so I brought a book along, and a raincoat, as the weather was a bit melancholy. It took me fifteen minutes to find the store when I arrived, because it’s hidden behind an overgrown brush on the side of the road. When I walked in, the bookstore was dark, with a light, fungal stench, which unites used-bookstores the world over. Books lay on the floor, and those on the shelves had tilted on their sides; ephemera (Victorian-era postcards, mostly) sat in boxes, attracting dust. Dirty dishes gathered in the sink, and the refrigerator’s cord dangled, unplugged, on the kitchen counter.

I wandered over to the house next door, set aside a collection of half-potted azaleas, and knocked. A short woman, probably my mother’s age, answered the door.

Is the bookstore open, I asked.

She sighed, and opened the screendoor. The bookstore, well, is closed, she started. My mother–Barbara, the bookstore’s founder–had a few strokes, and my nephew’s been living there off-and-on for a couple of years.

We’re not sure what to do with this stuff, she continued. There’s so much of it, and it seems a shame to throw it away.

I offered my contact information. She gave me a pen, and the back of a Florida postcard from the 1950s, and I wrote down my email address, my phone number, and my name, in capital letters. I told her to let me know, and she told me she would. I opened the screendoor, skirted the thorny bush that lay across the elevated porch, and walked back along Allen Coit Road.

changing gears

As of this post, Securing Rights will look different. Other commitments have–and will continue to–restrict my ability to publish as flexibly, creatively, and widely as I’ve attempted to over the past seven months. Rather than wallow in a constant state of writer’s flux, I’d rather take a bit of time away from the blog, in order to reconfigure its role in the online discourse on human rights, international affairs, and foreign policy.

A good blog is, first and foremost, a disruptive act. Insofar as the Internet approximates a democratic, inclusive, and dynamic community of ideas, a good blog allows writers to break down intellectual and ideological hierarchies, diffuse new ideas, and create space for the creation of novel interpretive frameworks. A good blog complicates reductive narratives, and identifies ways of seeing the world, its events, and its institutions that fall outside the confines of organizational procedure, policy, and process.

I’ve tried to make this a good blog. Working as the head of a student human rights organization, I acknowledged the need for a broader, more pluralistic human rights discourse, particularly as pertains to atrocities prevention, civilian protection, and U.S. foreign policy. Impact is difficult to measure, but, at the very least, I challenged myself to think about news ways of confronting mass-atrocities issues, and that’s probably the most you can hope for. Securing Rights won’t get us there, but a new generation of human rights leaders, which emerges from a period of democratized information, disruptive diffusion, and intellectual complexity just might.

So, I’m changing gears. Seven months may seem like a short time, but plenty has happened–both personally and externally–to convince me that a new approach is needed. Through my work with STAND, I’ve been able to identify a broad network of youth human rights leaders who are increasingly dissatisfied with our traditional, moralistic, and didactic approach to human rights policy, and is working to identify something different. I’m not sure we’ll settle on what that “different” is, but it’s worth poking around a bit, in order to identify new lenses through which a next generation perceives, interprets, and knows the challenge of atrocities prevention. In Securing Rights’ next stage, I’m going to do my best to cull from this emergent brain trust, and to build a community of young, rights-oriented practitioners united by the inherent creativity, dynamism, and disruptiveness of their discourse.

In the meantime, I’m working on a few projects, which I might post about every so often. I’ve mentioned my undergraduate thesis before, and referenced it in a number of posts: I’m interested in the ways in which U.S. atrocities response policy has approached the question of policy leverage and international-political influence, and what that can tell us about human rights approaches within a multipolar system. U.S. power may not be decreasing, but our credible influence in mitigating atrocities, negotiating conflict resolution, and preventing outbreaks is surely on the wane. There’s plenty of case-study research on the leverage question, particularly as pertains to the role of U.S. policy in democratic transition and consolidation, but I’m interested in approaching the question from a broader qualitative and, if I can write three lines of Stata code without crashing my computer, quantitative standpoint.

Then, there’s the atrocities early warning issue: next year, I’m working with the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Diplomacy on a year-long fellowship, which will address the role of national-security organizational cultures in the implementation of early warning tools, atrocities intelligence, and preventive forecasting. The atrocities prevention community talks a big game about the importance of early warning, but we’ve never done a good job identifying the ways in which those warning tools operate within the institutions responsible for deploying them. I’ll focus on Darfur as a case study, due to the added emergence and contribution of non-governmental and commercial intelligence to atrocities monitoring and warning.

The last project is the one about which I’m most passionate and, unfortunately, the one which I’ve had the least time to work on over the past two years. Two Augusts ago, Tony Judt died, having experienced the slow, debilitating consequences of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Judt was hardly an influential commentator, in the way that we discuss Aron, Hobsbawm, or Arendt as contributors to the course of twentieth-century events and, more importantly, ideas. He published a number of excellent books on the intellectual history of the French Left, the politics of European integration, and the postwar social-democratic consensus, of which Postwar is probably the only one read with any significant regularity. For most, Judt is (unfortunately) known as a sometimes-rabble-rouser on Arab-Israeli affairs, due to his endorsement of the “one-state solution” in the New York Review of Books. But, much more interesting than his perspectives on the state of human rights and political conflict in Israel, his commentary on European politics, and his incisive writing on the contemporary decline of social-democratic governance, is the extent to which Judt lived his intellectual evolution. Compared to his revolutionary counterparts at Cambridge, Judt’s postwar-generation experience was relatively mild, but in all the right ways. Judt was actively involved in the pivotal moments of his generation of British-American, postwar Jews–the student upheavals of 1968, the Six-Day War, the Eastern European revolutions–in the most marginal of ways. In that way, Judt’s writing on the public commons, on sustaining slivers of Jewish identity within a secular society, and on the state of public discourse is all the more relevant, in spite of its marginal influence. My project, which I’ve been thinking about since Judt died, will attempt to capture a smidgen of this relevance, and to discuss the ways in which Judt’s intellectual biography should inform our current discourse on ideological pluralism, the role of communal identities in the public sphere, and the collective experience of democratic society.

Anyway, that’s what I’ll be up to while I’m not blogging, and I hope you’ll check back in for a reimagined platform for human rights discourse, when it’s up and running.