Celebrity Intellectuals

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While some are skeptical of writers who are awesomely prolific, I’m more inclined to observe this principle: the more a writer publishes, the more likely it is that some of his stuff might be very good. Richard Posner’s recent books illustrate this rule in subtle ways.

His Public Intellectuals’ subtitle is “A Study of Decline,” which echoes Russell Jacoby’s thesis in The Last Intellectuals (1987). Where they differ is that Jacoby, coming from the political left, doesn’t discuss much about the putative successors to his- earlier heroes; while Posner; clearly not a lefty, exposes the failures of many current intellectual celebrities while barely mentioning their predecessors. Reaching the same conclusion by different routes, Posner and Jacoby implicitly illustrate my thesis, made in reviewing Jacoby 15 years ago, about professional obstacles blocking the emergence of younger political intellectuals.

Being neither left nor right, I think that both are wrong. The great tradition of public intellectuals continues, though with people whom Jacoby and Posner do not mention and may not even know. Debunking academics is not enough, given the title of his book. Since Posner’s own affiliations are mostly nonacademic, can I be alone in questioning why didn’t he have more respect for his own cultural class? And, curiously, every name on Posner’s list of nonacademic intellectuals (page 29) was born before 1938. He has not yet done research on independent scholars younger than 64!

The most interesting section of Public Intellectuals records Posner’s statistical research with a long list of intellectuals, noting not only Internet hits but scholarly citations and mentions recorded by LexisNexis. While such statistics have their truth, they also depend upon taste on the names submitted. In this respect, I fault Posner for not including several public intellectuals who are major league to me, among them Peter F. Drucker and Thomas Merton, Murray Rothbard and Thomas Szasz.

Nonetheless, what is best in Posner’s new book are passing remarks and individual critiques. Posner deals critically with Noam Chomsky, whom others rarely mention, perhaps because his words scarcely appear in the more prominent media. Nonetheless, his books are read, his name scores usually high on Google searches (and not only for his pioneering conjectures in linguistics). In a recent poll of its readers, the magazine Anarchy judged him more influential than everyone else.

Like other prolific writers, Posner is predisposed to leave behind passing remarks that have slight relation to his principal argument. For example, buried beneath other concerns is this brilliant appreciation of the political implications of a Marx Brothers’ classic film: “A Night at the Opera (1935) … confronts a WASP establishment of top-hatted officials, first-night opera-goers, wealthy widows, grasping capitalists, the first-class passengers and captain of an ocean liner, and a supporting cast of thick-necked plains- clothesmen and other capitalist lackeys with a trio of vulgar, lawless, destructive, ostentatiously non-WASP scalawags led by a Leon Trotsky look-alike [Groucho]. Yet this disorderly trio (portrayed in a film as a loudmouth, doubtless Jewish schemer, a thickly accented lower-class Italian, and a simple-minded clownish mute of indefinite foreign origin) not only runs circles around the establishment but also vindicates artistic values and unites the romantic leads. Yet not even in 1935 were the Marx brothers perceived as a threat to capitalism and decency.” As a great fan of A Night at the Opera, with a taste for anarchist art, I wish I’d written these and remain pleased to quote them. If you write a lot, the greater the likelihood that some of it might be really good. A Richard Posner book filled with criticism as strong as this, about anything, I would gladly recommend from beginning to end.

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