Tuesday, December 30, 2008


One of the aspects of blogging that really gets me happy is the dimension of participation, so no sooner did I wonder about being an old lady intellectual in Valier, than Art (author of the wonderful blog “Dragoncave” at http://artdurkee.blogspot.com/) sent me the suggestion of being an “independent scholar” or “public intellectual” and Dave Lull (what a guy!) sent along this article link about the year’s best public intellectuals:
(“An intellectual surge” by James Crabtree, Prospect's senior editor: “Thinking up the surge, ‘winning’ the war in Iraq, and rethinking America’s military strategy. David Petraeus is a worthy pick for Prospect’s public intellectual of 2008.”)

The list is a little intimidating, but I’m absolutely delighted with most of the people mentioned, including the final choice. Since I’m looking at this concept quite seriously, I’m happy to have role models, who sometimes give a person more information than just, well, information. But here are some ideas from that wicked Wikipedia, which is pretty good on this kind of stuff (but not at all on Native American lit which was kidnapped by vizJim, AKA James Mackey for his own purposes.)

Here’s the lead-off: “An intellectual is a person who tries to use his or her intelligence and analytical thinking, either in their profession or for the benefit of personal pursuits.”

Second paragraph: “Intellectuals have been viewed as a distinct social class, often significantly contributing to the formation and phrasing of ideas as both creators and critics of ideology. Intellectuals as a whole may be thought of as upholding the existing order and broad culture, but some undoubted intellectuals specialize in dissent against the establishment, such as U.S. linguist and writer Noam Chomsky.” Chomsky is mentioned by Prospect magazine as a person who did NOT make their list this year -- not because he began to agree with everyone, but because he just didn’t have a relevant contribution. Maybe it’s because the world is beginning a new cycle on the upswing. But this statement introduces two problematic aspects: the troublesome issue of status, as in class, and the “privilege” of setting the terms of the argument, which are both powerful forces when occupying the status quo.

I would suggest the above questions are hardened in the third paragraph: “It is often questioned how those described as intellectuals actually responded, in the face of repression and crimes committed by the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, and by other regimes of authoritarian-totalitarian ideology. The question invited is: How and why can intellectuals be vulnerable to indoctrination despite their intelligence?”

“The public intellectual is assumed to be a communicator and participant in public debates, accessible in mass media. Such a person communicates information and perspectives on a variety of societal issues, not just a specialist area. . . . Public intellectuals are primarily concerned with ideas and knowledge.”

Edward Said says the “... ‘real or “true’ intellectual is therefore always an outsider, living in self-imposed exile and on the margins of society.” This opinion is evaded in respect to academic thinkers, who stick pretty much to their own fields and don’t get into controversy -- at least until they have tenure. Some consider academic settings a serious drawback for a public intellectual because of politics (meaning funding) both within the institution and in the larger government structure. But others suggest that the role of the public intellectual is to shuttle between research or scholarly ideas and the larger public context so as to revitalize political discourse. Richard Posner suggests that most public intellectuals “are only interested in public policy, not with public philosophy, public ethics or public theology, and not with matters of moral and spiritual outrage.” With weak churches, those questions go begging. But right wing critics say that public intellectuals are all theory and no real life. They’re nothing but eggheads who neglect the facts.

The problem of class recurs when thinking of Marxist intellectuals because one faces the fact that only 6% of intellectuals come from working class backgrounds! One has to struggle with problems like whether thinking and leadership are really intellectual “products” equivalent to “making something.” Harold Pinter is the example the article suggests: a play “wright,” in the sense of wrought iron. When it comes to female public intellectuals, I’m going to cover my face with my hands and go to a subject shift that I hope is not an oxymoron.

Here in Montana, and esp. in small high-line towns and around the reservation, anti-intellectualism is strong, sometimes approaching the Red Cultural Revolution of China. Their motto is “nobody likes a smart ass.” But often the call will go out for new ideas about how to promote, expand, structure and generally sort things. Smart public intellectuals often sit on their hands in order to stay out of trouble. But what about being a “PRACTICAL intellectual?”

What would a practical intellectual do, in my case? First of all, I would not pretend to the level of Cass Sunstein and his friend Thayer, though I think their book “Nudge” has some pretty practical stuff in it. What comes to my mind is something more like UU Leadership School, organizational design, reframing, searching for values -- that kind of stuff. The sort of thing I HOPE the committee working on the new Blackfeet Constitution is thinking about. I think it would be about idea infrastructure. The more successful people around here already think about this stuff. They just are careful about whom they tell or use it for their own ends..

Another function of a practical intellectual might be as a reservoir of history. What was done in the past that worked or didn’t? People here do that, too. We have a lot of older folks, an advantage. Oddly, on the reservation the whole twentieth century has been repressed in order to intensify the nineteenth century.

The most troublesome questions about being a practical intellectual would be those about class, politics, and opposing the status quo. In smaller contexts, class and politics are interwoven in a sometimes brutal way to suppress dissent. Prosperity rules and slides into equating with respectability. This is where a practical intellectual has to either be a person of great charm and gravitas (Darrell Kipp comes to mind.) or has to have an independent income and own their home. Also, one has to accept a certain happy loneliness to keep from being socially captured and hamstrung. And yet, one must participate, which is why I attend the Valier town meetings every month.

My conduct in 2009 will relate to this concept.


Mike Spies said...

Years ago, Michael McClure, In a discussion with me on the subject of intellectuals, defined intellectual as "a person who gets most of their knowledge from books." IOW, pre-digested.

Further to the same conversation, he indicated that be be "Intellective" was to be curious and process your own information. In a sense, use your own intelligence.

Are we handing off responsibility for critical thinking to other people? To Public intellectuals? To the media? Jezzus, I hope not.

I have no problem with listening to other people's ideas, but reserve the right to sort the rat shit from the pepper for myself.

Art Durkee said...

To the contrary, it strikes me that public intellectuals are precisely those people who think things through and decide for themselves, rather than merely parroting pre-digested opinions.

McClure is quite wrong; and his is a classically American anti-intellectual comment. There has always been a strain of anti-intellectualism in America. Perhaps McClure was just being a trickster, a role he takes on intelligently most of the time.

While book-learning is quite important, because one can learn a great deal from books that one hasn't the time or resources to go out and research for oneself, in my experience public intellectuals are not ivory-tower eggheads precisely BECAUSE they are engaged with the world. They are using their intelligences to think about the world, the world's problems, and to come up with solutions and practical, pragmatic suggestions. Many are activists.

I'm thinking of Albert Schweitzer, Frederick Franck, Gandhi, and several others.

Mike Spies said...


I cannot disagree that people who think and are actually engaged in issues to find workable answers are valuable - with, or without the labels attached.

But I think that the danger of handing off the task of thinking is real, and contributions are lost because people are intimidated by those designated (self defined, or otherwise) as 'official public thinkers'.

BTW, Mike was sincere in his comment, but that was made quite a while ago, as I said. He may not hold the same view today.