- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 3, 2002

By Richard A. Posner
Harvard University Press, $29.95, 408 pages

There was a time not long ago when public intellectuals mattered, when novelists and journalists and a smattering of academics wrote books and articles about big ideas and the connections between big ideas and the very real, very flesh and blood world out there.. Today, says Richard A. Posner in his latest book, "Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline," these celebrity-pontificators on both the left and the right (but mostly the left) count for little, if at all.
It's not that the link between the abstract and the concrete has dissolved or that ordinary people who read the New York Times and like Charlie Rose have become so insular, so myopic that they no longer care about anything outside their immediate grasp. Instead, the public has simply stopped paying close attention to public intellectuals. Why? Because, Mr. Posner explains, the market has broken down:
As nonacademics have been supplanted by academics, public intellectualizing has become more specialized; as public intellectualizing has become more specialized, it has become more difficult for consumers to gauge public intellectuals' truth value; and as consumers have had more difficulty gauging public intellectuals' truth value (that is, determining if they've consumed a valuable or a not-so-valuable good), they have "defended" themselves against these goods (which come, Mr. Posner notes, without any warranties) by taking public intellectuals less seriously.
Unfortunately, as the public has stopped taking public intellectuals so seriously and, naturally, stopped scrutinizing them so closely the public intellectuals have acquired more room to intellectualize irresponsibily, creating something of a vicious circle.
"Having slipped his moorings," Mr. Posner laments, "the cautious academic specialist throws caution to the winds. He is on holiday from the academic grind and all too often displays the irresponsibility of the holiday goer."
All this reckless rumination, Mr. Posner asserts, has led to an overly politicized literary criticism; careless speculation about environmental meltdown, "postindustrial society" and the end of Western civilization; public philosophizing that co-opts dead white males in the name of homosexual rights; and a wholesale disregard for the courts, reflected most vividly during President Clinton's impeachment hearings.
Mr. Posner maintains the only way to reign in this recklessness is to ensure accountability. So long as academics safely ensconced at Harvard, Princeton and the University of Chicago can wade in and out of the public-intellectual arena without fear of jeopardizing their careers, it will be impossible to check their irresponsibility and to restore public confidence in the intellectual class. With this in mind, Mr. Posner, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and a lecturer at the University of Chicago, maps out at the very end of his book a few market-correcting solutions, including full disclosure of all public-intellectual work and income derived from that work.
By applying economic logic to the public-intellectual marketplace, Mr. Posner seeks to impose a little order on what sometimes looks to be a disorderly hodgepodge of talking heads. Critics have scoffed at Mr. Posner's statistical analysis, his supply and demand chart, his effort to squeeze the whole intellectual project into what they perceive to be a simple-minded, two-dimensional box. As David Brooks has noted: "[W]atching Posner try to apply economic laws to public debate is a bit like watching a Martian trying to use statistics to explain a senior prom. He is able to detect a few crude patterns, but he's missing the fraught complexity of the thing."
And, naturally, the same critics have zeroed in on Mr. Posner's by-now-notorious list of the top-100 most oft-cited public intellectuals. As Mr. Posner explains, the top-100 (who include Mr. Brooks) were culled from a list of 607 prominent thinkers, living and dead. These thinkers were ranked according to media "hits" on the Internet. Those with the 100 most media hits made the cut. While The List isn't all that important to Mr. Posner's argument it doesn't make much difference, say, that Henry Kissinger comes in at No. 1 with 12,570 mentions it's a bit dispiriting that so much criticism has been directed at it.
Certainly, readers are free to take exception with the rankings. How, for example, could Kurt Vonnegut have edged out John Steinbeck and Saul Bellow? What about C.S. Lewis coming in one slot behind E.J. Dionne. And how could Mr. Posner have omitted Karl Popper and B.F. Skinner from the original 607? And what was he doing including writer Homi Bhabha and the Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel, who hardly deserves to be grouped with Irving Howe, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Frantz Fanon?
All this, of course, is very thought-provoking, very colorful and very much beside the point when discussing the merits of "Public Intellectuals." Any list necessarily reflects the interests and background of its author. But that subjectivity doesn't detract from the idea of a list itself. We may disagree with Mr. Posner about who counts as a public intellectual, but there is surely an inherent good in trying to lend structure, organization and, yes, hierarchy to the public-intellectual marketplace: It's structure, after all, that fosters clarity and clarity that fosters accountability and accountability, to follow Mr. Posner's reasoning, that can revivify, at least to some extent, public intellectualizing in America.
Many of the dissident-penseurs on Mr. Posner's list may have little interest in revivifying, a la Posner, public intellectualizing. It's worth bearing in mind that while public intellectuals have become less important to the public, they have emigrated from the political, academic and cultural margins to the very epicenter of the national life: The top-10 most cited public intellectuals, Mr. Posner notes, include not only Mr. Kissinger and Mr. Moynihan but Lawrence Summers, William Bennett and Robert Reich consummate insiders who bear faint resemblance to the outside-the-loop gadflies of times past.
This emigration, as it were, will do little but retard reform of the public-intellectual marketplace. True, Mr. Posner is targetting academic public intellectuals, and there are relatively few academics at the top of The List. But any restructuring will impact on the whole public intellectual game, a game that Mr. Kissinger, Mr. Moynihan, Mr. Bennett et al. have benefitted from handsomely and have little incentive to change. If this is the case, and I suspect it is, then we could be living with this market failure, if that is what it is, for some time to come.

Peter Savodnik is a staff writer at the Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Va.

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