Recently, Mark Greif, an assistant professor of Literary Studies at the New School, published a long essay in the Chronicle Review titled "What's wrong with public intellectuals?"
Greif is obviously gifted, and his writing is brilliant and funny. But this essay is filled with the left's singular angst: agitation about perceived injustices everywhere; agitation that people are not agitated enough. Having apparently inherited the mantle of the now-defunct Partisan Review with his own journal n+1, Greif struggles with the future of intellectual discourse and explains — somewhat tongue-in-cheek — his disillusionment with its present state.
The piece is peppered with rich targets. Describing his enthusiasm for a new literary journal, Greif observes, "(T)he languishing professoriate's reservoir of erudite rage seemed a natural resource waiting to be unlocked."
Or my personal favorite: "I don't know anyone's bookshelf without its Marx and Wollstonecraft, its Chomsky and Naomi Klein."
If Greif bemoans intellectualism's retreat to the universities and diminished sway elsewhere, he need look no further than that statement. The university culture has become so insular, bloated and self-important; so proud of its constant churn of "erudite rage"; so stuck in the same dull and debunked worldview; so — YES — banal in its constant calls for "revolution," that its members have been left behind by the actual revolutions: those of technology that make their modes of operation obsolete; those of near universal access to information that has exposed their role as filters (not conveyors) of knowledge, and — most importantly — the entrepreneurial revolution , which legitimately empowers people to solve individual and social problems without the need to create classes of helpless victims and despised perpetrators.
This isn't a diatribe against print media. (I love books.) This is a smack upside the head to all those comrades who are still toiling in the Trotskyite trenches and raising the red standard. When will we get to the point where it stops being considered "intellectual" to support a thoroughly discredited economic model responsible for the greatest miseries of the 20th century? How about stepping out of the ivory tower and seeing the wreckage in public intellectualism's wake? That might provide some perspective.
Intellectuals obsess about economic disparities, even as they ignore their role in contemporary poverty's root causes. Huge numbers of those "enslaved" by poverty now are not kept down by robber barons whose grasping control of the means of production deprives them of a just wage or meaningful upward mobility. They are enslaved by their baser desires and appetites, which the 20th- (and 21st-) century self-appointed elites have sold to them as "freedom."
It was the "public intellectuals" who promoted the sexual revolution and the breakdown of the "patriarchal" familial structure that has now left multiple generations and millions of children fatherless, their mothers poor, illiterate and maintained — functionally though not fulsomely — by the government.
It was the "public intellectuals" who sold self-discipline as a shackle to be cast off as a vestige of antiquated Judeo-Christianity, thus opening the abyss of a self-perpetuating amoral criminal culture.
It was the "public intellectuals" who touted the joys of recreational drug use without thought to the havoc it would wreak in populations with fewer support structures than those they enjoyed in their comfy, upper-middle-class enclaves.
It was the "public intellectuals" — and the policymakers in their thrall — who fostered and inculcated a vague but distinctly embittered sense of entitlement in people who now brag that they don't have to work, and shouldn't have to work, because all those dull, hard-working drudges intellectuals have demonized for decades owe them a living. And if they don't need a job, then school is for chumps.
So please don't look back at the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s or (Heaven forbid) the 1960s with wistful nostalgia. The agitators among you have gotten precisely what they asked for. If vast swaths of the "public" are no longer interested in what you have to say, it's because we've moved on. If huge numbers of others are not even capable of understanding what you're talking about, that fact can be laid directly at the feet of some of your most cherished role models.
The rest of us are busy trying to clean up after them. If today's intellectuals want to pick up a broom and help, great. Otherwise, you'll forgive is if we don't play a dirge for your demise.